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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Story of "Here Fell Custer"
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"Sunday at the Little Bighorn with George"
By Eric von Schmidt
All photos courtesy Eric von Schmidt from his unpublished, Last Stands: A Sprawl of Epic Paintings Spanning America's First Turbulent Century of Growth
Webmaster's Note: This article was first published in "Montana Magazine" Spring 1992 issue and is included in Paul Hutton's great work, The Custer Reader. We provide it here courtesy of Eric von Schmidt.
It seemed like a good idea when I rashly tacked up the canvas in the summer of 1970. Rashness was quite in keeping with the subject-to-be: George Armstrong Custer. Why not do an epic-scale painting of the battle, and perhaps, at long last, get it right? I had been reading everything I could get my hands on, but it was Col. W. A. Graham's wonderful hodgepodge The Custer Myth that really sucked me in. A delightful stew of fact and fiction, rambling and disorganized, it fitted my mood exactly. The canvas, all five-by-thirteen feet of it, was so starkly pristine in contrast to Graham's jumbled jig-saw puzzle. What splendid inducement to begin, especially as this beguiling invitation hung on the wall of my studio, directly between the bedroom and the bathroom.
As the months wore on, and I learned more and more (and realized just how much I didn't know), the empty canvas became a deadening reflection of my state of mind. With this monumental salute to blankness, I had created a self-inflicted void; exhausting to contemplate, impossible to ignore.
Usually I make a good many compositional sketches and preliminary drawings for anything I undertake large or small. In this case I couldn't seem to come up with anything at all. Since no one had commissioned me to do it, nor had anyone expressed the slightest interest in the finished work, I was sorely tempted to pack it in.
Still, there was that damned canvas...beckoning. Every day it seemed bigger, looking more and more like Herman Melville's white whale.
For a number of years my wife and I held a January First party on our beach in Sarasota, Florida. It had become a Siesta Key tradition. Soul food for the hangovers, "hoppin' john" for luck in the coming year. It was a big success, and every year it grew bigger. Last time around there were two hundred or more people out there, and we realized there were a whole lot of them we didn't even know. It stopped being fun. End of tradition.
So when I got out of bed on New Year's Day, 1971, the joyous thought hit me on the way to the bathroom: I didn't have to roast a pig, tap beer kegs, provide collard greens for the multitudes.
And there it was. The Canvas. Damned expensive rag it was, too. Belgian linen, by God! Was it glowing slightly? A mini epiphany? As I stood there transfixed, it started to look a whole lot less like a whale and a whole lot more like territory. A whole lot of Dakota territory. And at that moment I felt like Alphonse Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I may have even said it out loud -- "We don't need your stinkin' sketches. ..."
So I plunged in, painted madly all day, guided only by a three-by-five inch, black-and-white reproduction of the earliest photograph I could find. When the sun set that night, half of Montana lay between bedroom and bathroom. Indeed, if the battle was unplanned, wild and chaotic, might not my painting itself reflect this fatal disorder?
But the next day when I looked at the huge semi-abstract landscape, I was stunned. There was no disorder here; there was a beautiful painting. So good I could hardly bear it. And it was finished. I had left nothing unraveled, there was no way to get back in. I was blocked again.
The beautiful landscape
Although my background in painting is academic and traditional, my personal direction has been expressionistic, moving more and more to the abstract over the years. What I had done in that one exuberant day seemed quite complete in itself ...Lahkota AlIa Prima. But what then of Colonel Graham's splendid mishmash, all the information I had painstakingly begun to gather? Abandoning all that seemed a waste, yet entering again into my pristine landscape seemed even worse. ..it would amount to rape.
So, I digressed. I believe the phrase is, "Don't do something. Just sit there." I sat there and wrote letters to experts about weapons, buttons, saddlebags, and all that fascinating stuff. I set up a trip to the anthropological archives to look at all 42 Red Horse drawings of the battle. I persuaded a western painter friend, Gene Shortridge, to take some black-and-white Polaroid snapshots of me running around dressed as either cavalryman or Indian. "Willy-nilly" best describes that particular shoot. Totally unplanned and random, that afternoon's bit of fun was to provide me with the key to getting back into the painting.
Meanwhile, the responses to my letters began to arrive. I had not anticipated such generosity. These people were taking me seriously. I had talked myself into a corner, and now I would have to paint myself out. I was running out of digressions.
It was becoming clear that I must follow the neatly shod hoof prints of Vic and his charismatic rider into the unknown. It seemed equally obvious that as an ex-enlisted man myself, a descendant of Europeans, my viewpoint must be that of the troopers on the ridge. Violating my lovely landscape painting seemed more and more fitting considering the subject at hand. Finally, I came across the drunken, brawling, original lyrics to "Garryowen" in one of Elizabeth Custer's delightful books, and I knew that was the guidon to follow:
We'll beat the baliffs out of fun
We'll make the mayor and sheriffs run
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards his whole skin.
I had to be true to that song.
Creative people, I believe, are fortunate in that all areas of personal experience can be used. Pain, heartbreak, failure can to some extent be redeemed, catharsis achieved. For as long as I can remember I have had a dream which must be as old as time. In it I am fleeing for my life; I try to hide; I am discovered; I am killed.
Well, one of the little Polaroid snapshots caught that feeling. It was me dressed like a trooper dashing to the right. It looked so real it was quite spooky. There was something about the gait and the look of the man that marked him as doomed. Some of the Indians spoke with amusement of a few soldiers, right near the end of the battle, who ran northward because no enemy could be seen in that direction. The area was, in fact, clogged with warriors taking advantage of concealment offered by the sloping terrain. So, I painted my little "running man" to the far right of the canvas.
The addition of this single figure shattered the unity of the painting. Penetration had occurred; by definition, rape had been accomplished. something else happened, too. The defiled landscape gained a raw energy, an emerging scale. The battle had begun.
Unfortunately the overall composition remained as much of a mystery as ever. I was left without a clue as to what to do next.
I believe it was around this time I traveled up to Washington to study the Red Horse drawings first hand. Red Horse was a Sioux warrior who fought in the battle, gave an early account, and made forty-two drawings five years later. Here I met a kindred spirit, Jim Hutchins, a man as fascinated by the battle as I was. Jim's researches and encouragement were invaluable. Through him, I got to see the drawings, indeed, hold them in my hand, a thrill I will never forget. While I had come to look for details of dress and equipment, I was struck by page after page of carefully drawn tepees. Nothing but tepees. I guessed that they had never been reproduced because they were repetitious, boring? Old Red Horse was trying to tell us something. We weren't quite getting it.
We shouldn't feel bad. Custer didn't get it either. It wasn't until I got back down to my studio that I finally got it. Then I knew I was on the right track. All that territory, that Lakota territory was fine. Considering the village was over three miles long, there would have been a whole lot of tepees, a thousand, give or take a few. Red Horse was telling us in pictographic terms what Custer himself refused to believe.
True, early on the morning of June 25,1876, the advance scouts couldn't see the tepees. But from their hidden observation point fifteen miles away, the Crows began to make out smoke rising from the valley of the Little Bighorn. The point of origin was hidden by some bluffs, but directly west of it a huge dark stain spread out across the valley floor. At first they took it to be miles of burnt prairie grass. But, as the soft blue leeched from the dawn sky, they watched in awe as the forward edge of the dark mass seemed to shimmer, form, and reform. It was then they knew they were looking at an immense sprawl of grazing ponies. It was the Sioux horse herd. One of the interpreters, Mitch Bouyer, reckoned that Custer, and the whole command, himself included, were as good as dead. "Lonesome Charlie" Reynolds ("Lucky Man" was one of his Indian names) had expected as much and had given away his belongings the previous night. A hasty note was scribbled; two Arikara scouts rode with it back to the general. They had discovered " ...a tremendous village."
The Crows tried to point out the herd to their young chief-of-scouts, lieutenant Charles Varnum. They told him to "look for worms crawling on the grass." He could see nothing, with or without their "cheap spy glass." Maybe it was his dust-inflamed eyes, the baffling metaphor, the little tricks scale can play on you over such vast distances. Whatever it was, I feel for you, Varnum. I have worked the territory. Old Greasy Grass Creek can fool you.
When I returned to Florida I was convinced that I should show as much of this vast encampment on the west side of the river as I could, instead of obscuring it with smoke. Indeed this would have been the first real look many of the ill-fated five companies that rode north with Custer would have had. The view from the ridge would not yet have been clogged with dust and smoke; it must have been paralyzing. Small wonder that some of the troopers took their own lives. My painting includes one of those, a first, I believe, in the thousand-plus depictions of the fight. It is fitting that the "running man" figure later was transformed into the kneeling "suicide" at the far right of the canvas While this was done to acknowledge the historical reality, pictorially it allowed me to "stop" the left-to-right movement of the composition.
Near the end of the battle there would be a good deal of smoke and dust, perhaps even more than I show. As you may have noticed, historical painters love smoke. However, the best of them do not love it for the same reason that some western painters, the ones that have trouble with horses' fetlocks, love tall grass.
Although all the Indian combatants spoke of the diminished visibility that resulted, old Red Horse gives no hint of this in his drawings. He presents a pictorial accounting of the event, not the actuality. Beyond even this, a man might be shown in a warbonnet because he owned one, not necessarily because he wore it during the battle. But the very fact that the drawings were quantitative rather than interpretive provided another clue as important as all the tepees: those little knots of slain troopers, so neatly arranged, many stripped, bleeding, and dismembered. Now what I needed was the white man's counterpart to these innocent renderings of grotesquely tumbled dead flesh.
Once again I turned to Colonel Graham and he did not disappoint. There was a veritable potpourri of burial reports and testimonies, a good many of them, of course, conflicting. Still, I was able to come up with a workable consensus. When I began to visualize who was where, I had the distinct feeling I was finally on my way into the valley of the Little Bighorn.
And by this, I mean a two-fold visualization: first, where they were on the ridge; then, and only then, how they would be placed within the framework of the composition. I had already chosen the psychological concept for the painting (viewpoint of trooper) ; but the pictorial concept remained elusive. Here again, I took my cue from the battle itself: plunge ahead; something will turn up.
Meanwhile, back on the ridge. If it was really close to the end, Custer would be down. The chest wound. Real blood would be running out along with his fabled "luck." Indeed, who in hell would be standing as the bullets and arrows poured in? Near their stricken leader, alive, dying, or already dead, would be Hughes, who carried the guidon stitched by Custer's wife; Chief Trumpeter Voss; and Adjutant W. W. Cooke. Brother Tom, Smith, and Yates would be as near as they could get. If any man was upright in that deadly hail it would have been to seek better shelter or attempt to escape in panic like the "running man." Or perhaps to have gone mad.
By this time I had an eight-by-ten glossy of the panoramic view that got the juices flowing that first day. It showed a scattering of wooden stakes serving as grave markers. That was about the only indication of scale I had to work with. The figure of Sergeant Hughes, holding the guidon, came first. Next was Custer. Slowly, painfully the foreground figures were established. Then all the soldiers below them down the slope. Dead horses, scattered equipment. It got to be kind of depressing. My one relief from all that was the landscape itself. Since I'd lived in the West from time to time, and had painted and sketched out there in the open, I knew what I was doing.
I slogged along like this for the better part of two years. It was about that time it finally came: the pictorial concept. By then, once more, the painting had become my personal reality. Not the mental vacuum reflecting the blank canvas, but a sense of futility, a heaviness of being. Of course the Indians were all there in my mind. The village too. But none of this was on the canvas. Just in my mind. And the mind sometimes has a mind of its own.
There I was, every bloody day, faced by these forlorn and forsaken men as they were relentlessly broken, crushed down by an unseen force. All smashed and trampled beneath ...what? A landscape, so tranquil, so utterly sublime. Magritte, eat your heart out!
I was not coming unglued. For I realized that the surreal aspect alone was not what made the canvas unsettling. What I was doing, unconsciously at first, was perverting one of the oldest classical forms: the frieze -- the one used with such dignity by the Babylonians and Egyptians, in which a long horizontal space is enlivened by a series of recurring uprights, usually figures. It combines well with formal architecture, the overall effect being graceful, stately, and imposing. Imagine, if you will, Custer and his men standing erect, pondering maps, chatting manfully, taking the occasional potshot. The effect would have been rather elegant, would it not? Downright classical.
But by huddling all the soldiers below the horizontal median, the only real vertical being the skinny, sagging guidon, I both confound ordinary visual expectations and further diminish the poor devils. No stately procession here. We are forced to observe a real battle: an obscene jumble of twisted shapes, stripped of dignity, devoid of hope. Pictorially, it is meant to disturb equilibrium, affront sensibility, spit in your eye.
If you detect a certain inelegance in that phrase, we are on the right track. Reality is seldom elegant. More often than not the search for historical truth reveals something quite the opposite. As a "warts & all" kind of guy, it occurs to me that it might be fitting to share with you a brief list (a la Red Horse) of some of the realities encountered during the search for Here Fell Custer.
The painting itself, which I estimated would take two or three months to complete, took over five years of work. About three years of sustained labor. The actual canvas was moved ten different times, in and out of three different states. As I had no "Genius Grant" to sustain all this activity (an "Idiot Grant" would have been more appropriate), relationships, private and otherwise, were put to the test. One-and-a-half divorces resulted. Those were the bad old days.
The strain was far-reaching. My own father, a fine painter and illustrator, one of this country's best, came up to New Hampshire to view the work-in-progress. Old, semi invalid, sitting in a battered Victorian rocker, he squinted long and hard at the painting. After ten or fifteen minutes, his silence finally drove me out of the room. About ten minutes later, he was still at it. Finally, he turned to me and said, "There is no black in nature." That was it. I swear to God, that was all he said.
I admit that I had hoped for a bit more. In fact I had the distinct inclination to haul my sainted father, rocker, and all, out in the sunbaked barnyard, poke a loaded .45 caliber colt pistol in his face and ask the question, "Look. See the sun? See the trees? See the leaves? See the horseshit on the ground? Are we not here together in nature? Now, when you look into the muzzle of this deadly weapon held by your crazed son, are you absolutely sure that the little round space encompassed by the barrel is not perfectly black?"
Well, perhaps it was his way of telling me to get more atmosphere in the painting. I can assure you, such Zen-like pronouncements are more fun for the master than the disciple.
By the third year into it, I was getting pretty bored with painting white people. I just couldn't take it anymore. I had to paint me some injuns! Having grown up around horses and being a fairly good rider, friends had taken all kinds of shots of me galloping around on borrowed horses, my little pale behind peeking out from under the breech-clout. Considering I still had no better reference than that panoramic view, I knew it would be a rash move to say the least. It was hard enough getting a fix on the stuff that was relatively close, how in hell to determine the rest?
Playing cowboy and Indians
Sagebrush comes in all sizes, cottonwoods in all heights. I was still completely at a loss as to how to deal with all those tepees across the river.
I kept wondering why that old-time photographer did not send his assistant down there to the bottom of the ridge to give the thing some scale. Or, if the cheap old guy didn't have one, at least leave his horse down there. Probably too lazy to hike back up. I got pretty exercised about it. Started to take it personally. Worse, I started painting Indians in that indefinable middle distance. If only fate had sent me to the right Chinese restaurant. If I had only picked up the right fortune cookie: "Beware the indefinable middle distance."
Every day I studied the photograph. Forced it on my friends, mailmen, the occasional Jehovah's witness. I knew the risk I was taking, but I just couldn't stop painting in Indians. Once you've painted one, you've got to paint more. But I kept searching that photo. I studied in all states: straight, bent, northern, and southern, until one day I found myself in the state of Guanajuato. And would you believe? I had forgotten to bring the damn thing. Still, I had found my Jungle-Rites-Bride, and we did together what I should have done in the very beginning.
We drove, in the first flush of love, in her Volkswagen "swayback," "CUSTER OR BUST HER" lettered on the trunk, directly from central Mexico to the battlefield.
"...Custer or bust"
We arrived at twilight, and standing on the ridge I was astonished and delighted at how much the view looked like the old photograph. And in the dim light it was just as hard to make out relative distances. Absurd as it now seems, it took me several minutes to realize the obvious. When did, I ran down the slope right into that tattered old eight-by-ten glossy. I was hollering loud enough to be heard in downtown Hardin. Up on the ridge some guy approached my bride (who was shedding deco tears of joy) and asked if everything was all right. She told me later that when she answered, "Oh, Eric is so happy. He's being an Indian," the guy immediately jumped in his car and burnt rubber getting out of there.
The next several days were spent wandering the battlefield, sketching, and taking photographs. I finally hit on a way to solve the problem of relative distances once and for all. First, from the ridge, I painted a carefully accurate landscape that matched the view in the old photograph. Then the park ranger and his wife rode down towards the river stopping, for a minute, every fifty yards or so while I quickly sketched them in. When they reached the river my scale difficulties were over. That was the good news.
On returning east and confronting the actual canvas, I learned the bad. The forty or so Indians I had painted with such loving care (and splendid detail) as they galloped across a distant ridge, were exactly twice as big as they should have been. Forty men. Forty horses. One hundred and sixty hoofs. About six months of work lost. Then, to add insult to injury, one boozy evening as I was brandishing the old photo about, furiously reviling its author with curses now fully justified, stabbing the indefinable middle distance with a paint stained finger: "Why didn't he put something RIGHT THERE?" And there, right in front of my filthy fingernail, they were.
I had been back from the battlefield for months. Since I now knew the correct scale and was working from on-site sketches, I'd barely looked at the thing. But there was absolutely no doubt about it: they were there. Two men. One standing. The other, would you believe it? ...sitting on a white horse. While they were no bigger than the head of a pin, I swear to you, my friends, I had the distinct impression, that at the moment the shutter clicked, they were all laughing!
So, now that you've heard my little cautionary tale, please go home and tell your dear ones and loved ones, join the Marines, run away with the circus, land your Cessna in Red Square, but don't, for God sake, become a painter of historical themes on a grand scale.
There are no courses, no instructors, no texts, no seminars. Not only are there no commissions, there is no market.
And to those who would still follow, let them ponder these words, as Custer's scouts surely did in the cool of that Sunday morning when grass became ponies. .."How hot will it be by noon?"
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022