Strange inheritance

In the spring of 2009, I received a telephone call from Atlee Phillips, Texas art specialist at Dallas’s Heritage Auction Galleries.  Although I’d never met Atlee, she told me that I’d soon think of her as “my new best friend.”  A few days later, she arrived in my office with numerous photographs of a painting of the Battle of San Jacinto by Texas painter Henry Arthur McArdle (1836-1908).  Although I knew that this painting had been executed in 1901, I had assumed it to have been destroyed in a fire and had stated as much in a footnote in my 1992 book, Painting Texas History to 1900.  But Atlee’s photographs, taken by members of McArdle’s family, who owned the house in West Virginia where the painting had been stored in an attic since the 1950s, proved me wrong (fortunately).  In November 2010, Heritage auctioned the painting, which was purchased by a private collector in Texas.

McArdle is best known for a much larger painting of the Battle of San Jacinto as well as one of the Battle of the Alamo, both of which hang in the Texas State Capitol.  He also executed life-sized portraits of perhaps the two most important figures in 19th century Texas history, Stephen F. Austin (which also hangs in the Capitol), and Sam Houston (installed in SMU’s DeGolyer Library).  I was fortunate to have been directly involved in the process by which the latter painting made its way back to SMU from another attic several years ago.  A native of Ireland, McArdle immigrated to Maryland as a boy and later served in the Confederate army.  A few years after the war, he joined the faculty of Baylor Female College in Independence, Texas, a forerunner of Baylor University.  He quickly became intrigued with the history of his adopted state and set out to execute a series of works in “`which I hope to illustrate to posterity the grand achievements of the heroes and statesmen of the Texas Revolution.'”  McArdle spent the remainder of his life striving to fulfill that vision.

Battle of San Jacinto
Henry McArdle, Battle of San Jacinto, 1895, State Preservation Board, Austin, Texas
Henry McArdle, Portrait of Sam Houston, DeGolyer Library, SMU

In 2014, I curated the first retrospective of McArdle’s work, held at Baylor’s Martin Museum of Art.  Even though I had been involved extensively with the artist’s work so recently, I was nevertheless surprised to be contacted a month ago by Jamie Schiller, the associate producer of Fox Business News’ program, Strange Inheritance This program focuses on individuals who inherit unusual items and/or inherit items in odd ways.  Jamie was seeking me out as a resource on McArdle as well as on the events depicted in his paintings.  On July 8, I was interviewed for an episode concerning the discovery of the smaller painting of the Battle of San Jacinto by the program’s host, Jamie Colby.  She asked me to summarize the facts of the battle before asking me about McArdle’s approach to executing the painting and the significance of his work to contemporary Texans.  The episode also will include interviews with Atlee Phillips and Curator of the Capitol, Ali James.  I had worked with Ali for six years in the 1990 when I served on the Capitol’s Collections Review Committee and was able to facilitate the program’s contact with her.  She arranged to have our interviews done in the Capitol room that formerly was used for sessions of the Texas State Supreme Court, following the filming of the large San Jacinto painting in the Senate chambers.  Along with the rest of the Capitol, this courtroom was restored to its original (and splendid) appearance during a project that took many years and was completed in 1995.

Although I have been in the Capitol many times, I always feel a sense of awe whenever I step inside.  The architectural grandeur, of course, contributes to that.  But I also am conscious of the sacrifices and accomplishments of many individuals across Texas throughout decades that, in a sense, are memorialized in the building.  The tragic events that had occurred in downtown Dallas the night before my interview made the idea of sacrifice even more prominent in my mind that day in the Capitol.

Thank you to Sam Ratcliffe, Head of Bywaters Special Collections, for this contribution!

Featured image: Henry McArdle, The Battle of San Jacinto, Oil on canvas, 1901, Private Collection, Midland, Texas.

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