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Custer Lives—and Dies—Again So Joe Grandee Can Paint the Old West as It Really Was

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Custer’s last stand apparently wasn’t. Now, 100 years later and 1,000 miles from the Little Bighorn, the Seventh Cavalry was in trouble again under a scorching Southwest sun. But this time the bodies came from a Dallas mode agency, and overseeing the carnage was not Sitting Bull but Joe Grandee, a Texas painter who restages scenes of the Old West down to the smallest detail in the name of artistic authenticity.

“I’m not just interested in painting a pretty picture with a Western setting,” explains the 47-year-old artist. “I hope a person looking at my paintings, though he may not know anything about Western history, will be able to see truth and reality.”

For his series on Gen. George Custer, Grandee has spent 13 years in research, and the last 10 at the canvas. “I’ve walked every step of the battle and sought out the leading experts about contradictions in the actual battle,” says Grandee. “Only recently was I ready to do the final painting.”

Westerns may be out of style on TV and in the movies, but Grandee manages to lasso enough patrons to make himself a latter-day (albeit smaller caliber) Remington. Johnny Carson and Ronald Reagan, among other celebrities, own Grandee oils, which sell for upwards of $20,000. His rendition of the famous U.S. Borax 20 Mule Team is on loan to Oklahoma’s Cowboy Hall of Fame. Recently he sold a painting of the Battle of Gettysburg to Steve Wynn, owner of Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget casino, who then commissioned a gambling scene for $25,000.

Grandee, the son of rooming house owners in south Dallas, grew up next door to a military armory and drew a comic strip about cavalry soldiers at age 11. A correspondence course led to art school, where young Grandee learned the techniques of the old masters (“Keep your lights solid and your shadows transparent”). Grandee sold his first painting to True West magazine for $75, and over the years has done some 40 of their covers.

During his career Grandee has accumulated a staggering array of Western memorabilia which he stores in several rooms of his ranch-style home and two rented warehouses in Arlington, Texas. His artifacts include some 1,000 authentic costumes (his prize possession is a mint-condition 1890s Kiowa shirt), 135 saddles and enough rifles, knives, warbonnets, arrows, hatchets, spurs and sabers to constitute a menace to the republic if they fell into the wrong hands. Says Grandee: “I made it a rule never to paint anything unless I had the authentic article in front of me.” Assisting Joe is his green-eyed wife, Murlene, often cast as a model for such frontier females as Cattle Kate, the only woman ever hanged for rustling. Murlene also serves as wardrobe mistress, accountant and business manager.

On occasion Grandee will not only set up a scene, but join in the action himself to get a better perspective. He once dressed as an Indian and spent the better part of a day astride a pony bareback while spearing a bale of hay representing a buffalo. For A Break on the Trail, which depicts a getaway after a bank holdup, he was among the actors as they galloped out of town, guns blazing. “The more involved I am,” he explains, “the more realistic it becomes to me.” That explains why so many characters in his paintings bear a faint resemblance to Joe Grandee.

For the artist, it is the only way. “I am appalled at how most people accept the so-called historical movies as factual,” Grandee says with the air of a man who has lived through it all. “I have yet to see one come even close to depicting the real West.”