Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
June 22, 2002
'Custer's Last Fight' sales to benefit battle memorials
By ED KEMMICK
Of The Gazette Staff
"Custer's Last Fight," one of the most famous depictions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and one of the most famously inaccurate, has been seen by millions of people in the past 106 years. And undoubtedly many of them were seeing double at the time.
The lurid, melodramatic lithographs, which show a flowing-maned, red-scarved, saber-swinging Custer -- all inventions of the artist -- were distributed to saloons all over the country as advertisements for Budweiser beer.
Now, prints of one the nation's most famous soldiers will be sold to benefit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Peace Memorial, both on the grounds of the private Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen.
Chris Kortlander, owner of the nonprofit museum just southwest of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said it was a real coup to get permission from the Anheuser-Busch Co. to reprint the poster-size lithograph.
"This is the first time they've ever given permission for it to go outside of corporate hands," he said.
Kortlander said he opened talks with Anheuser-Busch more than a year ago, when he pitched the idea to William Vollmar, the brewer's corporate historian and senior manager.
"The credit really needs to go to him because he was the one who believed in what we were doing," Kortlander said.
"Custer's Last Fight" was originally painted on a wagon canvas by Cassilly Adams in 1884, eight years after the battle, but the painting from which the lithographs were made was created by F. Otto Becker in 1889.
In "Custer's List," published in 1969, Don Russell said, "No single event in United States history, or perhaps world history, has been the subject of more bad art and erroneous story than Custer's Last Stand."
Whatever its artistic merits, the Adams-Becker painting definitely contributed to erroneous notions of the battle. The dress of the Indian attackers could charitably be described as fanciful, the Indian village in the background is shown on the wrong side of the Little Bighorn River and some of the warriors appear to be carrying what Kortland described as "Zulu shields."
But it remains a striking, unforgettable depiction of the fight. Kortland said he has four different versions of the Anheuser-Busch lithograph, and "it's unbelievable how many people at our museum lock in on this thing."
Kortland had 2,000 copies of the print produced at Artcraft Printers in Billings, one of the first art reproductions to roll off Artcraft's new printing press. He said Anheuser-Busch shipped him a copy of the lithograph on CD-ROM. That print was compared with the copies in Kortlander's possession, with an eye toward creating a print whose colors were closest to the original work of art.
Artcraft then digitally enhanced the print, producing a much brighter, more colorful print than most people are accustomed to seeing, Kortlander said.
Proceeds from sales of the print will go toward maintaining the Peace Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which Kortlander said is the only such tomb in the country that is not on government property. It contains the remains of a 7th Cavalry trooper, uncovered in 1926 during the construction of Highway 87.
Last summer, to mark the 125th anniversary of the battle, the Peace Memorial honoring all of the battle's participants was dedicated on museum grounds.
That the painting is inaccurate is a historical reality. That the museum is selling it perpuates the historical misinformation. Will the museum include a disclaimer or an accurate representation of the battle with each print sold? Doubtful, I'd say.
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