Interview With Eric
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
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
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
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.
convinced you to do the painting, Storming of the Alamo?
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
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
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
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
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
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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