Description"Custer's Last Rally": The Epic 11 x 20 foot Oil Painting by John Mulvany. Andy Warhol once famously declared that everyone has his 15 minutes of fame. John Mulvany had his when he unveiled his masterwork, "Custer's Last Rally", in March of 1881. His trajectory might well be compared with that of another "one-act wonder", Archibald MacNeil Willard, who created one of the most iconic American paintings, the "Spirit of '76" for the 1876 Centennial Celebration.
For some years Mulvany scratched out a living as an artist, mainly doing portraits. In 1879, he was inspired to paint a definitive scene of the Little Bighorn battle, in which George Armstrong Custer perished with his entire command. He visited the battlefield to make sketches and interviewed various Indians who had participated in the battle. The focal point of the painting is of course a strong, determined Custer. Close by is Capt. William W. Cooke, a close Custer friend and the adjutant of the regiment. Head bandaged and bleeding, Cooke glares at his enemies, rifle in hand. On Custer's right is Capt. Miles Keogh, longtime Custer associate and commander of Company I. Behind Custer, taking aim, is Capt. Yates of Company F. Nearby, Capt. Tom Custer, Armstrong's brother, has been shot through the heart with an arrow. It took two years to complete the amazing 20' x 11' painting, which immediately achieved wide recognition. The first major exhibition of the work occurred in New York City, where it created a sensation. Large crowds paid an admission price of 50¢ (25¢ for children) - no small sum in its day - to gaze mesmerized at the painting, which seemed to capture all the frantic combat which the public had envisioned at Little Bighorn. Reviews were positive. The poet Walt Whitman wrote a newspaper article praising the painting, and Custer's widow, Libbie was said to have swooned at the sight of it ("Custer's Last Rally, the Sad Life of John Mulvany", by Michael Nunnally, The Greasy Grass, May 2010 issue, page 34). A popular print of the painting was made and sold, and for a decade periodic additional exhibitions helped provide Mulvany with a livelihood.
Around 1896, famed pickle and condiment magnate, H. J. Heinz acquired ownership of "Custer's Last Rally". He sent the painting on tour around the United States and Europe for some 15 years. By some accounts, Heinz paid Mulvany to paint a second version of the huge work. But this claim remains undocumented and the subject of scholarly controversy. What is clear is that the only one painting remains in existence, the one offered in this auction. It is the painting now broadly accepted as Mulvany's masterwork.
Over the years it has had periods of exhibition interspersed with long years in storage. In 1926, it was on display at the Heinz Ocean City Pier in Ocean City, New Jersey. In the 1950s, it was shown for several years at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, and most notably in 1967 at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, where it was to be the centerpiece in their "Battle of the Little Bighorn" exhibition. In recent years it has been intermittently "on the market", always with a seven-figure price tag.
In 2004, the eminent art appraiser, Paul Rossi, former director of the Gilcrease Museum, wrote a detailed appraisal of the work, placing a value of "$5,500,000 to $6,000,000" on it, citing its historical importance and its potential for "reproduction...in many forms and other commercial ventures." Rossi took pains to compare it favorably with the other well-known portrayal of Little Bighorn painted by F. Otto Becker, in 1895 (based on Cassilly Adams' 1886 version), which was reproduced many times on lithographs and signs issued by the Anheuser Busch company. Despite its wide distribution, Rossi dismisses this version as a "poor...painting" compared with Mulvany's version. In a 2009 update of his appraisal, Rossi raises his estimate of the painting's value to $9,000,000 to $10,000,000, declaring the work to be "an invaluable collector's piece in American Western art and a true national treasure."
Like Archibald MacNeil Williams, John Mulvany produced only one masterwork. He became a drunken derelict, and committed suicide by jumping into New York's East River in 1906. Although he painted for years, little of his work seems to have survived, and Heritage researchers were able to find only one record of a Mulvany painting appearing on the auction market.
But, as is the case with Willard, one shining moment was enough. Each left a magnificent historical work which will be known and admired for generations.
(For a condition report, please see our presentation of this lot on our website, HA.com)
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