Interview With Eric von Schmidt

Eric von Schmidt --

Photo graciously provided by George R. Janecek


When one gazes upon Eric von Schmidt’s 10 X 23 foot painting, The Storming of the Alamo one has a sense of time travel. One travels to that moment, just before dawn on March 6, 1836 when Crockett may have led his men to a more secure place to make their last stand against hundreds of Mexican soldiers at the Alamo.

Automatically, one looks for Davy Crockett inside the frame. But, where is he? Why isn’t he swinging Ole’ Betsy like he does in almost every other painting about the Alamo? He is there, he can be seen in the center background running and pointing– directing his men to that place, that symbol of freedom recognized by just about anyone around the globe, the chapel of The Alamo.

Much like Crockett in his painting, Eric von Schmidt has been hard to find until recently. Some folks even thought the man had died years ago. Far from it! Even though his decades long musical career is on hold due to a hard fought, but successful battle with throat cancer, Eric continues to paint on a regular basis from his home in Westport, CT. The man that was the inspiration and mentor of Bob Dylan, and who won the ASCAP Lifetime achievement award for 2000 has always thought of his art career as foremost.

Eric is an historical artist. He spent five years painting Here Fell Custer, which has received countless accolades for its vivid portrayal of the last moments on Last Stand Hill for Custer and the 7th Cavalry against hordes of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

Eric grew up acting out self-invented games and posed for his father’s (Harold von Schmidt) countless illustrations, first as an infant, then wiry jockey, and then as Indians. He eventually played cavalrymen and cowboys. Many of these illustrations appeared regularly in the “Saturday Evening Post” and served as visual inspiration for his friend John Ford’s epic western films starring John Wayne.

Eric relates a very funny moment in his life as a young boy when he met John Wayne on the set of “Ft. Apache” in Monument Valley. Feel free to read this wonderful chapter about Eric and his relationship with his father.

I recently conversed with Eric about Storming of the Alamo.

Bob Reece: How did you first become interested in the Alamo story?

Eric von Schmidt: My father was a fine western illustrator as well as a great historical painter and I literally grew up in his studio. We took frequent sketching trips out west. My father had known Charlie Russell and studied with Maynard Dixon in San Francisco before he came east in 1923. My grandfather, quite a well-known figure in early California and a forty-niner knew Buffalo Bill and was seeped in western lore.

BR: What convinced you to do the painting, Storming of the Alamo?


EVS: While painting Here Fell Custer I got the idea of a quartette of major historical paintings, each representing a major historical event in the four geographic locations of America. HFC would be my northwestern work. I was living on the beach in Sarasota, Florida at the time and I chose Osceola for the southeast and for the northeastern region I chose Lexington Green 1775. Of course, for the southwest I chose STOA. The Alamo was a great, epic event.

BR: How did you decide what the subject matter of the painting would be?

EVS: I wanted to make the “grunts” the focal point and still show each of the men in gun positions as separate figures. I wanted to show the massed soldiers under Col. Juan Morales, the fourth southern column, firing over the low wall into the Texians defending the Chapel. They would have been the ones who eventually attacked the Alamo. Mexican soldiers would have flowed over the north wall and attacked the Long Barracks as well as the west wall. The moment in STOA is about 15 minutes before the battle is finished. 

BR: Why did you place Davy Crockett in the background of the painting?

EVS: In those last few moments of the battle I believe that Crockett would have been in the process of abandoning the palisade gun position and moving toward the chapel. He would have taken command of the position after the death of Capt Harrison and would have, “voted with his feet” the position being indefensible. I show Capt Harrison lying dead at the extreme bottom right of the painting. Crockett is seen just above the left shoulder of the central standing Mexican soldier attempting to bayonet the Texian defender who is fighting with a hunting knife. Crockett is running toward the Chapel and gesturing to his men still remaining at the gun position.

BR: How does one even begin to paint such a huge painting (10’ X 23’)?

EVS: I made frequent March trips to San Antonio. I visited John Wayne’s Alamo set at Bracketville, Texas watching the early dawn. I chose this place instead of the actual Alamo to minimize the glare from the cities many buildings. I darned near froze on some of those mornings. My brush water nearly froze in the cold breezes while I watched the clouds move slowly to the east.

One of my most thrilling experiences was singing my song, “The Alamo” after a battle re-enactment in Bracketville (which I called by then, “The Wayneamo”) in the cantina.

After the first trip I stretched the first roll of canvas, which was 8 X 20 feet in which I carefully drew in the entire Alamo compound. This took many days, and the result was breathless. On viewing it the next day I thought, “If this is Texas, where is all that sky?!” Downhearted, I called for a larger piece of canvas, which was 10 X 25 feet. The canvas roll arrived and I transferred the drawing.

I drew the background color, ground, the compound and the bigger sky all without figures – it was awesome, and kind of like, ‘what if you gave a war and nobody came?’ I made life-size maquette figures on brown paper and with masking tape shifted them around on the canvas until I got the surging movement I was looking for. 


The war nobody came to --

The empty landscape of the Alamo compound in Storming of the Alamo





Paper maquette figures


BR: Where did you paint STOA and how long did it take for you to complete it?


EVS: The painting took about four years. I began in Provo, Utah in the fall of 1983. There were two different locations in CT and I finished it at the Witte Museum in San Antonio in February and March 1986. That March, the descendants of Crockett were having a reunion in San Antonio and the whole bunch decided to visit the Witte Museum and found me high up on a nine foot ladder. They were very nice and liked the way I’d portrayed Davy.


BR: How do you even transport (move) something so big and yet fragile? Is it broken down in sections?


EVS: The canvas was rolled and moved from location to location unstretched. I built temporary walls to hang it with dozens of pushpins. For the final exhibition at the Witte Museum I built six frames, which pieced together spanned a full 10 X 23 feet. The canvas was moved a total of 12 times. It is now on loan to the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.


BR: What is your favorite painting of the Alamo?

EVS: Henry McArdle for its drama and surreal aspects.

BR: All your paintings convey movement, cause and effect. How do you do this?

EVS: My father’s influence. I called him “The Master of Movement.” I attempted to use the same principals he did with a more modern sensibility, and on a grand scale befitting its subject matter.

BR: What do you think of Billy Bob Thornton playing Crockett?

EVS: Billy Bob is one of my favorite actors. I’m absolutely thrilled he’s playing Crockett. I saw him interviewed on television recently – Great!!

BR: Do you plan to see “The Alamo” in theaters when it opens April 9, 2004?

EVS: I’ll be there!!

For the sesquicentennial of the Battle of the Alamo, Eric wrote a song entitled, “The Alamo.” The last three versus sing:


They charged ‘em once and they charged ‘em twice, at a fearful loss of men. There cannon ball had breached the wall and then they charged again.

As the bloody tide, it swept inside, it was fighting hand-to-hand. Bayonet with Bowie knife met, as each man took his stand.

And as they died, they cursed and they cried, the terrible dawn it rose. They’d come from all over Ameri-cay, they’d come from Mexico.

And when the fight was over and the funeral pyre did glow, Well, there’s no one here and there’s no one there, who’ll forget the Alamo.

Chorus / Take off your buckskin jackets and give your bones a rest. And, we’ll all remember The Alamo and the boys who stood the test.


Webmaster's Note: This interview with Eric von Schmidt first appeared on Nick Medrano's superb website which covers in-depth the making of the new film, "The Alamo."

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