Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio

A Fandango in Words and Paint--Fretellier and Gentilz Record 1850s Night Life

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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.

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 Tejanos, 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 Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo.

By a fortunate coincidence, the occasion inspiring one of his paintings of a festive party was captured in the words of his friend Auguste Fretelliere who had come from France in 1844 after hearing in Paris that he would be able to “realize a fortune in a few years” at Castro’s Colony in Texas. As things worked out, he found out before too long that he was not cut out to be a farmer, and he had to write his mother in France to send him money. She did, and he set sail for home. On board ship, he plotted 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 a fascinating account of his sojourn in Texas. 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, a local treat which fascinated visitors, is worth reading. It has the rare value of being accompanied by a painting by Gentilz.

Fretellier recalled their evening:

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.

According to Dorothy Steinbomer Kendall’s Theodore Gentilz: Artist of the Old Southwest, (Austin:The University of Texas Press, 1974), the fandango visited that night by Fretellier and Gentilz took place in the old Spanish Governor’s Palace on Military Plaza.

See also: Julia Nott Waugh, Castro-Ville And Henry Castro Empresario (San Antonio: Standard Printing Co., 1934.)

-Frank W. Jennings, 1992