Henry Arthur McArdle, painter, was born in Belfast, Ireland, on June 9, 1836, of French and Irish parents. He began the study of art under the French artist Sauveur. At fourteen, his parents having died, he immigrated to America with an aunt, and they settled in Baltimore, Maryland. The 1860 U.S. Federal Census shows McArdle's given name as Henry but, the 1880 census when he lived in Texas shows his name as Harry—the name he preferred in his later years. McArdle studied with David A. Woodward at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts, and in 1860 won the Peabody Prize. During the Civil War he was a draftsman for the Confederate Navy, and later made topographical maps for Gen. Robert E. Lee. After the war McArdle married Jennie Smith of Albemarle County, Virginia, and they eventually settled in Independence, Texas, where he taught art at Baylor Female College for many years.
In Texas McArdle worked with men of Hood's Texas Brigade on the historical canvas Lee at the Wilderness (1869–70) and became interested in Texas history. William Carey Crane, the president of Baylor University, recommended McArdle's artistic abilities to the governor of Texas, and the artist subsequently won a commission to paint a full-length portrait of Jefferson Davis (1890) for the Capitol. On the removal of Baylor University and Baylor Female College from Independence, McArdle set up a studio in San Antonio. There, with the support of patron James T. DeShields, he devoted his entire time to painting several portraits of Sam Houston, other notables, and stirring battle scenes.
Among the most renowned of his historical canvases are the twin pieces Dawn at the Alamo (1876–1905) and The Battle of San Jacinto (completed 1898), which hang in the Senate Chamber in the Texas Capitol. These are extremely conscientious interpretations as to detail of topography, uniforms, equipment, and personal likeness. Although the paintings were checked for error by survivors, relatives, and students of Texas history, they are far from objective records. McArdle made changes to dramatize the battles, representing James Bowie in the thick of fighting at the Alamo, for example, rather than on his deathbed indoors. He further sensationalized the conflict at the Alamo by depicting the Texans in heroic gestures and bathing them in light, in contrast representing the Mexicans soldiers as little more than caricatures. Other widely known examples of McArdle's work include a large portrait of Sam Houston (1902) on display in DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University and The Settlement of Austin's Colony (1875), which hangs in the hall of the House of Representatives in the Texas Capitol.
After his first wife's death in 1871, McArdle married Isophene Lacy Dunnington of West Virginia, with whom he had a daughter and four sons. In later years he suffered from financial hardships, alleviated somewhat by commissions from his patron, DeShields. McArdle died in San Antonio on February 16, 1908. Nineteen years after his death, the legislature of Texas paid his heirs $25,000 for Dawn at the Alamo and The Battle of San Jacinto. In addition to his paintings at the Texas Capital and SMU, examples of McArdle's work may be found in the Texas State Library in Austin, Baylor University in Waco, and Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Belton.