The Tragic Tale of Artist John Mulvaney
As a local historian it always amazes me how rich Greenpoint history is and how much local history is forgotten. I wrote a book called Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past to reveal these stories, but I just came across another fascinating, but tragic local story. The tale of the great Irish born painter John Mulvany who once was the toast of the Chicago art world, but became homeless in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and ended his life by drowning himself in the East River.
Mulvany was born in Ireland in 1839 to the kind of poor tenant family that starved in the famine. He witnessed the horrors of the famine himself as a boy before arriving in New York City as a teen. He worked as a tow boy on the Erie Canal for a short time, but later was recognized by a Professor of the National Academy of Design in New York City where Mulvany enrolled in classes. During the Civil War he went to Washington where he worked for the iconic photographer Mathew Brady. Mulvany never served in the army but may have worked as a battle sketch artist for a Chicago newspaper. Mulvany later used his battle drawings to paint highly realistic and detailed Civil War paintings such as Sheridan’s Ride at Winchester, 1896 McPherson and Revenge, 1889, Battle of Shiloh and The Death of General Mulligan.
After the Civil War, Mulvany worked for Samuel B. Fassett, a leading photographer in Chicago who recognized his talent and helped him enter the art world., Samuel B. Coale, became a patron and helped Mulvany to travel abroad to study fine arts in Europe. The Europeans loved his work and he won the medal for the best painting student at an academy in Munich.
Upon his return to the United States Mulvany became one of the first great western artists. In 1876 he exhibited Preliminary Trial of a Horse thief in New York City, which sold for $5,000 and won him a national reputation as a Western painter. He painted other Western canvases including renowned works such as Lynch Law – Comrade’s Appeal 1877, Scouts of the Yellowstone, 1877 and Back to the Wigwam 1881.
In 1876 when news of General George Custer’s annihilation by the Sioux Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn reached the East, Mulvany immediately realized the artist who captured it on canvas would be famous, so he headed to Montana to paint it. Over the next four years, he made two trips to the battlefield to make it as realistic as possible. Mulvany finally completed his large masterpiece, the 11ftx20ft Custer’s Last Rally, 1881, to huge and lasting praise. Some seventeen years later, it was still on tour around America, drawing the crowds and making Mulvany a fortune. The reviews of his work bordered on the ecstatic.
Around 1882, Mulvany secured a commission from the Irish Club of Chicago to paint the Battle of Aughrim – a tragic defeat for the Irish in 1691. He began preliminary sketches in Ireland in 1882 and finished the piece in 1885. When the founder of the Irish National Land League, Michael Davitt, saw the Battle of Aughrim in July 1885, he wrote to Mulvany, declaring:
“You deserve the thanks of the entire Irish race; for in it you have not only upheld the artistic reputation of Ireland, but your genius has transferred to canvass [sic] the dauntless bravery of those ‘Who died, their land to save, On Aughrim’s slope.’” Davitt went on to commend Mulvany for teaching “subsequent generations the great lesson in a nation’s march to freedom which your brush now most eloquently enforces.”
Towards the end, Mulvany’s life began a downward spiral. He faded into obscurity. He set up a studio at 133 Greenpoint Avenue, but he could never recapture his previous success. He began to drink and ended up living above a loft in Greenpoint. In 1906 he was evicted for not paying the rent and his clothes became rags. He learned that he had throat cancer, which was then incurable and killed himself by throwing himself into the East River.