Walt Whitman removed his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. The summer of 1881 was hot and humid in New York City, with 22 days hitting 80̈° or more. The 62-year-old had come downtown to see a massive work of art. It was causing a sensation in the few places it had already been displayed, including in Boston, just before it was brought to New York.
As America's most famous poet stepped into the room where the painting was displayed, he stopped and stared. The 20-foot wide by 11 feet high work of art took up most of the wall where it was hanging. Whitman scanned left, right, and even up and down at the massive image before him. It depicted an incident in U.S. history that was still very fresh in the minds of Americans, having happened only four years earlier.
Whitman (right) remained there for an hour, studying the massive painting from end to end. Many millions of words had already been written about the action depicted. Standing before the enormous image, he felt nearly transported into the middle of that soon-to-be legendary event, something that words on a page could never accomplish.
Whitman later said, "I only saw it for an hour or so; but it needs to be seen many times—needs to be studied over and over again. I could look on such a work at brief intervals all my life without tiring; it is very tonic to me." And, "one of the very few attempts at deliberate artistic expression for our land and people."
Whitman was gazing upon a monumental work of art called "Custer's Last Rally." It would make artist John Mulvany one of the most famous men in America over the next decade or so. Many Irish-born members of the 7th Cavalry died with Custer on June 25, 1876. After it was over, Irish-born journalists James J. O'Kelly and John F. Finerty helped to start the myth-building about Custer and the events of that day. Mulvany's epic painting, with the battling Custer in the center, surrounded by his ill-fated command, would help cement that image in the minds of Americans.
(Below: "Custer's Last Rally")
Mulvany was born in Diralagh, County Meath, Ireland, in 1839 to Francis Lee and Thomas Mulvany, tenant farmers like many Irish Catholics at that time. It's believed that he left Ireland at the tender age of twelve. His last years in Ireland were the worst years of the Great Hunger. Those experiences instilled a deep nationalism in many Irish who left Ireland during and after that disaster.
In addition to that, according to Thomas Tuite, one of Mulvany's early biographers, Mulvany's had another nationalist influence in his youth. One of his teachers, Master Rogers, was zealously nationalist. John also showed tremendous artistic ability early on in his life.
(Below: A typical 19th-century Irish tenant farm.)
Rogers knew the complete history of Ireland's resistance to British rule of the island. Though John left the island while still a child, he departed with a comprehensive knowledge of many incidents of Ireland's history thanks to Rogers. John would remain an ardent nationalist.
John must have been quite an adventurous young man to leave Ireland the way he did. Despite his family being more well-off than most Irish Catholics on the island, he and his brother James, who was five years older, were determined to see Amerikay. John did the family marketing, stashing away a few pennies and schilling here and there until he had enough money for their adventure. And so, one morning, as his family slept, they headed off to Dublin to find a way across the Atlantic.
James had dreams of getting land and farming in America. John's ambition was to become a great artist. Of course, the idea of a 12-year-old and his 17-year-old brother attempting such a trip today would scare any parent to death, and it was far more dangerous in 1851, but the brothers were undaunted.
Two teenagers could not book passage on a ship to America alone, so they had to find another way. But on the docks, John and James got separated. Seeing a large family preparing to board, John stowed away on the ship by blending in with them. The mother took pity on him and allowed him to pretend to be a family member for the trip.
(Right: The chaotic dock scene as a ship leaves for America in the 19th century.)
When the ship landed at New York's East River docks, John was on his own; but he had made contacts on the boat and had already arranged a job working on the Erie Canal. One can only imagine how shocked the Irish country boy must have been while staring open-mouthed at the large buildings and vast crowds of people. However, his stay in the city was short; he was soon working hard at his job on the canal.
(Below: "Nearing the Bend" by Edward Lamson Henry, c. 1900)
Mulvany did not neglect his artistic ambitions while working the canal. Whenever he had the chance, he would do drawings of the canal boats and their surroundings. But he knew he needed training if he was ever going to perfect his art.
Winter's freeze shuts down the canal, and Mulvany would spend that time in New York City. There he would get some formal schooling and began to visit the Dusseldorf Gallery. He saw his first large-scale historical painting here: "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Luetz. (Below, right)
After several years of working the canal, Mulvany knew it was time to get serious about pursuing his art. So he procured a job as a messenger at the New York Academy of Design." Soon he was enrolled as a student. It was 1859, and he was now actively engaged in his lifelong dream of being an artist.
Professor Wadesford, who specialized in watercolors, took John under his wing. Mulvany became a talented "colorist," colorizing black and white drawings. One newspaper called him "a phenomenon as a colorist." It was a well-paid skill by the period's newspapers and weekly magazines. He began to make an excellent living from his art.
His work became so well known that in 1861 he got a lucrative offer to move to Chicago and work for Irish papers in the city. Through the newspapers, he connected with the powerful Irish nationalist movement in Chicago, then known as the "Phoenix Men." Later, most of them would be members of the Fenians and then Clan na Gael. That connection would last throughout his life.
The Civil War was the first U.S. war that reporters and artists heavily covered. Mulvany was one of them, perhaps working freelance. Though he left behind little information about his time covering the war, he was said to have worked for Mathew Brady for at least part of the war. Mulvany also became acquainted with many famous commanders of the war, including Irish-Americans Phil Sheridan, Thomas Francis Meagher, and fellow Chicagoan James Mulligan. He met George Armstrong Custer was well, with whom he would later be so strongly connected.
Mulvany's Irish nationalism was not forgotten during those busy years. He was in the area and may have attended the First Fenian Convention in Philadelphia in 1863. In addition, we know he attended the Second Fenian Brotherhood Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865. So Irish nationalism continued to play a large part in his life.
Seeing war up close, Mulvany was likely filled with thoughts of the great battles of Irish history and how few had ever been depicted in art. He returned to Chicago after the war, thinking of being the first artist to do that. He wanted to travel to Europe and study at the great art schools there to prepare himself for that task. There were now well-off men in the Irish nationalist movement in Chicago and elsewhere willing to help. The Irish-Amercan Club in Chicago and Samuel B. Coale from St. Louis funded his trip. So he was off to study on the continent in 1869.
(Below: Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Munich, Germany, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Mulvany studied first at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Munich, Germany, under Karl von Piloty. Piloty taught the style of realism that suited Mulvany's goal of portraying incidents in Irish history. There is no doubt that he was an excellent student. In 1871 he won the Academy's medal of honor. He then studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts Antwerp, Belgium, and further studied in Paris and Amsterdam.
Before returning to America, Mulvany stopped off for a visit to Ireland. He traveled widely, visiting many places he had learned about from Master Rogers, now deceased. He made many drawings and dreamed of the historical paintings he might do one day.
Mulvany returned to Chicago in 1871 and reconnected with the Irish nationalist community, joining the successor of the Fenian, Clan na Gael. The secret society would feature prominently in his later life. He set up a studio, but his timing could not have been less auspicious. In October Great Chicago fire consumed his studio and all his possessions. This prompted him to move west for several years. Over the next few years, he would travel to several cities in the west and Midwest, including Eldon, IA, St Louis, MO, Denver, CO, and Louisville, KY. He was painting mainly western American themes.
In 1876 Mulvany got his first national recognition with the painting, "Preliminary Trial of a Horse Thief – Scene in a Western Justice's Court." (left) He must have been proud when it received acclaim at his old school, the National Academy of Design in New York. He sold it for $5000, which is about $147K today. Over the next few years, he painted Lynch Law (1877), Trappers of the Yellowstone (1877), and Back to the Wigwam (1881). All were well received. He was beginning to make a reputation as one of the best painters chronicling the American west.
He also made money painting portraits of some well-known western figures, including Brigham Young and the former commander of the Irish Brigade, General Thomas Francic Meagher, then acting governor of the Montana territory. While Mulvany was doing those paintings, Custer and a large portion of the 7th Cavalry were wiped out in June 1876. Over a hundred of the dead were Irish-born, most famously Captain Myles Keogh of Co. Carlow.
(Below: A detail from "Custer's Last Rally," showing Custer.
Mulvany may not have been aware of the number of Irishmen who died with Custer but would have known that many Irish were in the U.S. army. In addition to the number of Irish in the unit, Custer had famously adopted the Irish tune "Garryowen" as the regimental song. News of the disaster caused a sensation around the country. Mulvany rightly surmised that the American public would be fascinated by a painting of the battle. His idea was to paint an enormous image, like Emanuel Luetz' "Washington Crossing the Delaware" that he had seen years ago.
Mulvany later recalled, "I at once realized that this was the greatest subject for a battle picture known to American history. I had been seeking for a subject that would be fresh in the minds."
Mulvany spent several years working on the painting. He visited the battlefield in Montana and observed cavalrymen and native Americans on the Sioux reservations. He hired translators to gather accounts of the battle from the Sioux and Cheyenne "I made that visit 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," he remembered.
Mulvany painted his massive canvas of the battle in Kansas City, Missouri, completing it in 1881. It took him two years to complete the task. He displayed it first in Kansas City, where the local paper called it "a blending of art and nature, such as is only found in truly great productions."
(Left: The dashing young Mulvany.)
He then traveled east to exhibit the work, going first to Boston, no doubt anxious about the reception it might receive. It turned out to be all he could have dreamed of and more. It was a time before TV, movies, and the internet. Paintings and drawings were the only way people had to "see" a battle.
The public was in the mood for these enormous battle paintings. Mulvany's canvas came out just before an era where a craze for even larger battle paintings of Civil War battles, called cycloramas began. The first one, of the Battle of Gettysburg, was unveiled in Chicago in 1883 and was four hundred feet long and fifty feet high. They were displayed in a circle, thus the name. Many more would be painted in the latter half of the 19th century. Only two survive today, this Gettysburg one, now displayed at the Gettysburg National Park, and one of the Battle of Atlanta, in Atlanta.
Once "Custer's Last Rally" had been displayed in New York, Mulvany's name became famous nationwide. However, not all would be as effusive as Whitman, who had published a poem about the battle just two weeks after the disaster. "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," Whitman said.
It was said that when Custer's widow, Libbie (right) saw the image, she swooned. She would make it her life's work to lionize her husband in American history over and above anything these three Irishmen did. The painting would travel around the country for nearly two decades, with and without Mulvany. When he was there, Mulvany would be feted as a celebrity, sometimes with receptions complete with the band. It would travel around the country and even to Europe for some 17 years. The painting was also exhibited at the 1893 Worlds Fair.
It must be said that Mulvany aided in making Custer an icon of American history with his giant canvas. However, he was not the only Irishman who could take credit or blame, depending on one's view of Custer today. Two other Irishman figured prominently in that iconization.
Just as many Irishmen helped fight the battle at the Little Bighorn, Irishmen were heavily involved in how that battle was later perceived as well. Three Irishmen featured prominently in the formation of the myth were journalists James J. O'Kelly and John F. Finerty in retelling the fight and Mulvany in its visual portrayal. The three Irishmen were well acquainted with each other. All of them were very active in the Irish nationalist movement. The friendship between O'Kelly and Mulvany was strong enough to survive Mulvany once doing a nude painting of O'Kellys wife without his knowledge.
O'Kelly, (left) who was born in Dublin, accompanied General Alfred H. Terry's command that moved down the Yellowstone in June 1876 as part of the expedition that led to the demise of Custer and so many of his men. After the battle, he interviewed Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, who survived the action in command of a portion of the 7th Cavalry. They were very critical of Custer's command decisions, and at first, O'Kelly seemed to agree with their opinions. However, as he spoke rank and file members of the regiment, he came to believe Reno and Benteen were lying and thus began to aggrandize Custer at their expense.
O'Kelly was the art editor of the New York Herald and had already given Mulvany high praise for his other works of art. With Mulvany's painting presenting the same heroic view of the tragic battle as O'Kelly was pushing, it was easy for him to join in praise of "Custer's Last Rally."
Finerty, a Galway native, and Mulvany knew each well in Chicago. Finerty was attached to General George Crook's command that moved north into Montana from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming. He was nearly killed at the Battle of the Rosebud and later during an incident dubbed "The Sibley Scout." Finerty became very close with the men in the cavalry units as he traveled and even fought with them. He got so close that he was dubbed "The Fighting Irish Pencil-Pusher" by them. So it was not surprising that he joined in with the lionization of Custer, which by association glorified the cavalrymen.
"The fine painting of Custer's Last Rally by Prof. Mulvany – an Irish-American artist … is the most realistic battle picture we have ever seen. It is, indeed, without exaggeration, a noble work of art and reflects credit upon the race from which Prof. Mulvany has sprung." Finerty enthused. And Mulvany joined in with O'Kelly and Finerty in directing blame for the defeat away from Custer. "That dreadful slaughter ought never to have happened, and it never would have happened if Reno had obeyed his instructions. Reno was a coward and a renegade, and ran away, leaving Custer and his whole command to be ruthlessly slaughtered," Mulvany said
Mulvany was at the pinnacle of his fame and success as an artist in America. That was based on several western themed works, culminating with his Custer painting. Economically, his wisest decision would have been to continue with similar pieces. But he was still determined to do his long-delayed series of works on Irish history.
In 1883, Mulvany returned to Ireland to begin the work on this series. He still had the patronage of the Clan na Gael in Chicago, but storm clouds were forming there. The organization was about to undergo a bitter dispute between Alexander Sullivan, the Clan leader in Chicago, and Dr. Patrick Cronin. Mulvany was good friends with Cronin, which would soon prove a problem.
In Ireland, Mulvany began another significant work about the Battle of Aughrim. The Clan was supporting the so-called "Dynamite Campaign" against Great Britain while he was in Ireland. In January 1885, he traveled there to research the battle at the Tower of London. He was secretly warned to return to Ireland immediately, and a series of bombs went off at the tower a few days later. He was sure that had he not left, he would have ended up in a British jail.
Mulvany finished "Battle of Aughrim" later that year and exhibited it in Dublin in July. It was an instant sensation, especially in the nationalist community. The founder of the Irish National Land League, Michael Davitt, later wrote to Mulvany, saying: "You deserve the thanks of the entire Irish race; for in it you have not only upheld the artistic reputation of Ireland, but your genius has transferred to canvass [sic] the dauntless bravery of those 'Who died, their land to save, On Aughrim's slope." He also praised Mulvany for teaching, "subsequent generations the great lesson in a nation's march to freedom which your brush now most eloquently enforces."
(Below, "Battle of Aughrim")
However, when Mulvany returned to Chicago, the problems between Sullivan and Cronin had exploded. Cronin had accused Sullivan of stealing from a fund collected for the families of those killed or jailed during the "Dynamite Campaign." Cronin was expelled from the Clan, and Mulvany was seen as a "Cronin man" by Sullivan and his supporters. As a result, all financial support from Clan na Gael dried up. However, Mulvany, to his credit, did not forsake his friend. Cronin was assassinated in New York in 1889. It was suspected that his Clan na Gael enemies had done it, but no one was ever convicted.
With no patronage from the Clan, Mulvany had to turn more to portrait painting to make a living. The dream of the series of works on Irish history was put aside, never to be taken up again. He would move around to numerous cities around the country, spending time in Omaha, Denver, Portland, and other cities in the last part of his life, often leaving suddenly and owing money as he went. He opened over twenty studios around the country in his life. Somewhere in his western travels, Mulvany married Ellen Welch in 1890, but they were divorced two years later in Colorado.
(Below: Dr. Patrick Cronin.)
Mulvany was forced to sell his two best-known works, "Custer's Last Rally" and "Battle of Aughrim." The Custer work was sold first to millionaire Henry J. Heinz. After that, it changed hands several times over the last century plus. It was exhibited at the Museum of Science and History in Memphis and in the 1960s at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Finally, in 2020, it was sold at auction in Texas. Art appraiser Paul Rossi, former director of the Gilcrease Museum, called it "an invaluable collector's piece in American Western art and a true national treasure."
"Battle of Aughrim" was lost for a century before it showed up for sale in 2010. Art historian Niamh O'Sullivan was searching for a different painting when she was shocked to suddenly find it on eBay, listed by a seller who thought it depicted an American battle. The Gorry Gallery in Dublin bought it, later selling it to an Irish collector.
In the last two decades of his life, Mulvany lived off portrait work and small commission work. He did create at least three Civil War battle works that were well received, "Sheridan's Ride at Winchester ," "McPherson and Revenge," and "Battle of Shiloh." All of them are unlocated today.
In 1897, Mulvany moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where his sister, Alice Muldoon, lived on Leonard Street. He set up a studio at 133 Greenpoint Avenue and continued to paint but also began drinking heavily. In 1902 he exhibited a new work called "The Anarchists." It featured six men cutting cards to determine who would commit a murder. Many thought the figures were recognizable as the members of Clan na Gael Mulvany believed had taken part in the murder of Dr. Cronin. Friends warned him that he was antagonizing dangerous men, but he ignored them.
(Below: A late life photo of Mulvany.)
By 1906, the 66-year-old Mulvany had many things weighing on his mind. First, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer, which was always terminal in those days. His relationship with John Deere tractor heiress, Lucy Deere, a young artist many years his junior, had ended. He had been evicted from his apartment in March and may have been living on the street. Finally, his sister had to talk him out of pawning the medal he had been awarded by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich years before. (Above-right)
One morning in early May of 1906, Mulvany's body was found floating in the East River near Sixth Street in Williamsburg. Some speculated about the possibility it was murder after angering with leaders of Clan na Gael leaders, but four years had passed, making it unlikely. Exactly how he ended up in the river will never be known, but the city newspapers reported it as a likely suicide. He was 66.
In his pockets was a small replica of his Custer painting and some newspaper clipping of glowing reviews. There was a letter from an Indianapolis gallery saying they would not exhibit his latest painting, "The Striker." And this poem:
I'm lonsome tonight, Biddy Martin
And myself – I don't know what to do
Sure I'd go to the chiristenini' a -whistlin'
Were it not for me thinkin' of you
But I'll to New York, Biddy Martin
To me cousin's beyond the deep sea
And when I'm there, Biddy Martin
I think you'll be thinkiin' of me
"From a fine physique of a man," New York Times" obituary said, "handsome features and a kindly countenance, he had sunk to a ragged derelict, uncertain of a night's lodging or a day's food." Like so many famous Irish-born New Yorkers, Mulvany was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
(Right: The headline from the NY Times story on Mulvany's death.)
It was a sad end for such a talented artist. Had John Mulvany continued to concentrate on western themes after he finished "Custer's Last Rally," when his fame peaked, his last years might have been very comfortable. But, unfortunately, his love of his native land and dedication to portraying its tragic past, along with ill-fated events within the Glan Na Gael conspired against him. Though few know his name today, his artistry has lived on long after him, and what Irishman can fault a man for loving Ireland too much?
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The medal Mulvany was awarded by the Bavarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
A portrait of Robert Emmet by Mulvany.
"Back to the Wigwam," done by Mulvany in 1881.