Arts & Culture

Crowds went wild for this ode to Custer created in Kansas City

“Custer’s Last Rally,” John Mulvany’s depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn, won the admiration of poet Walt Whitman and Custer’s widow.
“Custer’s Last Rally,” John Mulvany’s depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn, won the admiration of poet Walt Whitman and Custer’s widow.

Patience frayed like a discarded artist’s brush, L.C. Alexander, owner of the St. James Hotel, wanted his money.

The debt was $450, reported the Kansas City Times of March 31, 1884, “in the shape of borrowed money and an unpaid board bill of four years standing.”

When skipping town, John Mulvany had left some things behind, including two paintings, “The Old Professor” and “Love’s Mirror,” depicting Venus about to bathe in a brook.

A year later, the paintings were auctioned off in a Jackson County sheriff’s sale for less than $450.

Fortunately, one canvas, 20 feet wide and 11 feet high, the size of a wall, was beyond the lawman’s reach.

That was Mulvany’s masterpiece, “Custer’s Last Rally.” At the time of the auction, it was still on its 17-year, coast-to-coast tour attracting paying and appreciative audiences.

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Artist John Mulvany painted his masterpiece, “Custer’s Last Rally,” in Kansas City.

The Irish-born artist’s depiction of desperation and doom above the Little Bighorn is largely forgotten today. As is the fact that it was quietly dabbed here.

“That such a work has been produced in Kansas City shows that art is not neglected even in the midst of a great commercial activity that so distinctively marks this growing metropolis,” noted a Kansas City Daily Journal reporter, given a viewing before the canvas was packed onto a Boston-bound train.

When the painting was presented in 1881 in Eastern halls, full orchestras would blast out martial music as it was unveiled. Walt Whitman oohed; Custer’s widow swooned.

Before the decade was over, pickle king H.J. Heinz would pay $25,000 for the work, a staggering sum for the time. It’s valued in the millions now.

Fame had finally visited Mulvany, who had toiled under photographer Mathew Brady during the Civil War and then trained under masters in Munich and Amsterdam.

But by 1906, poor, alcoholic, cancer-ridden and living in Brooklyn, he would jump off a ferry into the dark East River.

Mulvany was a wanderer, setting up studios in 21 towns — he was burned out in the Great Chicago Fire. He may have been in Denver when electrifying news raced out of the Montana Territory of the slaughter of Civil War hero Custer and 200 of his men.

Trying to meet feverish public demand, Eastern artists began drawing the disaster for publications from imagination. Already experienced in the Western genre, Mulvany saw an opportunity to catch the dreadful moment writ large.

For some reason, he chose Kansas City as the venue to do much of the oil work. The Journal reporter got a scoop, interviewing the artist and describing the completed canvas:

“Mr. Mulvany visited the scene of the massacre during the summer of 1879. He made sketches of the battlefield, and thoroughly acquainted himself with the habits of the Sioux Indians by visiting their lodges and from conversations with captive braves 

“Mulvany also studied, according to his own account, the dress and equipment of the U.S. cavalry and obtained portraits and descriptions of General Custer and his officers. ‘I made that visit,’ he stated two years after the trip to the Little Big Horn, ‘because I wished to rid the painting of any conventionality. Whenever nature is to be represented it should be nature itself, and not somebody’s guess. I made myself acquainted with every detail of my work, the gay caparisoning of the Indian ponies, the dress of the Indian chiefs and braves; in fact, everything that could bear upon the work.’ 

Today, we know of the inaccuracies repeated by the artists of the time: Custer is shown using a saber in one hand, although the long blades had been left at post; the blue shirts the soldiers inevitably are shown wearing weren’t issued until later years.

Perhaps more important, the Sioux and Cheyenne had not swarmed over a last knot of defenders on horseback but had dismounted into the grass to riddle the cavalrymen with arrows before moving in to finish them off. Many soldiers shot themselves, but that’s not shown, of course.

And Lt. Col. Custer may have been mortally wounded in the earlier failed attack across the river at the big village, not on the ridge where his body was found.

But how undramatic would that have been?

“Despair is crowded out by undaunted courage,” the reporter scribbled on, “the thought of personal danger seems to have sunk in hatred for a bloodthirsty foe, and a subdued expression in the eyes show that pity for the gallant boys in blue, whom he had hurried to impending doom, is struggling hard for supremacy. His face is flushed with the heat of battle, his broad-brimmed hat lies carelessly on one side, and the long yellow locks, which added so greatly to his manly beau, are tossed impetuously back.”

Later, learning that Custer had shorn his hair before the fatal campaign, Mulvany quietly gave the hero a haircut with his brushes and painted out the saber.

Whitman, who’d written a death sonnet for Custer some years before, sat before the scene of near-natural-sized fighters for an hour and suggested much more time was needed to take it all in.

“Altogether a western, autochthonic (indigenous) phase of America, the frontiers, culminating, typical, deadly, heroic to the uttermost — nothing in the books like it, nothing in Homer, nothing in Shakespeare; more grim and sublime than either, all native, all our own, and all a fact,” the poet wrote. “A great lot of muscular, tan-faced men, brought to bay under terrible circumstances — death ahold of them, yet every man undaunted, not one losing his head, wringing out every cent of the pay before they sell their lives.”

Mulvany wrung out 50 cents for each ticket, half off for children. To maximize profit and viewership, he painted it again, smaller, for a color lithograph. (The Kansas Museum of History in Topeka has one.) That smaller oil is seen at the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, Okla.

The large original painting hasn’t been available for public viewing for decades. The Heinz outfit still had it in storage by 1940. It was displayed most recently in 1967 in a Fort Worth exhibit. In 1976, it was listed as being rolled up in the collection of the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. Since then, it apparently has exchanged hands a few times, but never found a home where it could be admired by the public.

The late Paul Rossi, once director of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, in 2009 called it “an invaluable collector’s piece in American Western art and a true national treasure.” He ranked it much higher than the better-known “Custer’s Last Fight” by Otto Becker, distributed by Anheuser-Busch to the nation’s water holes.

Charles Trois, who bought “Rally” less than 10 years ago, agrees: “The Busch painting is nothing compared to this one.”

The 73-year-old Fredericksburg, Texas, collector, who among other things owns a daunting array of old cap guns, is in the process of selling the work.

He would not divulge his asking price to The Star, but told The New York Times last year of a deal for “around $25 million.” While that sale did not go through, he said, others are interested, including an institution that might place it on public display.

So Mulvany’s masterpiece is out there, art lovers, maybe not for above the mantel, but it would be one heck of a conversation piece. “It’s in very good condition,” Trois says.

Or you could keep your eyes out for “The Old Professor” and “Love’s Mirror.”

Artworks lost and found

Dozens of John Mulvany’s wide-ranging pieces still haven’t been located today, from Western themes such as “Lynch Law — A Comrade’s Appeal,” to portraits, including “Mrs. Fleetwood’s Sister of Kansas City” and “Mayor Webster Davis of Kansas City,” to the romanticism of “Opera Box,” to Civil War depictions like “Sheridan’s Ride From Winchester.”

Mulvany couldn’t have saved those sold by the Jackson County sheriff (also lost), as he was in Ireland painting “The Battle of Aughrim,” showing a wild Irish cavalry charge preliminary to King William’s forces slaughtering the Catholic army in 1691.

Mulvany, involved with secret Irish groups, had gotten his commission from an Irish club in Chicago. The finished work was much admired in Dublin, although one gallery owner rebuffed his “promotion of discontent.”

After going missing for a century, “Aughrim” bubbled up on eBay in San Francisco in 2010 and was snapped up by an Irish gallery and then sold to a private buyer for six figures.

Another surviving work brought Mulvany notice and a $5,000 sale in New York in 1876, the year the 7th Cavalry met its match at Little Bighorn. His “Preliminary Trial of a Horse Thief” depicted criminal proceedings held in a livery stable. Painted in rural Iowa, it celebrated the end of vigilantism in the West.

When copied for a well-selling lithograph, some clueless Easterner added “in Kansas City” to the title. That was silly. Such legalities in Kansas City had been conducted in courtrooms for decades.

Darryl Levings, Special to The Star