The Story Behind the Picture: The Alamo

Categories: PaintingThe Alamo

The painting Dawn at the Alamo painted by Henry McArdle in 1875-1905 is a great historical piece to still have around. We should appreciate the fact this painting is still around for us to see since none of us were around to witness the battle. McArdle wanted to capture the full battle in one painting so keep in mind the battle didn’t exactly look like this. McArdle painting is the closest we can get to imagine what the Battle of the Alamo was like and making us feel as if we were there.

McArdle painted the Dawn at the Alamo twice because in 1881 the painting was destroyed in the fire at the Capitol. Having McArdle repaint the painting became a great challenge because he wasn’t sure how to show people what he wanted the painting to mean. McArdle had a twin, and sometimes conflicting aims for Dawn at the Alamo: to inspire patriotism, and to provide a historically accurate visual depiction of the battle.

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So while he labored intensively to research technical information about the fortifications, weapons, uniforms, and other details, he also intentionally departed from the historical record to make the painting more dramatic and symbolic.

Henry Arthur McArdle born in Belfast, Ireland on June 9, 1836. He studies art under a French artist named Sauveur, and at age 14 his parents died, so he went to America to live with his aunt, and they lived in Baltimore, Maryland. McArdle then went on to study with David A. Woodward at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts, and he then won the Peabody Prize In 1860.

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During the Civil War he was a draftsman for the Confederate Navy, and later made topographical maps for Gen. Robert E. Lee.

He then married a woman named Jennie Smith and moved to Independence, Texas, where he lectured about art at Baylor Female College. McArdle is known for The Battle of San Jacinto which hangs in the Texas Capitol building along with the Dawn at the Alamo painting. He was not paid for his paintings while he was alive. He had loaned the paintings to the state while discussing payment with them, unfortunately, he passed on February 16, 1908 in San Antonio before he was able to receive payment, and his family received 25,000 dollars 19 years after he passed away.

The battle of the Alamo was a 13-day siege at the Alamo missions in San Antonio that battled between Mexican forces of 4,000 under General Santa Anna, against 180 Texans. Texans were fighting for their independence from Mexico between February 23, 1836- March 6, 1836. Regarding the view; the spectator is supposed to be where the west pavement of Alamo Plaza is now — a little South of Houston Street — and looking southeast, from which position the Alamo Church is seen as presented in the picture. On February 24, 1836 William Travis sent his letter, and he never surrendered or retreated. After 13 days the Alamo fell 182 defenders including Travis died. They died for the Republic of Texas and it was only four days old.

McArdle wanted to add as much detail as he could fit on to the canvas and in the 1875 painting is different from the second painting there’s not a big change, but a fewer minor tweak. In the painting you can see surrounded by all the blood and mayhem were the “Big Three” heroes of the Alamo portrayed importantly. On the lower left of the painting, you will find Jim Bowie getting up from his sick bed with his famous knife (the Bowie Knife). On the lower right you will see David Crockett running into battle with his “Ol Betsy”, and without his famous coonskin hat. Which was changed, because in the 1875 version of the painting he did have a coonskin hat on. The most significant change from the 1875 version was in the role of William B. Travis. In the second Dawn at the Alamo, McArdle greatly enhanced the physical size of Travis to make him the dominant figure in the painting.

McArdle wanted Travis to stand out because of his “Victory or Death” letter, also Travis promised to never surrender or to retreat and to “die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country.” McArdle also included Susan Dickenson with her kid to show her bravery of the women in the Texas Revolution, and he also painted two flags the Mexican flag of 1824 and the Blood-Red flag that symbolized not taking any prisoners. In the 1875 version of the painting, it’s much darker and not as much detailed as in the 1905 version.

McArdle painting interested me because I live in San Antonio and have never heard of this painting untill I received this assignment. It’s inspiring to see someone who had their artwork ruined and instead of giving up he made his artwork better. He added more detailed to the second painting and there is more to look out for. I like how everything in his painting is placed there for a reason, and I honestly believe it does an amazing job summarizing the Battle of the Alamo within the 13 days of Battle. I also like how he didn’t stick to what was written historically how he dramatized certain things to get his meaning across, I believe that’s why the state loved his painting because it stood out, and he was the only one to every attempt it and succeed.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Story Behind the Picture: The Alamo. (2024, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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