John Mulvany’s Paintings and Politics by Anne Weber

21 Mar

The following piece is authored by Anne Weber and addresses John Mulvany who worked for Mathew Brady:

John Mulvany was part of Mathew Brady’s Civil War stable of young photographers and artists who later gained fame, including men such as Walter Shirlaw1 and Timothy O’Sullivan.2  Mulvany is best known as a Western Painter who painted “Custer’s Last Rally” in 1881However, there was much more to him than that. Mulvany recorded the Civil War on canvas as well as scenes of the West and he became deeply involved in the cause for Irish freedom which profoundly affected his career.  His story of fame, murder and revenge is the subject of my research.

 Mulvany was born in Diralagh, Co. Meath, Ireland in 1839 to tenant farmers.  When he immigrated to New York City in 1851 at the age of 12,3 he was old enough to have witnessed and grasped the horrors of the Irish famine.4  By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C. to work for Brady by 1863, he had acquired excellent sketching and coloring skills at the National Academy of Design5 and had worked in Chicago as a colorist.6

The time Mulvany spent working for a newspaper7 and then at Brady’s D.C. gallery, gave him first-hand experience in capturing the carnage and chaos of war.  This may be why his later Civil War paintings were praised for their realism – paintings such as Sheridan’s Ride at Winchester (unlocated), McPherson and Revenge, and Battle of Shiloh (unlocated).

It is possible Mulvany attended the First Fenian Convention held in Philadelphia in 1863; he was in the area.  He did attend the Second Fenian Brotherhood Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1865.8  This secret society recruited heavily during the Civil War and raised money and manpower for future Irish uprisings.  After three failed invasions into Canada, the Fenians floundered and reemerged as the Clan na Gael.

At the same time he engaged in political activity in the Clan na Gael and worked for Samuel B. Fassett, a leading photographer in Chicago,9 Mulvany submitted paintings to exhibitions in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.10  This was when he focused on becoming a serious painter.  Mulvany found a patron in St. Louis, Samuel B. Coale, who provided terms for him to study in Europe11 where he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Art at Munich.12  Mulvany won a medal for his efforts, and returned to Chicago in the fall of 1871 just before the devastating fire.13

Over the next five years Mulvany worked in Eldon, IA, St Louis, MO, Denver, CO, and Louisville, KY. In 1876 he exhibited “Preliminary Trial of a Horsethief” in New York City.  The painting won him national recognition and a reputation as a Western Painter.

As the country celebrated its 100th anniversary, news of General George Custer’s fatal defeat by the Sioux Indians reached the East.  Mulvany immediately recognized the significance of this event and headed west to Montana to capture it on canvas. Over the next four years, he made two trips to the battle site and set up a studio in Cincinnati, Salida, Denver and then in Kansas City. By 1881, the painting was ready.  Soon after, Mulvany’s large masterpiece, the 11ft x 20ft “Custer’s Last Rally,”, began its amazing seventeen year coast-to-coast tour of the country before Heinz took over ownership in 1898.15

Just as the Custer work was receiving great accolades in the press,16 Mulvany shifted his focus to Irish historical subjects.  This redirection of creative efforts meant he would lose his commercial artistic momentum and his hard earned reputation.  Custer was never exhibited within art circles and did not receive critical review. Mulvany hitched his star to the commission he secured from the Irish Club of Chicago to paint “The Battle of Aughrim” – a tragic loss for the Irish in 1691.  John began preliminary sketches in Ireland in 1882 and finished the piece in 1885.17

Internal differences in the Chicago Clan na Gael over financial decisions and military objectives eventually created strife and internecine fighting among the various camps and the leadership.18  Mulvany chose sides which resulted in the loss of his commission, and most of his support while Mulvany’s friend, Dr. Patrick Cronin, was murdered in 1889,19 for his accusations of financial improprieties against the Clan’s leadership.

Mulvany crisscrossed the country eight times before he finally headed East in late 1896.  He set up studios in 21 different cities, sketching, painting and moving on; often leaving finished works and at least one debt behind.  At the age of 58, he finally settled in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, NY where he remained the rest of his life.  Despite many disappointments, he continued his artistic career seeking exhibition opportunities, painting portraits, and even sketching up until two weeks before his death.20

The most intriguing work Mulvany did in this period was “The Anarchist” in 1902. It depicted six men cutting cards to determine who would commit murder.  These were the men whom, I believe, Mulvany held responsible for Dr. Cronin’s death. Friends advised him it was too dangerous to exhibit:21  powerful men in the Clan na Gael were still struggling for control of the splintered organization and would do anything to avoid more scandal as international Irish leaders urged unity in an effort to raise money. The painting is unlocated.  If found, it might be worth more than “Battle of Aughrim, which was put up for sale on eBay in 2010.22 The Gory Gallery in Ireland subsequently listed it at E240,000 and sold it to a private collector.

Mulvany died by drowning in early May 1906; when he passed away the press was not kind.23  He was 66 years old, suffering from throat cancer, vertigo and the effects of alcoholism.24

Mulvany’s contributions are several. He not only influenced William Merrit Chase25 and Frederick Remington,26 he also brought an international perspective to American Western Art. In addition, his life reflects a broader Irish immigrant experience than typically recorded.  As more of his paintings are found, his artistic career can be further evaluated and reassessed.  Locating over a dozen Civil War paintings stored somewhere in Brooklyn at the time of his death27 and the collection of Major Thomas of Louisville, KY28 would help further that goal immensely.

If anyone has questions or information about Mulvany’s life and work, please contact: weberanne3 AT gmail DOT com (just eliminate the spaces and change AT to @ and DOT to the symbol for dot – Thank you). 


1  American Art News, Vol 8, No. 12 Jan 1, 1910 and Endnote #9 in Craig Heberton’s Chewing on a. Burger.  Abrahamlincolnatgettysburg.wordpress 22 Feb. 2014  Walter Shirlaw attended the NAD and the Academy of Fine Art in Munich with Mulvany.  They stayed in contact through the years.

2  Journal of the New York Irish – Roundtable Vol. 13 Through Irish Eyes; The Civil War Photography of Timothy O’Sullivan by Brian McGinn

3  Early  information from family genealogy and Tuite’s Gaelic American 3 part series in March/April 1909

4  Cusack, Danny. The Great Famine in County Meath. Meath County Council,  Ireland, 1995

5  National Academy of Design Registry  at aaa.si.edu/collection/national-academy-design-records

6 Tuite, Gaelic American, 6 March 1909 and Lucy Deere interview Sacramento Union 1943.

7  Tuite, Gaelic American (6 March 1909) “…some of the best army sketches published during the war came from Mulvany’s pencil”

8    Proceedings of the Second national Congress of the Fenian Brotherhood held in Cincinnati, Ohio17 Jan 1865. J. Gibbons, Philadelphia 1856 Vo. 2 pg 44

9    1867 Chicago City Directory

10  NAD Exhibition Records, Philadelphia Sketch Club, ChicagoAcademy of Design Exhibition Records 1868 – Smithsonian Archives of American Art

11  Morrissey, Paintings and Painters, Gateway Magazine 1998 pg 30 and  Fuhrmeister, Kohle, Thielemans Eds. American Artists in Munich pg 85. Samuel A. Coale and Hercules Dousmann, Jr. were both possible choices for Mulvany’s future patrons (see email of 10/24/11 Mercantile librarian Julie Dunn-Morton’s dissertation).

12  htpp://matrikel.adbk.de  – academy records of the Royal Munich Academy

13 “Art in Chicago,”  Daily Alta, California 4 Nov. 1871

15  Letter to Mulvany from Goodyear Rubber Hose and Packing Co. 21 Nov, 1898 in the Alice Muldoon Garvey Collection and Stenzel, Franz & Kathryn, Research Files for Unpublished book on western art, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. Don Russell includes a very similar story about the sale of Cassily Adam’s painting to Anheuser-Busch pg. 33 in ‘Custer’s Last’.

16  Walt Whitman  15 August, 1881 New York Times

17 Dublin University Review August 1885

18 Tuite, Gaelic American series  1909.  Chicago Clan leadership was secretly carrying out terrorist bombings in London (The Dynamite Wars) and John barely escaped an English prison.

19 Hunt, Henry M, The Crime of the Century or The Assassination of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin.  H.L. & D.H. Kochersperger, 1889    The Dynamite Wars

20  Alcie Muldoon Garvey Collection, and  working catalogue raisonne

21 Letter from Mulvany to McBeth gallery

22 O’Sullivan, Niamh, ‘Battle of Aughrim’, Irish Times,2 October 2010, ‘Lost Painting’.

23 “‘Eccentric Artist a Suicide’, New York Sun, 23 May 1906,  Painter of ‘Last Rally’ drowned in East River’, New York Times, 23 May 1906. “…a waif…suicide…a drunken derelict”

24 Alice Muldoon Garvey Collection

25 Roff, K. Metcalf, The Life and Art of William Merrit Chase, New York 1917

26  “Kansas City, Cradle of Remington’s Art”, Kansas City Star, 3 May 1925.

27  New York Sun ,23 May 1906

28 Pennington, Lessons in Likeness; Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.  2011

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3 Responses to “John Mulvany’s Paintings and Politics by Anne Weber”

  1. Randy October 22, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    The Mulvany Custer’s Last Rally Painting is in Texas, owned by Charles Trois and is for sale. The owner has a current appraisal which is $8M to $10M USD

    • Anne Weber October 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

      Randy: Thank you for this update. I have several questions: When did Mr. Trois take ownership of the painting?, Is it on public display? and can you put me in contact with him?
      Thank you for whatever information you can share
      Anne Weber

  2. Lisa Smith July 30, 2016 at 11:59 pm #

    From my husband’s grandfather, we inherited a pencil sketch titled “The Pirate of Penzance.” Under the artist’s signature, he has written ’98 presumably the year in which he created the piece.

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