Texas Senate Chamber

Texas Senate Chamber

The Texas Capitol Building remains the USA’s largest statehouse and stands 14 feet taller than its counterpart in Washington, D.C. Situated on a hill around which the city of Austin was designed, the impressive structure is a must-see for every visitor. The Capitol brims with marbles and canvases which together offer an inspiring overview of Texas heritage. Of the structure’s many rooms, the Senate Chamber contains perhaps the most elegant art collection.

Paintings line the chamber’s walls. Depicting influential individuals or significant events, these frames put human faces on facts of Texas’ momentous history. Almost all of these people got Texas cities, counties, or both named for them. Here’s a sampling:

Behind the Lieutenant Governor’s desk is one of the few known life portraits of Stephen F. Austin, the city’s namesake. In the early 1820s, Austin brought the first and greatest number of Americans to Mexican Texas to be colonists. As busy as he was attending to his people in the years before and during the Texas Revolution, he could spare little time for a formal portrait. Nonetheless, while in New Orleans in 1836 to raise support for the revolutionary cause, he sat for this image and gave it to his sister, Emily. Austin died later that year.

Not all who rebelled against Mexico during the Texas Revolution were Anglo-Americans. Prominent among revolutionary Tejanos was Lorenzo de Zavala, a physician, journalist, and scholar who was the fledgling republic’s first ad interim vice president. He was one of a few signatories to the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, who had had previous diplomatic, legislative, ministerial, and executive experience. Residing just across Buffalo Bayou from the San Jacinto Battlefield, de Zavala died in November of 1836. His granddaughter, Adina, gained fame in 1905 when she helped save the Alamo from demolition.

Although Texas stood alone in its struggle for independence, many bands of volunteers from the American South came to aid the Texians. One such group was the Georgia Battalion from the central reaches of that state, numbering some 220 men. With them, they carried a flag hand-made by 18-year-old Johanna Troutman of Knoxville. The single blue star stood on a white background with the words “Texas and Liberty” beneath. Miss Troutman lived, married, and died in Georgia, but her remains were brought to the State Cemetery in Austin in 1913. A Pompeo Coppini statue marks Troutman’s second grave. For her banner needling, she’s often called the “Betsy Ross of Texas.”

Two enormous works hang on the Chamber’s back wall. Both executed by Ireland-born H. A. McArdle, they depict the most memorable battles of the Texas Revolution. The artist spent several decades in painstaking research for the paintings, collecting artifacts, interviewing witnesses, and visiting sites.

Standing seven by 12 feet in size, Dawn at the Alamo is a visual allegory of one of history’s most valiant defeats. Though architecturally accurate with respect to the fort’s general layout, the scene takes liberties in showing the main heroes, David Crockett, James Bowie, and William B. Travis, together in the same frame at the same moment in the early hours of March 6, 1836. In truth, these defenders were not near each other during the battle, but they certainly died fighting for the same grand ideals. The point here is to tell a symbolic story, conveying timeless principles of bravery and sacrifice. A single star peeping though the dense clouds above the chaos, along with the first rays of sunrise, portend eventual victory.

The slightly larger Battle of San Jacinto offers a broad landscape of the 18-minute mêlée on the afternoon of April 21, only six weeks after the Alamo’s fall. Clearly visible in the foreground are both Mexican and Texian warriors, including officers Filisola, Castrillón, and Almonte with Houston, Lamar, and Rusk. Towards the rear, General-President Santa Anna, disguised in civilian attire, is fleeing on horseback. Subtitled “Retributive Justice,” the painting implies the comeuppance of good over evil. The artist completed this work before Dawn at the Alamo so that the few yet-living veterans of the battle could enjoy the painting.

Alas, though an excellent artist, McArdle lacked self-promotional skills and was never paid for these canvasses. His heirs received a small check from the state 19 years after his death.

In baggy trousers and a white vest is Mirabeau B. Lamar, second of but four presidents of the Republic of Texas. The Texas Congress had decided that the new capital city would be named for Austin, but it was Lamar’s influence that fixed the location in the hamlet of Waterloo. He had visited the area in 1838 while still vice president and, like so many more folks to come, had fallen in love with the locale. During his administration, the new Republic began its educational system. When Lamar wasn’t riding his horse or founding colleges of his own, he was a romantic painter and poet, which activities presaged the city of Austin’s reputation as an artistic community. He designed the full-legged pants he wears in the painting to give more freedom and comfort while riding, a fashion he expected would spread. It didn’t, but probably gave the city its first weird slant.

Thomas Jefferson Rusk came to Texas in 1834 in hot pursuit of his embezzling Georgia business partners. He never caught them, but instead got caught up in the Texas Revolution. Rusk served as the Republic’s inspector general, San Jacinto commander, secretary of war, congressman, and supreme court chief justice. When Texas became a state, Rusk and Sam Houston were elected to the US Senate.

Yet another veteran of San Jacinto was Robert McAlpin Williamson, the legendary Three-Legged Willie. An attack of “white fever” in his teens left Willie’s right leg bent at the knee and unusable, so he got around on a wooden peg leg, which became his third. In addition to his soldiery, Williamson was supreme court judge, representative, senator, and author.

Two portraits claim their subjects to be last the survivors of San Jacinto. Alfonzo Steele (1817 – 1911) fought and was wounded in the battle, and Sam Houston rode Steele’s horse after Houston’s own had been killed. William P. Zuber (1820 – 1913) had been in the rear guard during the engagement. As an elderly man, Zuber served as a tour guide in the Senate Chamber.

Albert Sidney Johnston, a West Point graduate who enlisted in the Texas army as a private, went on to become adjutant general and Secretary of War for the Texas Republic. He also served distinguishably in the Mexican War and was offered a commission in the US Army in 1861. He, however, chose for fellow Southerners and was perhaps the Confederacy’s greatest general. His death during the battle of Shiloh was a severe blow to the Lost Cause.

The portrait of Jefferson Davis hangs to the left of the central podium. He had been Secretary of War for the US just prior to the Civil War. The only Confederate president, Davis narrowly missed hanging for treason after the war, but was highly revered in the South throughout his life.

Lyndon B. Johnson never served in the Texas Senate, getting elected first to the US Congress in 1937, then as vice-president and president. His grandfather, however, was an unsuccessful political candidate in the turn-of-the-20th-century Populist Party, and his father served in the Texas House.

Barbara Jordan was the first black woman to be Senator in Texas, 1967. Her main issues were voter registration and wage law. In 1972, she became the first Southern black woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Jordan’s fame expanded during the Watergate hearings for her staunch support of the US Constitution. The city’s airport terminal and several schools are named for the esteemed orator.

Other paintings show more modern figures, such as Henry B. González and A. M. Aiken, but their stories will be told elsewhere.