William Henry Huddle's "Old Slave" Painting:
Revelations About a Black Fiddler in Texas
©1998 Steve Green
Black fiddlers, judging from the frequency with which they are mentioned in 19th century travel accounts, town and county histories, newspaper clippings, diaries and journals, and other writings, were once a common feature on the American landscape. Indeed, photographs and quite a few artistic works survive depicting black fiddlers supplying music for social events. Genre paintings left to us by John Lewis Krimmel, Christian Mayr, E. Johnson, William Sidney Mount and others provide us with information with which to interpret and better understand the roles and practices of black fiddlers historically. So, too, do the numerous engravings that graced the pages of popular magazines like Harper’s, Scribner’s, Century, Munsey’s, and Leslie’s.But, as those who study the graphic arts know only too well, that which meets the eye is sometimes not what it appears to be. A case in point is the striking portrait of a black fiddler painted by 19th century Texas artist, William Henry Huddle (1847-1892).
The painting, entitled “Old Slave” is presently in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. But when I first encountered the image several years ago, I was not aware of its location, and to be truthful, I’ve not seen the actual painting even now. My wife at the time had been researching another topic at the Austin History Center when she found a small photograph in a folder in the Center’s vertical files on music. Knowing I would be interested to see it, she xeroxed it for me. Her casual annotation on the xerox was “copy of photo belonging to Mrs. Margaret Huddle Slaughter.” The image’s lifelike qualities (filtered through the poor resolution of the library’s xerox machine) allowed me to accept the “photo” reference easily, and I assumed that it was, in fact, a photograph. That the fiddler might have been “from Texas” was a reasonable thought given that the image seemed to have been a deliberate acquisition by the Texas History Center. The painting’s title “Old Slave” was in keeping with the image of the snowy haired man cradling his fiddle (no doubt a trusty friend of bygone days). Since I could learn no more at the moment, I filed the picture away with others like it that I’ve collected over the years. But it was not the last I was to see of it.
In 1996, I assumed the post of Library Director at the Institute of Texan Cultures, an educational museum and research facility affiliated with the University of Texas at San Antonio. Since the Institute’s founding in 1969, the library has evolved from being a closed institutional collection of research materials to its present status as a small public facility with an excellent collection of books on Texas history and cultural traditions— as well as a magnificent historic photograph collection. One day, while working there, I ran across the same “Old Slave” picture, this time in a book by Pauline Pinckney featuring paintings by Texas artists.1 The discovery was serendipitous but revealed that the work was in fact, a painting rather than a photograph as I had earlier assumed. The large format full-page reproduction in black & white revealed greater detail and confirmed the appealing character of the sitter. The enhanced clarity also showed that the painting’s subject wore a hoop earring. When I showed the picture to one of our regular researchers who was using the library to dig into his black family roots in Texas, he remarked on that small detail. Together we wondered offhandedly about it— whether it was common for slaves and/or ex-slaves to sport earrings, or whether the portrait’s subject perhaps had a seafaring background. We still don’t know.
From Pinckney’s book, I learned that the artist was William Henry Huddle and that the original work was an oil painting measuring 36” x 28”—not all that large really. At some point, later on, my passing interest in the picture was transformed when I discovered that a former Institute staff member—James Patrick Maguire— had been (before his untimely death a few years earlier) interested in Huddle as well. A recognized expert on Texas artists, Maguire had published definitive books on several of them. He was spoken of highly by longtime staff members, and miscellaneous tidbits in the “archives” confirmed that he had many friends in Europe and America with whom he corresponded about matters pertaining to 19th century painting and drawing in Texas. One day, I was organizing some of Maguire’s office and research files which had been relegated to the library, and I was startled— delighted—to discover a hefty folder containing notes about William Henry Huddle. Was I casually pursuing information about Huddle’s “Old Slave” painting, or was it stalking me?!
Texans reading this may shake their heads at my lack of awareness of Huddle because his work has been seen by every visitor to the Texas State Capitol where quite a few of his portraits of politicians and historic figures (commissioned by the Texas legislature in 1888) are hanging to this day. One of Huddle’s most famous paintings is a life-sized portrait of Sam Houston. Equally well-known is the artist’s depiction of the surrender of Santa Anna on the battlefield at San Jacinto, a painting that features Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and other Texas notables. This painting, I’ve since learned, is nothing less than a Texas icon.
In Patrick Maguire’s file, I found much biographical information about Huddle. The painter, it seems, had been more or less forgotten until the 1950s— that is, no one had systematically taken stock of his output before then. Inspite of his “famous” work in the State Capitol, by the time Maguire began researching Huddle’s life and work in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, there had been no major retrospective shows2 or substantial publications.3 Maguire somehow was led to make contact with Kelly Stevens, a noted Texas painter in his own right, and from him solicited information about Huddle. Stevens, as it turns out, had been one of the early champions of Huddle’s work and now appears to have been the primary savior of Huddle’s legacy. Stevens’ letters to Maguire tell about Huddle’s life but they also relate Stevens’ consternation about the deplorable storage conditions many of Huddle’s paintings had experienced in private hands in the intervening years since the artist’s death. Stevens had made it his personal mission to assemble what he could of Huddle’s work and had hopes of establishing a “Huddle Room” on an upper floor in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Delighted at finding another knowledgeable person interested in Texas painters, Stevens invited Maguire to his home in Austin to sift through the file he had compiled on Huddle. He also put Maguire in touch with a representative of the Hoblitzelle Foundation, an organization that had purchased eight Huddle paintings for the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts from Huddle’s daughter in 1958. The purchased lot included the painting “Old Slave” which was appraised in 1958 at $4,000, second in value only to Huddle’s portrait of Madame Candelaria4 (1891) which was valued at $5,000. Other paintings in the lot included a portrait of Davy Crockett (1889), a self-portrait (1885), and a painting of the Treaty Oak (1889) on the battleground at San Jacinto.
William Henry Huddle was originally from Virginia where he had served in the Confederate Cavalry under Generals Joe Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest. When the war ended, he relocated to Paris, Texas with his family where he worked in a gunsmithing shop owned by his father. Shortly thereafter, he went back to Virginia in order to study painting under a cousin, Flavius Fisher, and in 1874, Huddle attended the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1875, Huddle helped form the Art Students’ League. In 1876, following this stint in New York, Huddle moved back to Texas and lived in Austin for the remainder of his life. It was then that he began to associate with other members of Texas’ “nascent artistic community.” Over time, Huddle established a niche for himself as a painter of portraits of Texas political and military figures. In 1884, Huddle went to Austria to study for a year at the Art Academy of Munich where he hoped to improve his technique in order to fulfill a commission from the Texas Legislature for some portraits of Texas politicians. These were slated for display in the new Capitol building which was then under construction.
It is interesting that Huddle’s livelihood and reputation have always been tied to his work portraying important historical figures like Sam Houston, General Santa Anna, David Crockett, General Thomas J. Rusk, and Madame Candelaria. The “Old Slave” is decidedly not in this category, yet the subject has much dignity and grace about him. I wanted to learn who this fiddler was, and read through all the materials in Maguire’s file on Huddle in hopes of uncovering a clue. Finally, I stumbled on one small item.
A typed letter from Kelly Stevens was submitted to the Hoblitzelle Foundation’s representative, Frank Scofield, in 1958 in order to verify the values of each painting purchased in the lot from Huddle’s daughter. This included an itemized list of the paintings and their respective values. Attached was a separate list, presumably prepared by Stevens, which contained a list of other known works by Huddle, as well as those included in the purchase. Brief descriptive remarks are attached to some items, including the “Old Slave,” and I quote the following, letting the reader make of it what he or she will:
“For years the artist had searched for such a model. One day on Sixth Street, Austin, Texas, he saw Mose and asked him to pose for him. Mose consented but when he was asked to hold a violin for the portrait he refused, saying it was the instrument of the devil. The artist told him that angels in heaven played them, also the lyre, and harp, and Mose said, ‘Boss give me that fiddle’.”
1 Pinckney, Pauline A. Painting in Texas: The Nineteenth Century. Published for the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth by the University of Texas Press, Austin, 1967.
2 Apparently, Jerry Bywaters, a former director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, had included some Huddle works in an exhibition called “A Century of Art and Life in Texas,” and there was also a show of Huddle’s paintings in the State Capitol building at some point.
3 A small booklet, “W. H. Huddle: Texas Artist” by Dorothy Renick was given by Kelly Stevens to Patrick Maguire in the 1950s. The date of this work is not known to me, but it discusses Huddle in the context of his paintings at the Texas capitol and does not mention the paintings that were obtained by the Hoblitzelle Foundation in the 1980s.
4 Madame Candelaria was a survivor of the battle at the Alamo. Huddle painted her portrait when she was 107 years old.