Chromolithograph entitled "Custer's Last Fight"


Custer’s Last Fight is considered one of if not the most reproduced lithographs of the late 19th and most of the 20th Centuries with over a million copies distributed to saloons, dining establishments, barber shops, and eventually collectors. This print was used as an advertising promotion for Budweiser Beer by Anheuser Busch. It is chromolithograph on paper mounted on cardboard that is based on the Cassilly Adams painting which in turn was inspired by the narrative of the battle by a scout named Curley, along with probably the success of the John Mulvany 1881 painting Custer’s Last Fight .

The Cassilly Adams painting that this print copied was started about 1885 and completed in 1888 in Adams studio using soldiers and Native Americans as models. The completed work toured the Midwest before being sold to John Ferber, who owned a saloon in St Louis, Missouri. Adolphus Busch acquired the painting along with a saloon when the owner couldn't pay his bills for the sum of $35,000 in 1892. Eager to have the original copied for advertising, he commissioned the Milwaukee Lithographic Engraving Company. The artist, F. Otto Becker, produced a 24X40 inch painting which was a modified copy of the Cassilly Adams painting. After the Becker copy was made, the original Adams painting was presented to the 7th Cavalry it was moved about until it was damaged. It was then sent to the WPA in Boston for restoration in the 1930's and when returned, it hung in the officer's club at Fort Bliss, Texas until it was destroyed by fire on June 13, 1946.

The 1892 Becker painting was created only to be divided into six sections and given to the lithographers to create the color plates used to produce the 1896 chromolithographic advertising prints. The Becker painting was then pieced back together and restored to hang in the St. Louis board room of Anheuser-Busch, Incorporated.

Based on photographs of the Adams original, the Becker version is more topographically correct but also more graphically explicit as an interpretation of the very violent event. The color print depicts the battle between General Custer's troops and Indian warriors at Little Big Horn. Custer is featured at center waving a saber and dressed in a fringed buckskin. The remaining cavalry officers, except for Custer's brother Tom, are dressed in military uniform. Indians are armed with scalping knives, tomahawks, clubs, spears, and rifles. The dead appear in foreground, with several identified in the bottom margin. The background depicts a peaceful landscape, though there is a hint of the thousands of Indians that significantly outnumbered Custer and his men. Custer's medals and banners are depicted in lower left margin. In the lower right margin is an image of a Native American on horseback posing beside the granite monument for the 7th US Cavalry that was erected in 1881 at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Text below the image advertises the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Assn.

There have been numerous commentaries on the historic inaccuracies of the depiction which was designed for maximum emotional impact. These inaccuracies range from the length of Custer’s hair which is depicted as long and flowing, when he had days prior had it cut short, to the dress or undress of the depicted Indians and the types of weapons. The artist also included a long red cravat around Custer’s neck, which was mentioned by Libby Custer in her book on her husband. The visual impact of the print version has also been the subject of several notable comments, including this print’s collector, Harry T. Peters, who mentioned in America on Stone that “The detail is endless and extremely lurid, and anyone who saw this print when young will not forget it.” Clearly the artist was successful in gaining reactions to the piece, if not always favorable ones.

Versions of the advertising print vary according to margin size and legend content, but the first run edition resulted in 15,000 prints. According to America on Stone the museum’s copy should have a signature of "O. Becker" in the right lower corner, but it does not. Nor does it have the caption "Taken from the Artist's Sketches. The Original Painting by Cassilly Adams." Supposedly that would indicate it as the earliest edition. Other versions of this print also give a fuller list of those depicted on the image and some further advertise Anheuser Busch as "The World's Largest Brewery" and "Home of Budweiser." However, based on the collector’s purchasing and the condition of the print it would have been produced between 1896 and 1920. There have since been 18 subsequent editions totaling more than a million copies according to Anheuser-Busch. Copies continued to be issued until the 1970's when the cultural awareness of Native Americans began to affect the marketability of the print. New copies of the print are still mass produced and marketed.

Cassilly Adams (1843-1921) was an engraver and painter. He learned to paint at the Boston Academy of Arts and the Cincinnati Art School and later worked in Indiana, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri.

F. Otto Becker (1854-1945) was a German American Artist employed by the Milwaukee Lithographic and Engraving Company. He was active in Milwaukee and St. Louis from 1881 until his death, producing lithographs for board games as well as prints. He is best known for his work on Custer's Last Fight.

Milwaukee Lithographing was founded by German-American Henry Seifert in 1852. In the 1870's, he partnered with Henry and Julius Gugler to form the Milwaukee Lithographic & Engraving Company. Augustus Koenig, a friend of Adolphus Busch, became involved with the company in the late 1880's. The company continued to operate until 1920.

Date Made: 1896-1920

Depicted: Custer, Thomas WardRain In The FaceCooke, William W.Yates, George W.Reed, Harry ArmstrongReily, William Van W.Smith, Algernon E.Custer, George ArmstrongCopyright Holder: Busch, AdolphusCommissioned By: Anheuser-Busch Companies, IncorporatedOriginator: Adams, CassilyMaker: Milwaukee Lithographic & Engraving CompanyArtist: Becker, F. Otto

Location: Currently not on view

Place Made: United States: Wisconsin, MilwaukeeDepicted: United States: Montana, Little Bighorn

Depicted: Battle ScenesFirearmsHorsesHorseback RidingIndiansNative AmericansSubject: TheaterUniforms, MilitaryChronology: 1870-1879SettlementWestRelated Event: Battle of the Little Bighorn


See more items in: Home and Community Life: Domestic Life, Advertising, Art, Domestic Furnishings


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Harry T. Peters "America on Stone" Lithography Collection

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: DL.60.2600Catalog Number: 60.2600Accession Number: 228146

Object Name: ChromolithographObject Type: Chromolithograph

Physical Description: paper (overall material)ink (overall material)Measurements: image: 24 in x 38 in; 60.96 cm x 96.52 cm


Record Id: nmah_326129

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