Have You Seen This Man?

I’ve received an inquiry from a reader who’s looking for info to help identify the watercolor painting at left (click the image for a larger view). Here’s the background info he was able to provide. Any ideas?

I own a wonderful and early watercolor from the Mexican War era. Before I purchased it, the seller had sent a scan of it to Dr. Bruce Winders with the Alamo Museum, and to him, it looked representative of the Mexican War era. After I found more information independently on my own about the original owner, it reinforced that statement as I determined that the original owner, Mr. John Robert Matcek, who died in Temple, Texas in 1952 collected of all things — Mexican War books and paintings – bought and sold them – and it was in the possession of his descendants where I purchased it from the seller at the estate auction.

I have been corresponding with several Mexican War authors and experts and I received one response below from Donald S. Frazier, Ph.D who participated in the recent PBS program about the Mexican War:

He said “My best guess is that he is an officer of volunteers in Northern Mexico, Monterrey or Saltillo. I wonder if he isn’t among Jack Hays’ Rangers of the 1st Texas Mounted Rifles? Perhaps John Coffee Hays, Ben McCulloch or Sam Walker (Samuel Hamilton Walker)?”

“Could be central Mexico, but it just struck me as being circa Buena Vista. Looks like a cavalry issue sabre, a bowie knife, and a paterson colt. All of which I think Hays carried. I googled his image, and I could see a potential match there . . . Try looking at the tintype of Samuel Walker on the Wikipedia page for Texas Rangers . . . ”

I also googled and found an image of Ben McCulloch who could be a possibility – although most images of men in later years shows them with beards so the face is not entirely shown and of course the men are older too in the available photographs.

The Mexican War era watercolor appears to have been dry mounted on a hard stock board at some time in the past – perhaps by Matcek and the original watercolor has evidence of it being in a frame at one time as there is a ghost image along the edges where the inside edge of the frame met the picture image – approximately 3/4 inch wide.

The watercolor is in remarkable condition, and I have tried below to write as best a description as possible, given my limited knowledge of the subject:

The original watercolor is 8 X 10 in size – dry mounted on hard stock paper – there is evidence of old tape on the back of the hard stock paper when the tape was used to mount it to its backing when framed at one time, but the tape does not affect the original watercolor. I certainly hope the dry mounting has not vastly diminished its value but seems to have kept it stablized and prevented edge tears.

The man appears to be a handsome chap and his apparrel and weapons give him the appearance of having some wealth or prominence – and perhaps he is a volunteer soldier as he is in civilian clothing – there is great detail shown in his face – blue eyes, full thick, arched brown eyebrows and hair about the length down to his ear lobes; also he has a prominent straight nose and protruding chin which is somewhat distinctive and pointed.

The chap in the watercolor is wearing a black, wide brimmed hat – which covers his hairline – he is wearing a white shirt with a collar featuring a tied black bow tie; he is wearing a dark bluish shirt with a V neck with long sleeves and it is tucked into his trousers; he is wearing dark brown trousers with a straight leg and black boots – trousers are out over the boot tops. He is wearing a belt with a distinctive buckle which appears to be a round gold dollar type with a smaller inner circle (see below) – tucked behind his belt is a long knife (Bowie type?) in a scabbard placed on the right side and a pistol in a holster on the left which looks like it is made of buckskin with fringe along the bottom edge. Dr. Frazier viewed a scan, not the original, and observed that the sabre looked “cavalry issue” and the pistol was a “paterson colt.” On his left side also is an empty scabbard for his sword or sabre – he is standing and leaning on his sabre – right arm is straight – and the sabre point rests on the ground – his left arm is bent and his hand is resting on his side. Part of the handle of the scabre is visible as I can see some ribbing in the handle which is gold in color. Behind him is a log stockade which is waist high. I have searched and found mention of these “works” in Seminole wars and during the Civil War – described as a palmetto (use of a palm tree logs in South Carolina); log fortifications; log emplacements; log works; log breastworks, etc. but could find nothing specifically about them being used during the Mexican War. On either side of the stockade is a century plant (left side of the watercolor) and perhaps pampas grass or palm frawns on the right. In the background – right side of watercolor – is a monument type pointed rock and further back are some mountains which are the backdrop of the watercolor with blue sky above. I have also searched the terrain of Mexico to find any views of the distinctive, pointed rock mountain in the background — I have even contacted rock climbing groups who have conquered those found in Mexico but no luck so far. Dr. Frazier offered that the locale seemed to represent “Northern Mexico, Monterrey or Saltillo” and then offered could be “central Mexico . . .as being circa Buena Vista.”

I have tried to view as many paintings and images of the Mexican War on the internet and in books – there is a tremendouse number – and found lots of century plants in central Mexico depicted and of course, pampas grass was original to Brazil, but not sure when it was transplanted to northern America.

I too have wondered about the logs (palm tree logs?) for the stockade – surely a good stand of trees would have been needed to be at hand to create the log stockade. If not palm trees would that indicate an area more to the north – California or Southern New Mexico perhaps? And we must keep in mind too that the artist may have “interpreted” the site and what was painted was not an actual specific locale?

I was wondering if the watercolor could be identified with one of early artists who were painting during this time period? Perhaps it could be determined an attribution to a particular artist by the characteristis and quality of the watercolor? I was even wondering if traveling artists sometimes had part of a watercolor already completed and finished it at the site for each particular subject? But it seems well executed during a specific time period so I am not sure. It would appear that only a wealthy man or officer would be able to afford or have the inclination to engage an artist to paint such a watercolor. Perhaps you have some thoughts about that or have you seen or heard about any others similar to this one?

And there is another interesting fact – which makes it not only an interesting and intriguing watercolor certainly due to the subject matter, but the watercolor was actually found “sandwiched” between a 1900′s picture of a married couple and the old frame backing of it by the estate seller. The estate seller actually bought the picture of the couple in its gilt frame and had planned to reuse it for another picture which he has subsequently now sold – BUT when he removed the picture of the couple from the gilt frame, the watercolor was found “hidden” behind it. Of course it would be wonderful to find the identity of the artist and/or the subject’s name. Dr Frazier was also kind enough to offer some possible identities: “My best guess is that he is an officer of volunteers …. I wonder if he isn’t among Jack Hays’ Rangers of the 1st Texas Mounted Rifles? Perhaps John Coffee Hays, Ben McCulloch or Sam Walker (Samuel Hamilton Walker)? Looks like a cavalry issue sabre, a bowie knife, and a paterson colt. All of which I think Hays carried. I googled his image, and I could see a potential match there . . . Try looking at the tintype of Samuel Walker on the Wikipedia page for Texas Rangers . . . ”

I also googled and found an image of Ben McCulloch later in life – who also could be a possibility – although most images of men in later years shows them with beards so it does not provide a good view of their faces, and of course, the men are older too even if they did not display such “fashionable facial hair – beards”, etc.

Comments (2) to “Have You Seen This Man?”

  1. My first reaction would be to take a look at/contact the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, and to start looking at some of the institutions/photo collections holding Texas history and Mexican war photos that have been digitized. Contacting an experienced curator or archivist at some of these places might yield better info more quickly, too.

    http://www.texashistory.com/links.html
    http://www.palaceofthegovernors.org/index
    http://econtent.unm.edu/cdm4/indexpg.php
    http://www.drtl.org/

    I’m short on time this week, but this should be a good starting point. Good luck.

  2. I\’m no expert, but I don\’t see anything that ties this painting to the Mexican War. It\’s also pure conjecture that he might be one of Jack Hays\’ rangers due to the limited information on the subject and the un-ranger-like qualities of his clothing. The cut of his outfit, smallness of his tie and the typical two-piece navy belt buckle seem to indicate that he was a volunteer seaman around the Civil War period. I also don\’t believe anyone can see enough of the pistol in the holster to state definitively that weapon is a Colt Patterson. Sorry.