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Historic Texas Painting Found — in West Virginia Attic

by Jerome Weeks 28 Oct 2010 11:50 AM

It’s the classic story of someone rummaging around in the dusty family heirlooms and stumbling on a ‘lost,’ valuable artwork. Of course, it always helps if your great-great-grandfather was in the business of painting historic Texas battle scenes — including the two giant works that hang in the Capitol.


A ‘lost’ painting by Henry Arthur McArdle was recently rediscovered in a West Virginia attic — in the home of some of McArdle’s descendants.  McArdle is the artist who created both Dawn at the Alamo (1905) and The Battle of San Jacinto (1898), the giant murals that hang in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. The 1901 painting — a much smaller, alternate version of The Battle of San Jacinto — will be auctioned at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas Nov. 20.

The opening bid is $50,000. The painting is expected to sell for more than $100,000.

Texas art patron J. T. DeShields commissioned the five-by-seven-foot painting from the Irish-born McArdle, who specialized in epic battle scenes. But McArdle kept the work when DeShields failed to pay him the full price of $400. McArdle died in San Antonio in 1908, and his widow returned to her native West Virginia. The painting was mostly forgotten.

In January this year, Jon Buell, the artist’s great-great-grandson, was visiting the house of his late grandfather, West Virginia banker George Bland, when he came across the painting and asked his grandmother about it. She said it had been in the attic since the ’30s. Buell began contacting Texas art museums without much response — until he called Atlee Phillips, director for Texas art at Heritage, and sent her photographs.

Phillips said in a phone interview: “What really clinched it was when I did the research and I found a mention of a five-by-seven version, which is unlocated.  I mean that’s when my heart stopped.”

The differences between the two painted treatments of the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution are matters of historical accuracy and condensed composition. The larger version, which hangs in the senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol, is more detailed and has a much wider scope. Because of its limited size, the smaller version aims for a more tightly focused, more classically ‘heroic’ composition.

News about the painting has been public for several months but hasn’t gotten much attention in Texas — so far. Heritage even held a symposium on the painting  Oct. 16. In the Heritage press release, Sam Ratliffe, head of the Bywaters Special Collections at Southern Methodist University, called the find “stunning.”

“It’s an essential component in piecing together the full story of how the artist depicted one of North America’s most significant battles.”

The full press release follows:

For Immediate Release

Famous Texas painting, lost for a century, emerges in West Virginia attic

DALLAS, TX – It is considered by the experts to be the most important find in Texas art in the last 100 years.

In fact, it may be one of the best American art finds, period, in the last century: H.A. McArdle’s alternate version of The Battle of San Jacinto, painted for one J.T. DeShields in 1901 – some five years after he painted the famous mural of the same name that hangs in the Texas State capitol building – has miraculously emerged, in surprisingly good condition, from the West Virginia attic of Elisabeth Bland, the painter’s great-granddaughter-in-law.

The painting will be offered as part of Heritage Auction Galleries Nov. 20 Signature® Art of the American West and Texas Auction, taking place in-person in Dallas, and live online at It is expected to bring $100,000+.

“I was somewhat skeptical when I received the initial inquiry about this famous ‘lost’ painting,” said Atlee Phillips, Consignment Director for Texas Art at Heritage, “since The Battle of San Jacinto mural by McArdle is currently hanging in the senate chamber at the Texas State Capitol. Also, it seemed unlikely that such an important painting would have spent the last 100 years languishing in an attic deep in the mountains of West Virginia.”

The photos, however, looked correct. Intrigued, Phillips contacted the family and quickly learned that they were indeed descendants of the great painter. Further research showed that in 1901 J.T. DeShields had commissioned an alternate version of the San Jacinto painting that hangs in the Texas State House. The painting was never paid for and McArdle took it with him when he left Texas shortly thereafter to move to West Virginia with his second wife, where it disappeared – until now.

My heart stopped at this revelation,” Phillips said. “I knew that this was the ‘lost’ version of the mural.”

True to form in the best “attic find” stories, McArdle’s descendants had no idea that the painting slowly blackening beneath the dust in their attic was anything of value or of historic import. In fact, it existed only hazily in the recollections of the family.

“I vaguely remember seeing that large painting, but it never saw the light of day all the years I lived in that house,” said Lynn Bland Buell, McArdle’s great-great-grand-daughter. “The surprising thing is that it’s remained in relatively good condition given the sloppy storage over the years.  I sincerely believe that my father never even thought about getting it to a museum or gallery.”

It was Buell’s son Jon who, while “plundering” things in the attic, suggested the family might well have something worth saving.  His quick thinking was indeed on the spot. When the news of the finding was shared with experts in Texas art, the response was unequivocal:

“This is a stunning find of a work by one of the most important painters of scenes and individuals from Texas history,” said Sam Ratliffe, PhD, noted expert and Head of the Bywaters Special Collections at Southern Methodist University’s Hamon Arts Library. “It’s an essential component in piecing together the full story of how the artist depicted one of North America’s most significant battles.”

“In my opinion, the discovery of this McArdle painting in West Virginia is the most important in Texas history since the Texas legislature purchased his Dawn at the Alamo and The Battle of San Jacinto in 1927,” said Michael R. Grauer, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs/Curator of Art at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, and a consultant for Heritage. “A public institution in Texas has the opportunity to put itself squarely on the historical map of Texas by acquiring this newly-found version of The Battle of San Jacinto, a painting that is part of Texas’ cultural patrimony.”

Heritage Auctions, headed by Steve Ivy, Jim Halperin and Greg Rohan, is the world’s third largest auction house, with annual sales more than $600 million, and 500,000+ registered online bidder members. For more information about Heritage Auctions, and to join and gain access to a complete record of prices realized, along with full-color, enlargeable photos of each lot, please visit