History | October 4, 2020 4:59 pm

How a Painting of George Armstrong Custer Became Ubiquitous in American Bars

The story involves a then-young beer company named Anheuser-Busch

George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer, in photographic form.
Library of Congress

What happens when a historically inaccurate depiction of a much-discussed moment from a bygone century is enlisted in the cause of selling more beer? You’d get something like the peculiar second life of Cassilly Adams’s painting Custer’s Last Fight — something writer Craig Johnson referred to as “the most viewed piece of artwork in the history of America.”

Johnson — known best for his Longmire series of mystery novels — wrote about the long history of Adams’s painting for CrimeReads. “I have seen reproductions of the painting hanging in every bar and saloon in the West,” Johnson writes — but notes that his own interest in it was sparked by reading A River Runs Through It author Norman MacLean’s work on the subject of Custer.

The painting — 16.5 feet wide and 9.5 feet tall — began its life as a means for its artist to make money: he traveled the country with it and charged admission. From there, it ended up on the wall of a bar in St. Louis, where it was subsequently purchased by Adolphus Busch — aka the “Busch” half of Anheuser-Busch.

The painting became a lithograph, with additional verbiage touting the beer company. Johnson notes that Custer’s widow Libby Custer had been looking to rehabilitate her late husband’s name, and saw this as an ideal way to do so. Admittedly, there’s also the matter of Custer himself avoiding alcohol — but, as you’ll read in Johnson’s article, that’s only one of many historical inaccuracies associated with this work.

The initial print run of the lithographs resulted in 15,000 copies being made; all told, over a million were printed. Hence the ubiquity of this particular image — even when the history it depicted was far from accurate.

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