The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio

French Flavoring VI: The Fandango in Words and Paint

Theodore Gentilz and his wife were San Antonians from France who lived for a time in the mid-1800s in a house they owned at 318 North Flores. Gentilz was a painter, draftsman and engineer who’d been engaged in 1843 by Henry Castro to work as a promotional agent to encourage emigrants from the Alsace and Lorraine area of Europe to come to the Castro colony. He also served as a surveyor for the colony.

In his later years, Gentilz taught painting at Saint Mary’s College in San Antonio. His scenes of San Antonio life, especially that of the Mexicans, comprise a valuable pictorial record of that period. One of his best-known paintings is “Battle of the Alamo,” created around 1844, after years of research and interviewing eyewitnesses in the town. Several of his paintings are on the walls of the research library of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas next to the Alamo.

By a fortunate coincidence, the occasion inspiring one of his paintings of a festive party was captured in the words of a friend named Fretelliere. Auguste Fretelliere had come to San Antonio from France in 1844, enroute to join Castro’s colony, where he’d been told in Paris he would be able to “realize a fortune in a few years.” As things worked out, he found before too long that he was not cut out to be a farmer.

He wrote to his mother in France to send him money. She did and he returned to his homeland, plotting on the ship just how he would contrive to sell his Texas holdings to the man in Paris who had convinced him to seek his fortune. Fretelliere later wrote an account of his sojourn in Texas. It’s a fascinating story. In one episode he tells how he met the artist, Theodore Gentilz, and how the two of them decided to attend a fandango. His description of the fandango, which fascinated visitors to the town throughout much of San Antonio’s history, is worth reading. It has the rare value of being accompanied by an eyewitness painting by the artist who went with Fretellier to the fandango. Fretellier recalled their to visit the dance:

"We resolved, Theodore and I, to go to one, and toward ten o’clock of a certain evening we walked over to Military Plaza. The sound of the violin drew us to the spot where the fete was in full swing.

It was in a rather large room of an adobe house, earthen floored, lighted by six-tallow candles placed at equal distances from each other. At the back, a great chimney in which a fire of dry wood served to reheat the cafe, the tamales and enchiladas: opposite, some planks resting on frames, and covered with a cloth, formed a table on which cups and saucers were set out.

A Mexican woman in the forties, with black hair, dark even for her race, bright eyes, an extraordinary activity, above all with the most agile of tongues--such was Dona Andrea Candelaria, patroness of the fandango. At the upper end of the room, seated on a chair which had been placed on an empty box, was the music, which was a violin. That violinist had not issued from a conservatory, but on the whole he played in fairly good time. He was called Paulo, and being blind, played from memory. The airs, for the most part Mexican, were new to me.

The women were seated on benches placed on each side of the room. The costumes were very simple, dresses of light colored printed calico, with some ribbons. All were brunettes with complexions more or less fair, but generally they had magnificent black eyes which fascinated me. As for the men, they wore usually short jackets, wide-brimmed hats, and nearly all the Mexicans wore silk scarfs, red or blue or green, around their waists.

The dance which I liked best was called the quadrille. It is a waltz in four-time with a step crossed on very slow measure. The Mexicans are admirably graceful and supple. When the quadrille is finished, the cavalier accompanies his partner to the buffet, where they are served a cup of coffee and cakes. Then he conducts the young lady to her mother or to her chaperon to whom the girl delivers the cakes that she has taken care to reap at the buffet.

The mother puts them in her handkerchief, and if the girl is pretty and has not missed a quadrille, the mama carries away an assortment of cakes to last the family more than a week. Finally we went home, very content with our evening and promising ourselves to return another time."

In Gentilz, Artist of the Old Southwest, a book by Dorothy Steinbomer Kendall with archival research by Carmen Perry, you can see many of his paintings in color and read about his life. One portrays a scene like the night when he and Fretelliere took part in a fandango. According to the book, published in 1974 by the University of Texas Press in Austin, the house in Military Plaza where they danced the fandango was that of Spanish Governor Cordero, known as “the Governor’s Palace.” It had also served as military headquarters of the Presidio de San Antonio de Bexar, according to the book--and, during Gentilz’s lifetime, it was owned by the Ignacio Perez family. Knowing the story behind the little 12-inch by 9-inch Gentilz oil painting when we view it hanging on a wall at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Research Library beside the Alamo, brings much more to our minds than merely its title: Fandango: Spanish Dance, San Antonio.

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992

See:

Julia Nott Waugh, Castro-Ville and Henry Castro, Empresario (San Antonio: Standard, 1934).

Dorothy Steinbomer Kendall Gentilz, Artist of the Old Southwest, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974).


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