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  • A Reevaluation of "The Face behind the Knife"
  • Joseph Musso (bio)

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Figure 1.

The known, circa 1832–33 portrait of Col. James Bowie purchased at the 2001 Butterfields Auction by the Texas State Preservation Board and the Texas Historical Commission. Photograph by Joseph Musso, 1984.

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In the January 2006 edition of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Mr. Don Arp Jr. came to some flawed conclusions in his article titled "The Face behind the Knife: A Study of the James Bowie Portrait Purchased by the Texas Historical Commission and the State Preservation Board." In his attempt to examine the origins of the known portrait of James Bowie, Mr. Arp explored the possibility that another portrait, supposedly signed by the noted American artist Alfred Jacob Miller, and now being offered for sale at the Alexander Gallery in New York City, is also a portrait [End Page 363] of James Bowie but depicts him later in life. Mr. Arp argues that this second portrait was done from descriptions provided by family and friends nine to ten months after Bowie's death in 1836. Regrettably, this latter portrait has been previously well documented as an "unsigned" portrait of Jim's older brother, Rezin. Rezin was two and a half years older than Jim. The known portrait of James Bowie, purchased by the Texas Historical Commission, shows a man in his mid thirties with hair. The documented, once unsigned portrait of Rezin, suggests a man in his mid to late thirties who was completely bald. Instead of comparing this latter portrait to a another known miniature portrait and also a larger charcoal portrait of Rezin, both of which show him to be completely bald, Mr. Arp used a computer program to remove the hair on the known portrait of Jim. In so doing Mr. Arp obviously hoped that there would be enough resemblance between the two portraits to advance his argument that this alleged Miller portrait is really an older depiction of Jim. At the same time, Mr. Arp also dismisses an article and the facts contained therein written by this author about the known portrait of James Bowie in the December 1982 Alamo News as being "under-researched."1

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Figure 2.

The known, circa 1838 miniature portrait of Col. Rezin Pleasants Bowie that was sold at the 2001 Butterfields Auction. Photograph by Joseph Musso, 1984.

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Figure 3.

The known, charcoal portrait of Col. Rezin Pleasants Bowie that was sold at the 2001 Butterfields Auction. Photograph by Joseph Musso, 1984.

However, when one considers that the known, unsigned portrait of James Bowie sold for $321,875.00 at the June 26, 2001, Butterfields Auction and two known, unsigned portraits of Rezin Bowie, an oil painted miniature on ivory and a larger charcoal portrait, sold for only $40,625.00 and $2,350.00 respectively at the same auction, the need for accuracy on this subject is imperative.2

Fortunately, history has provided enough evidence to prove to all concerned that this latter painting depicting a bald-headed man is not an older portrait of Jim, but rather a younger portrait of Rezin. Furthermore, it was documented as such, as far back as on Tuesday, July 12, 1836, when The New York Herald wrote a negative story on Rezin. Titled, "The Bowie Knife" and spelling his name phonetically as Reson, it accurately described this portrait, reading in part:

That kind of knife was the production of Reson Bowie, a brother of James—one of a desperate daredevil family, who have been the terror and the proverb of the whole South-west. Do you wish to see his likeness and the formidable, terrible weapon which [End Page 365] his bloodthirsty ingenuity contrived? Go to Bishop's barroom in New Orleans—there hangs his portrait. A brown and swarthy creature, with hard face, stern cold eye and firm lip, open bosom, and the blood-chilling knife in his clenched hand. If you wish to see the original, there he is at Donaldsonville, on the Mississippi, half blind and yet a terror, breathing...


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