Sunday, May 6, 2018

History and Truth

Today someone posted this on a friend's Facebook page:

"This has always been my problem with history. It's so distorted. I find it hard to trust."

I and others like me who love history must always feel a little disappointed when we encounter those who believe it is distorted and untrustworthy. All branches of knowledge change over time when new data or new ways of interpreting that data, emerge. Even the hard sciences such as chemistry or geology - even physics, which is mostly understood through advanced mathematics, is hotly disputed. Albert Einstein had quite a lot of trouble accepting the new quantum theories that we take for granted today. 

If someone is looking for absolute truth in any branch of knowledge, they won't find it. Yet I believe that each honestly reasoned attempt we make to understand things, even history, based on evidence, advances us that much farther . . . if not toward absolute truth, then at least toward a better understanding.

Image: c1770 limestone relief  of Clio, the muse of History. From Plas Llangoedmor estate, Cardigan, Wales.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A True Espada Ancha

Several months ago I was asked by the museum at Mission San Juan Capistrano in California to help them find and direct craftspeople to make replicas of the kinds of arms used by the Spanish presidial cavalry in the late 1700s - the kinds of men who would have formed the cuartel, or guard, at the Missions. These replicas will be a part of a new exhibit at the museum.


I've enjoyed working on this project, which is directed by Megan Dukett, the Education and Interpretive Program Director at San Juan Capistrano, and seeing the amazing creations of the artisans. The first replica to be completed is this copy of a Model 1728 Spanish Cavalry broadsword - the kind of weapon used by Spanish frontier soldiers across the West, from Texas to California. Its creator is John Logan, a skilled craftsman and owner of Iron John Logan, specializing in fine blacksmithing, woodworking, and leather. I provided the research information, but John provided the artistry. http://ironjohnlogan.com


There has long been confusion about the meaning of the Spanish term espada ancha, though I cannot understand why. Many years ago it became attached to Mexican short swords that were usually carried on the saddle. Espada, of course, means "sword," and ancha means "wide" or "broad." So, a literal translation is quite simply, "broadsword," not "shortsword." In fact, from period literature we know that these short swords were called machetes - and still are by Mexican horsemen. 


The late, and great, historian Sidney Brinckerhoff, seems to have had a part in this confusion of terms by misnaming these short machetes espadas anchas in his classic study, with Pierce A. Chamberlain, Spanish Military Weapons in Colonial America 1700-1821 (Stackpole Books, 1972).  Some years ago, in an exchange of email messages with Sid, I asked him about this. I still have a printed copy of his reply to the effect that he really didn't remember why he'd called these swords espadas anchas - an open and honest reply typical of the man.


There is evidence that short swords were carried by some provincial units in Mexico, such as the Lanceros de Veracruz, but the swords of the soldados de cuera seem always to have been the espada ancha - the full size broadsword.


A soldado de cuera in late-Spanish Era California, José Amador, said in his oral history, recorded in 1877, that his unit's swords were  "four to five Flemish spans long" (cuartas flamencas), long enough for the officers to use them as walking sticks. 


Since each presidio was required to arm and equip itself, the Model 1728 cavalry broadsword was not the only weapon used by the soldados de cuera, but it seems to have been one of the most common, with fragments discovered at archaeological sites across what once was Spain's Provincias Internas. Other kinds of swords purchased by presidios included the Model 1799 cavalry broadsword, and cup hilted swords. In the uncertain and underfunded supply system of the northern frontier, it was not unusual to find regulation sword blades with non-regulation hilts, and vice versa. But likewise, it was not uncommon to find examples of the light, well-balanced, and sturdily made Model 1728 broadsword still in use by presidial soldiers half a century and more after the manufacture date inscribed on their blades. 



Through this new exhibit, and the artistry of John Logan, we now have a proper example of the kind of weapon Spain's frontier soldiers long relied upon, and an opportunity to correct a longstanding error of identification. 

A., D., I, and J. The replica M1728 Spanish cavalry broadsword created for Mission San Juan Capistrano's museum by John Logan. Note the attention detail, including the braided copper wire grip and the engraving on both sides of the blade, copied exactly from original examples. John also "aged" the sword slightly so that it wouldn't look too new.

C. An original M1728 Spanish cavalry broadsword, Arizona Historical Society.

E. A machete used to illustrate the article "Espada Ancha: Swords of Mexico and Spanish Colonial America," Viking Sword website.

F. A Lancero de Veracruz, 1769. This soldier of a provincial unit carries a short sword, a machete, on a shoulder belt.

G. A soldier of the Regimiento Provincial de Caballeria del Rey, ca. 1771 carries a full length sword, quite likely the M1728 broadsword..

H. José Cardero's portrait of a presidial soldier of Monterey, California, 1791. Note that he carries a full size sword but with a cup hilt.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Botas, Part 1


I have studied Mexican leggings - botas - for decades. I've handled dozens of examples from the first half of the 19th century, and examined eyewitness drawings, paintings, read eyewitness accounts, and looked at early photographs. Needless to say, I've photographed many original pieces. Sad to say, though, I can't share any of these photos because of the agreements I have with museums and collectors not to publish their collections without permission and, sometimes, payment.




However, when the antiques dealer, Michael D. Higgins, publishes photographs online of a single bota he has for sale, I feel that not only is it alright to do so, but that I'm helping him to publicize his website:


This bota is a good example of the kind that was mass produced in Mexico and often traded into Texas, the Southwest, and California. Gringos liked them, too, though they tended to wear them backwards. That is, with the flap pointing toward the heel rather than the toe, as vaqueros wore them.



All of the Mexican and Hispanic-American botas I've ever examined, or seen in photographs, are made of suede leather. I've never seen grain leather used anywhere. The botas imported from Mexico are made of a substantial, but very flexible, leather - sueded on both sides, similar in feel to chamois but thicker, and dyed a light or dark shade of rust brown. These usually have patterns on them that appear to be tooled, but may have been mass produced with a device similar to a printing press. Sometimes, they have embroidered panels sewn to them - they are not themselves embroidered. And some are bound around the outside edge, often with a silk ribbon, usually green.


I have never seen any evidence, either written or visual (artwork or photographs) of other sorts of decorations, including conchas, loops, fringes, etc. 

I'll have more to share on botas another day.

A. In "Native Californians Lassoing a Steer," by Auguste Ferran, ca. 1850, we see vaqueros in their everyday and working dress. It is difficult to tell if their botas are imported or homemade, though the shape and the color of those worn by the two mounted men, at least, suggest imported. Note how the "wing" of the bota points toward the toe. [Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley]

B., C., D. G., and H. A single bota currently for sale by Michael D. Higgins. This legging is very typical of Mexican manufactures that were sold both domestically and as exports, chiefly to Hispanic communities in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

E. Daguerreotype of Docia and Aaron Tyner, who moved to California from Arkansas in 1852. Photograph ca. 1856-1858. By his ribbon chinstrap and his suede botas, probably imported, Aaron Tyner displays the kinds of vaquero clothing frequently adopted by Anglos who moved to California during the Mexican Era and Gold Rush. Notice that the wing of the legging is wrapped so as to face backwards, toward the heel - the opposite of how vaqueros wore them. The original photograph is in the Kings County Museum, California. It was published in Joan Severa's Dressed for the Photographer, (Kent State University Press, 1995)

F. In "Costume of Upper California," an illustration in the Atlas Pittoresque of Abel Du Petit Thouars, 1837, we see the reddish brown legging wrapped so that the wing points forward, toward the toe. This is how they were worn in Mexico and in Hispanic communities across the Southwest and in California.

I. Another bota of the kind manufactured in Mexico. It is "tooled" (possibly stamped using an etched plate and a press), but has an embroidered panel sewn to one wing only because, obviously, the other wing is hidden when the bota is wrapped around the wearer's calf.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Case of Mistaken Identity Revisited

Since my visit to Montana for a National Parks Service illustration project nearly two years ago, I'm afraid I've neglected this blog. I've been terribly busy with various illustrating, writing, and other projects. But, like Mole in the chapter, "Dulce Domum," in Kenneth Grahame's classic Wind in the Willows, I was called irresistibly back today, though in my case because of an email. 

In 2015, I posted an essay about a portrait identified at various sites online as María Ursula de Veramendi, wife of Alamo legend James "Jim" Bowie.

I was surprised that the evidence I presented against this being a portrait of Mrs. Bowie, which seemed obvious to me, was not accepted by some who continued to insist that this was her genuine likeness simply because it was said by a descendant to have been her. My evidence included the subject's style of hair and clothing - more typical of the 1840s than the early 1830s (María de Veramendi died in 1833), and the fact that Mrs. Bowie seems never to have left Texas prior to her death at the age of 21, and yet there was no known portrait artist of this level of skill working in Texas at this time. Nevertheless, I let the matter drop because, frankly, I had other things to do. 

Recently, though, I was contacted by a descendant of James Bowie's brother, Rezin, who sent me scans of two portraits said to be of his daughters, Martha and Mathilda. They are from Louisiana Portraits, a 1975 publication of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Louisiana. I was surprised to see the alleged portrait of María de Veramendi identified as that of Martha Bowie, Rezin's elder daughter. However, it also states that Martha was born in 1791, which means that she would have been in her fifties if she sat for this portrait in the 1840s. So, clearly, there is still some confusion over just who this woman was. 

In my blog posting, I suggested that rather than Mrs. Bowie (María de Veramendi), this might be a portrait of Rezin's younger daughter, Matilda or Mathilda, who was born in 1816. That would have meant she was still in her twenties in the early 1840s. This publication of the Colonial Dames has another portrait that they believe is Mathilda, and state her year of birth as 1818. However, she is dressed in the fashions of the late 1840s or perhaps the early 1850s, which would have meant that Mathilda was in her thirties when she sat for it, and this lady looks younger to me.

So, it remains a mystery. As I see it, the Bowie family traditions are mistaken about just who these two young women were, based on the fashions worn by the sitters. But clearly (at least to me) neither of them is María Ursula de Veramendi, wife of the legendary Jim Bowie. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Going to Montan' for to Throw the Hoolihan

I ride an old paint
I lead an old Dan
I'm goin' to Montan'
For to throw the hoolihan

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, photo courtesy of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch Foundation. []

Actually, the lyrics to this old cowboy song are partly true, for tomorrow I'm going to Montana, but not to "throw the hoolihan" - by the way, no one knows what that means. Nor will there be any horse riding, at least that I know of. But I'll be gone for two weeks and hope to publish updates from the road.

This is not my first rodeo, as the saying goes. I've illustrated often for the National Park Service.

The excuse for this trip is that the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site needs some illustrations and that's where I come in. I'll spend three days touring the site with members of the exhibits company I'm subcontracting to and NPS staff. Then I'll come home and create nine illustrations for interpretive signs around the park.

Ironically, I started my career as an illustrator with this book for Dover Publications back in 1985. It's still in print.

And here I must thank my dear wife who, when I told her I wasn't going to bid on the project because I didn't have anything current in my portfolio showing cowboys, said "Just send them something." So this is what I sent, and I got the job. Thanks Sweetie.

Another image from my Cowboys of the Old West coloring book. As always, I find the real thing much more interesting than the legend. It's estimated that at least one in four of all cowboys in the classic trail driving days following the Civil War 
were either African-American or Hispanic-American.

Oh, the most authentic rendition of "I Ride an Old Paint," that I could find on YouTube was by Woodie Guthrie:

But this one by Tim O'Brien and the Two Oceans Trio is the most stirring, even if he does sing it with an Ozark twang:

Sunday, March 27, 2016

As Much About the Present as the Past


Someone once made a comment about historical films being as much about the present as the past. This is certainly true of two Russian military epics made during World War II that I found today on YouTube.


The first is "Suvorov," a biography of the astounding Alexander Suvorov (ca. 1730 - 1800). The film dates from 1940, and I suspect it was not only meant as an ode to a spectacularly brilliant Russian general, but also as a reminder to Russians of their fighting spirit, and to Europe (Suvorov crossed the Alps), that it might be wise not to attack Russia.



The second, "Kutuzov," was also about a victorious Russian general and his army, this time Mikhail Kutuzov (1745-1813), who fought Napoleon. 



Since it was made in 1943, one is tempted to see the film as not only a reminder of Russia's past military glory, but to reassure the nation that the Germans, whom the Soviet Union was still in the process of pushing back to Berlin, would meet a fate similar to Napoleon's.


Both films are remarkable for their attempts to represent authentically the military uniforms, equipment, and tactics of their day. For example, this is the first time I've seen the Potempkin uniforms represented in film. 


The Soviet government was also generous in loaning authentic locations, such as palaces, in which to film, and lots, and lots of soldiers and horses. All of which is remarkable when you realize that World War II was in full swing by the time Kutuzov was filmed.

Lastly, one sees stylistic similarities between these earlier films and Sergei Bondarchuk's handling of battle scenes, especially in his 1968 "War and Peace." No doubt Bondarchuk was quite familiar with both of these amazing films.


I should note that both films are in Russian, with neither dubbing nor subtitles. But if you know the history even slightly (or look it up online) they are easy to follow and well worth a look.

A. Suvorov, 1940, with Nikolai Chrekasov-Sergeyev in the title role. 
B. This 1799 portrait of Alexander Suvorov by Joseph Kreutzinger, shows the remarkable physical resemblance between the actor and his subject. [Wikimedia Commons]
C. Russian Troops under Suvorov Crossing the Alps in 1799 by Vasily Surikov, 1899 [Wikimedia Commons]
D. Perhaps influenced by the film, this 1941 Russian poster links General Suvorov with the Russian Army of World War II.
E. Kutuzov, 1943, starring Sergey Blinnikov in the title role. 
F.Portrait of Russian field-marshal M.I. Kutuzov  by R.M. Volkov
G. German troops in Russia during the winter of 1941-1942 suffered a fate similar to those of Napoleon in 1812.
H. The Potempkin Uniform as reconstructed in A.V. Viskovatov's monumental work, Historical Description of the Clothing and Arms of the Russian Army (1855).
I. Suvorov, 1940
J. War and Peace, directed by Sergey Bondarchuk(1968)
K. Kutuzov (1943)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hidden Treasures

A gallery at the Walters Art Museum displaying a small portion of the the 
founders' collection arranged in the "salon" fashion popular in the 19th century. 
Note Detaille's "The Picket" in the lower left corner. 

On a visit to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, I was delighted to discover works by some of the best French military painters of the 19th century.

"The Picket" by Edouard Detaille, 1875. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

More and more museums are beginning to display their collections of academic art that they once hid away as embarrassingly old fashioned. 

"Irregulars in the Trenches," by Alphonse de Neuville, 1874. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The Walters and some other smaller museums are especially good places to look for paintings like these because they are often built around their founders' personal collections. 

"Attack at Dawn" by Alphonse de Neuville, 1877. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

In this case, the collectors were William and Henry Walters, American millionaires of the "Gilded Age" who regularly traveled to Europe to buy art.

"Napoleon" by Jean Louis Meissonier, 1962, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.