Villa Finale’s Texas Artists: Mary Bonner

In part two of our Texas Artists series, Villa Finale’s Visitor Services Coordinator, Lisa Stewart gives readers an introduction to printmaker, Mary Anita Bonner whose beautiful prints can be found throughout the museum’s rear hallway staircase. It may sound strange for these attractive works to be displayed in a rear staircase, but this is the area of the house Walter Mathis used from day-to-day so it only makes sense for them to be located where he would have been able to admire them the most.

Enjoy part two of this series, and do make sure you visit us soon to get a better of look at these timeless prints. You really do need to see them in person to truly appreciate the artistry!

Lisa Stewart

Mary Anita Bonner (1887 – 1935)

Mary Bonner was born in Bastrop, Louisiana. She and her brother and sister spent their formative years on the family plantation. In 1897, six years after her father’s death, her widowed mother and two siblings moved to San Antonio. The city was considered a “health resort” in the late nineteenth century due to its relatively dry climate and its reputation for being a place with cultural opportunities. The family was drawn to the San Antonio River and acequias which reminded them of the bayou where they had lived.

San Antonio, ca. 1900. This is how the city looked when Mary and her family moved here. (From Pinterest)

Mary began formal art training at about age 16, and while it is not clear if she studied with the father, Robert, or the son, Julian, she did get training from the Onderdonks. It is believed, however, that her first art teacher was Robert Onderdonk. 

1922 was a significant year in Mary’s evolution as an artist. While spending time in Woodstock, New York, a mecca for artists, she saw an exhibition of lithographs that interested and inspired her so much that she decided to study printmaking. While on this trip, she found the nearest printmaker who was 4 miles away. Mary hiked the trip to visit him, and was, at first disappointed that he said he did not want to teach her lithography. He told her he didn’t think she was strong enough to handle the often very heavy materials and tools for lithography.

However, he recommended pursuing etching instead, and thus began her career. At this time, Mary Bonner was totally committed as an artist by the urging of the lithographer she met in Woodstock. She devoted herself to her art and although she created beautiful work in many mediums, she was most prolific as a printmaker.

Artists at work, Woodstock (from

Mary lived mostly in San Antonio, but also traveled with family to Europe. The artistic climate there was most likely very appealing to her. Although Robert Onderdonk’s daughter Eleanor, also an artist, had established a career in the arts as Curator of the Witte from 1927 to 1958, the Onderdonk’s overall experiences as struggling artists in Texas made it evident to Mary that there was only minimal encouragement and little stimulation for artists in Texas. The University of Texas, for example, had no art department. 

Along with her experiences in 1922 in Woodstock, and her enthusiasm for the artistic opportunities in Europe, Mary decided to set sail to France. She was quite aware that it would be easier for a woman to study art in Europe than in the United States at this time. Once settled in her small apartment in Paris, she went from studio to studio in search of a printmaker she wanted to be her mentor and teacher. She chose printmaker Edouard Leon, whom she felt offered the kind of instruction she sought.

Edouard Leon with Mary Bonner (

Mary became known mostly for her etchings of Texas cowboys, cowgirls, and ranch life. Her medium expanded to watercolors as well. She was the only noted early 20th century woman popularizing Texas subjects and she received international recognition for a piece called “Texas,” which was a group of three etchings based on Texas ranch life. In the early-mid 1920s, her work was exhibited in salons in Paris, and among others, the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum, and the Print Room of the New York Public Library, and certainly, in San Antonio. One of her signature details was using the landscape for borders around her subject matter, rather than as background. If you look carefully in these borders, you will find rattlesnakes, centipedes, cactus, horned frogs, bats, and more.

Edouard Leon, Mary’s mentor, along with his wife, considered Mary as part of their family and in 1927 accompanied her to San Antonio after a whirlwind of exhibiting and lecturing in several cities in the northeast. Edouard was exhibiting at the Witte – a solo exhibition of his etchings – and was also to serve as one of three jurors for the second Texas Wildflower Exhibition. While they were in San Antonio together, Mary and Edouard managed to spend most of their time painting and sketching in the Spanish missions and other scenic places in and around the city.

From there they went to Houston where Mary’s etchings were on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts and following that, to New Orleans and Philadelphia. By this time, some reviews of their exhibitions suggested that Mary Bonner’s talent had surpassed her master.

As Mary’s mother got older and ill, she felt it was time to return to San Antonio. Mary got very involved in plights and causes of artists in San Antonio, working hard to raise funds not only for art and artists, the museums and art leagues, but also conservation efforts and the Conservation Society of San Antonio.

Part of Villa Finale’s rear staircase where many of Bonner’s works are displayed (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Sadly, Mary died in San Antonio at the young age of 48 from a blood clot, while recovering from a surgery for ulcers. As a memorial in 1936, Eleanor Onderdonk, who was the curator at the Witte Museum, displayed a retrospective exhibition of Mary’s work which generated enough enthusiasm in printmaking to create the Mary Bonner Graphic Arts Club in 1937. 

To see how you can make your own etching at home à la Mary Bonner, watch Villa Finale’s “Let’s Start with Art!” here:

Collecting History: Phrenology and the Case of Major Mitchell

(CONTENT WARNING: The following blog post contains descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.)

Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology (from

In 1834, a nine-year old boy in Durham, Maine named Major Mitchell committed a horrific crime on his eight-year old classmate, David Crawford. On a Monday when classes were not in session, Major had somehow convinced David to go with him to a pasture, even after Major had been taunting the younger boy with names. His intention, Major admitted, was to kill David. Why? He didn’t know.

Although the initial fight was broken up by a neighbor, while on his way home, David was again attacked on the road by Major who got him into the woods where he was beaten again (for a more detailed account of this very violent ordeal, click here). The attack lasted several hours until Major suddenly decided he didn’t want to be caught by the neighbor who had broken up the original fight, so he let David go.

The Fowler brothers: Lorenzo Niles and Orson Squire popularized phrenology in the United States in the 1830s and were responsible for the “head reading craze.” (from and

A Portland lawyer, literary critic, and avid advocate for phrenology named John Neal involved himself in Major’s defense. Phrenologists believed phrenology was “the only science of the mind” capable of explaining a person’s capability – or character – by the enhanced portions of the brain; they called these sections of the brain “organs.” As the skull takes shape around the brain, its surface becomes an index of a person’s physiological tendencies, according to phrenologists, via “bumps.” It should be noted, phrenologists only looked to confirm their own theories – a form of “confirmation bias” – and explained away any contradictions.

Scientist Isaac Ray. Ray founded forensic psychiatry in America and was a founding member of the American Psychiatric Association in 1844 (from

Neal befriended the boy and sought the help of scientist Isaac Ray, who was then interested in phrenology, and others who took phrenological measurements of Major’s head. In his writings, Ray revealed he could clearly see Neal had an interest in advancing phrenology as a credible science through the Major Mitchell case. In fact, Neal had read Major’s account of the attack – which remained consistent, even when told verbally – but considered it unreliable based on Major’s detached demeanor when repeating it; to counter this, he looked for physical reasons to explain why Major had such violent tendencies. Perhaps young Major had received an injury to the head at some point?

Nancy Plummer, Major’s mother confirmed that at only one week old, the boy had taken a fall off a high chest of drawers causing swelling to his head (why a one-week old baby was put atop of a high chest is another mystery). Ms Plummer blamed this event on her son’s aggressive behavior as he grew up. Neal deduced: if a small child is not responsible for falling on its head, it is not responsible for the consequences that follow; and if the attack on David was a consequence of Major’s head injury, then the boy couldn’t be legally responsible.

A phrenological sketch of Major Mitchell (from

For the plea hearing, Neal had casts made of Major and his mother’s head to compare the differences: normal versus flawed. Isaac Ray and other phrenology experts testified, although their testimonies and measurements contradicted each others’ findings. The only link between all of them was the “organ” of the brain thought to be responsible for “destructiveness” located above the ears. In Major’s skull, they said, this area was quite accentuated.

Although Major Mitchell himself chose to plead guilty at the hearing, the plea was not accepted due to Neal’s self-appointment as his counsel. Earlier, he had advised Major not to plead guilty. As the trial moved forward, Neal prepared his case based on using phrenology for the first time in court by proving injury to the head. However, Major’s mother refused to be involved and doctors, who were not experts in phrenology, provided the expert medical testimony about the two boys. Neal was so determined to make his case using phrenology that he discounted other reasons for Major’s uncontrollably violent actions. For example, could the boy have had some congenital defect? Were there other disturbances?

Phrenology was used to support stereotypes about certain types of people (from Country Roads Magazine).

In the end, the judge refused to allow phrenological testimony based on the study being mere “theories” that had no place in front of a jury. The judge instructed the jury to discount any information they had heard based on phrenology and instead focus on the following: at the time of the assault, did Major Mitchell know right from wrong? The jury determined he did. Major Mitchell was found guilty and sentenced to nine years hard labor.

The case of Major Mitchell is fascinating. It marked the first time in United States history that a defendant’s attorney sought leniency based on there being a defect with a client’s brain. Or, another way of looking at it, the first time a form of “psychiatric” testimony was used in court, even if it was the pseudoscience of phrenology.

Phrenologists used sketches like these to reinforce racial stereotypes (from Crania America).

By the beginning of the 20th century, phrenology started losing support due to its inconsistent and weak methods of proving findings, as well as its use by certain classes of people to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes about humans who were not Caucasians. In today’s courts, we see more and more psychology-based forensic evidence brought before juries to determine whether a defendant is mentally fit to stand trial. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the Major Mitchell case were brought to court today. You think he would have stood a better chance?

Speaking of Major Mitchell, accounts have him turning up in his hometown around 1870, married and working as a farm laborer. There is no record to indicate whether the areas above his ears settled down or not.

If you would like more information on how psychiatry is used in legal cases, including the Mitchell case, visit the website of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law here:

Click below for a fun short film from 1936 about phrenology by British Pathe called “Just Bumps.” The title alone should entice you!

Below is our introductory video to phrenology featuring Villa Finale’s own original Fowler phrenology head.

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month & The Influence of Studio Ghibli

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month when the contributions of these cultures in the United States are celebrated and recognized. I grew up on the West Coast so I had many friends who were Asian or Pacific Islander. I recall going to a friend’s house for dinner one evening, she is Filipino, and having the most delicious home-made egg rolls. Another friend who was Samoan introduced me to beautiful puletasi, the traditional two-piece dresses worn by women. She used to wear these with a big, colorful blossom in her long, curly hair. I’ll never forget it!

Samoan puletasi (from

Of course, there are also contributions in music and dance. I would often go to China Town with my family for Chinese New Year to hear the music and watch the dragon dance, where dancers control a long dragon figure using poles. The dance is supposed to bring good luck throughout the year: the longer the dragon, the better the luck!

Chinese dragon (from

There are also a lot of Asian and Pacific Islander contributions to the television and film industry. Growing up in the 1970s, martial arts shows and films were a big deal thanks to the influence of Bruce Lee. You could always hear the sounds of a kung fu or karate movie coming from our house! As I got older I discovered something wonderful while channel surfing (there were a lot of channels aimed at Asian audiences in California): Japanimation. Japanimation, now known as “anime,” is the animation originating from Japan. I watched television shows like Captain Harlock: Space Pirate and my favorite animated show of all time, Robotech: The Macross Saga. Anime is distinct for its detailed art, animation that focuses less on movement, and its compelling storylines which rival any live-action film. One anime studio that has had a strong influence on art, storytelling, and movie-making is Studio Ghibli. To tell our readers more about this fascinating studio is Villa Finale Museum Attendant, Doug Daye.

Captain Harlock: Space Pirate (from and Robotech: The Macross Saga (from

Studio Ghibli Films and World War II

Doug Daye

With classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli has produced some of the greatest whimsical Japanese animated films of all time! Started by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985, the success of Studio Ghibli has been compared to Disney (who actually became a distributor of Studio Ghibli in 1996). Though Studio Ghibli is known for its imaginative films, taking place in worlds of fantasy, there are a few select films that are centered around reality and the impact of World War II. Both Miyazaki and Takahata grew up in Japan during World War II and witnessed the effect the war had on the country firsthand. Their past experiences and the monumental events that occurred around that time influenced these films.

Graveyard of the Fireflies

Graveyard of the Fireflies (from

Originally based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, this film tells the story of two orphaned siblings whose town is bombed during the war. They are left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of the destruction left from the bombing. 

The film is also influenced by director Takhata’s own traumatic experience. In 1945, when Takhata was nine years old, the United States dropped a bomb that destroyed his home town. He and his family survived by hiding in an air raid shelter in their garden. Though Graveyard of the Fireflies is Studio Ghibli’s most heart-breaking film, it has very beautiful, heartfelt scenes and received high critical acclaim. I give props to anyone who can make it through this movie without tearing up!!

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures)

Directed by Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is a sentimental film loosely based on the real life of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane. The film follows the life of Jiro from a young boy with a desire to design planes, to becoming a respected plane engineer, to marrying his beautiful but sickly wife, Naoko. The Japanese Navy actually did use the Zero plane during World War II. Miyazaki himself grew up with exposure to airplane engineering. His father ran an airplane company that manufactured parts for Horikoshi’s Zero planes. Miyazaki weaves historical fact and fiction together to produce a visually stunning, emotional film. 

From Up On Poppy Hill

From Up On Poppy Hill (from

Scripted by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro Myazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill is a tenderhearted coming of age film. The story focuses on Umi, a teenage girl who helps run her family’s boarding house, and Shun, an ambitious member of the school newspaper club, as they decide to clean up the old, sullied Latin Quarter Clubhouse along with their classmates. Together, they try to save the clubhouse from being demolished by the school’s chairman. The film is set in Yokohama, Japan before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The country grapples with trying to find its identity in a post World War II era. As shown throughout the movie, the youth revolts and student activism were increased at this time. The young people in the film value the country’s past and advocate to preserve it. From Up On Poppy Hill is also mentioned in “15 Awesome Preservation Themed Movies” on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website!

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (from

Also directed by Miyazki, Porco Rosso is about a former World War I pilot for the Italian Air Force who is turned by a mysterious curse into a pig whose name is “Porco.” Now a bounty hunter preparing to battle with pirates and their American ace, Porco obtains the help of Fio, a young spirited mechanic, and his loving friend Gina. The film is set between World War I and World War II in the Italian city of Milan in the Adriatic Sea east coast. At this time, Fascism began to overtake Italy. Many citizens began to join the movement due to anger from the turmoil caused by the great economic depression in the country. Miyazaki originally was inspired to do this film because of his deep love for aircrafts and engineering. As mentioned before, his father made parts for aircrafts during World War II. Though this is the most lighthearted film on the list, Miyazaki still mixes in the reality of the time period with fantasy. 

Find out more about Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan!! Click here: Studio Ghibli Museum

To keep up to date with the annual Asian Festival held at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures, click here.

CSI: Napoleon

Much has been speculated about the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Was he murdered? Did he die of natural causes? In her latest blog post, Villa Finale Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor explores this “mysterious” topic.

Sara Taylor

Napoleon in Exile

To understand the circumstances of the death we need to look at the last few years of Napoleon’s life.

After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the British and their allies decided that they would not return Napoleon to St. Elba, from where he had escaped from captivity. While they would have preferred that he had died in battle or had been executed after trial by the French authorities, they decided that a far more removed location was best suited for the deposed emperor. St. Helena, a British controlled island off the coast of Africa would be the new home of Napoleon. Napoleon arrived in the fall of 1815 with several followers and aides-de-camp and lived at Briars Pavilion.

His life on the island was quiet and honestly rather boring. Where on St. Elba he was given the governance of the island and kept busy by reforming the islands militia and infrastructure, on St. Helena he was isolated and any news from the continent was tightly controlled. He wasn’t allowed to move about the island without the presence of a British officer which he greatly resented and so just restricted himself to the grounds of his newly renovated home of Longwood House.

For a man who had been so active in politics and in military affairs for the majority of his life, who had an almost manic work ethic, this new sedentary life must have been a maddeningly boring and no doubt contributed to his health.

Marie Louise of Austria: “Napoleon? Who dat?” (from

 On top of this, his second wife, Maire-Louise of Austria, had chosen not to follow her husband into exile and did not communicate with him, instead taking up with the Austrian officer who was supposed to watch over her (and who she secretly married before Napoleon’s death). His son, Napoleon Francis, who now lived in Vienna with the title Duke of Reichstadt, also did not correspond with his father.

A New Opponent

In 1816, the new governor of St. Helena arrived, Sir Hudson Lowe, and Napoleon had a new opponent.

Lowe and Napoleon did not get along from the moment they met and they avoided meeting if at all possible.

In most Bonapartist depictions of Napoleon’s exile, Lowe is portrayed as the evil jailor and his own actions and personality does not help matters. Described as lacking tact, Lowe’s enforcement of restrictions and sometimes petty rules further led to friction between the two men.

In 1816 when rumors were floating around of a possible rescue attempt by Bonapartists in the US, Lowe tightened security around Napoleon. Lowe also refused to call Napoleon by his imperial titles, and even restricted firewood to Longwood House so that Napoleon and his followers and servants were reduced to burning furniture for warmth. Even the representatives of Austria and France on the island thought Lowe’s behavior was awful.

Longwood House itself also did not help Napoleon. One scholar has said “it was as insalubrious place for a person with ill health as you can get.”

Napoleon in his Garden at Longwood. “What do I plant now?”

Longwood House was a large rambling villa, and while St. Helena has a very good climate, Napoleon, his doctors, and his followers often complained that the house, was damp, cold, and windswept. Napoleon’s doctor, Barry O’Meara, said that the house was mold infested and it had a rat problem.

An Ill Emperor

Toward the end of 1817, Napoleon began to show signs of illness. It was rumored that he had been diagnosed with hepatitis, which does not have the same medical implications it does today. Hepatitis at the time was a catch all term for gastric issues or gastric distress.

But these new signs greatly troubled Napoleon’s doctor at their intensity.

In June 1818, in a letter, Dr. Barry O’Meara described having found Napoleon “laboring under a considerable degree of fever…great pain in his right side, rending headache, general anxiety and oppression, skin hot and dry, his pulse quickened.” O’Meara repeatedly asked for Napoleon’s residence to be moved.

Later that year, in The Times Newspaper in London, O’Meara accused Lowe of trying to hasten Napoleon’s death. As a result, he was fired by Lowe, which did nothing to improve his image with those sympathetic to Napoleon.

Sir Hudson Lowe: so not the life of the party (from

His successor, Dr. John Stokoe, also found Napoleon’s living conditions to be too harsh and also petitioned them to changed. In August 1819 he was court martialed on ten counts of giving the ailing emperor “favored treatment” and for spreading rumors that Governor Lowe wanted to end Napoleon’s life.

For Napoleon himself, he complained of stomach pain, nausea, night sweats, and fever. He complained of headaches, his legs were weak, and he was sensitive to bright light. He lost weight and when he wasn’t constipated he was assailed with diarrhea. These symptoms continued for the next two years.

In July 1820, Napoleon “complained of nausea after eating, a severe pain in his upper abdomen, fever and pain in his legs.” By December the pain in his abdomen was much more acute. He barely could keep any food down.

In February 1821, Napoleon’s health took a dive for the worst.

In March, he was confined to bed.

In April, he dictated his last will “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Siene, in the midst of the French people who I have loved so much…I die before my time, killed by the English Oligarchy and its hired assassins.”

Finally, on May 5th he spoke a few broken phrases, “France, the army, head of the army, Josephine.” He died at 5:49pm that evening.

His wish to be buried on the banks of the Siene was ignored and he was buried in the Valley of Willows on St. Helena at the orders of Lowe. Buried in five caskets, one of mahogany, one of ebony, two made of lead, and the final one of tin.

His tombstone bearing no name, just “Ci Git” – French for “Here Lies.”

What was the Cause?

There are two leading theories as to what killed Napoleon, depending on whose camp you follow: stomach cancer or arsenic poisoning. Both are compelling arguments but which one is more likely?

(Image from

Stomach cancer is the official cause of death and judging from the autopsy report there is little speculation as to why so many agree that it was likely stomach cancer that caused Napoleon’s death. During the autopsy conducted May 6th by no fewer than seven doctors with sixteen in attendance, Dr. Francis Antommarchi, who had served as Napoleon’s personal physician, found an ulcer in the stomach causing a perforation of the stomach wall, “sufficient to allow for the passage of the little finger.” And that the whole interior of the stomach was “a mass of cancerous disease,” and “the liver was obstructed and of unusual size.”

Dr. Antommarchi did not sign the official autopsy report. Though he did find sign the report sent to Napoleon’s family on May 8th.

It is worth noting that Napoleon’s grandfather, father, brother, and three sisters all died due to stomach cancer. And Napoleon himself alternated between believing he was poisoned or suffering from the same disease that had killed his father and grandfather.

What’s your Poison?

The case for arsenic poisoning is flimsier, but makes for a better story, framing our emperor as a tragic hero.

In 1822, our old friend Dr. O’Meara published a book claiming that Napoleon had been killed at the hands of the British via arsenic poisoning.   

Arsenic was used in a variety of ways in the 19th century and its poisonous nature was not fully understood.  Arsenic and chalk were mixed together in the later Victorian era and was eaten by women to improve their complexion. Arsenic was also used as a wood preservative and winemakers would use it to dry their barrels and basins.

Beauty worth dying for! (from

Copper and arsenic were mixed to create a beautiful green color called Scheele’s Green or Paris Green, and which was used as wallpaper color, dyes for clothing and candles, and even for candies and cakes. Newspapers and journals of the day tell stories of children and ladies wasting away in bright green rooms and dresses.

Reportedly the rooms at Longwood House were painted a bright green color, which was Napoleon’s favorite color. This could have been the source of arsenic poisoning.

St. Helena also had a well-known rat infestation like many populated areas at the time. There was even a story of a rat jumping out of Napoleon’s hat after dinner one evening.

Arsenic in high concentrations was used at rat poison and as your go-to standard poison for people, but in small doses it had been used for medical purposes in the 18th 19th and even into the 20th century, though there doesn’t seem to be any reports from Napoleon’s doctors of the use of arsenic as one of his medical treatments.

Symptoms can vary depending on level of exposure or how much is swallowed or inhaled and some of the symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning are, just to name a few:

  • Chronic headache and vision issues
  • Anemia
  • Fever
  • Change in fingernail pigmentation
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Drowsiness
  • Chills
  • Thickening skin and warts.
  • Changes in behavior such as aggression or depression.

Many of these symptoms Napoleon suffered from while in exile.

Rat poison was reportedly used extensively in the small vegetable garden that Napoleon created and worked in at Longwood and used to provide fresh vegetables for his table. Toward the end of his life, if he was feeling well he would sit and read in the garden. Another possible source of arsenic poisoning!

When Napoleon’s grave was opened in 1840, prior to his body’s return and eventual reburial at Les Invalides in Paris, his body was found to be in remarkably well preserved with very little evidence of decay. Arsenic is known to have preservative properties, but being sealed in five different coffins might have also had something to do with how well he was preserved.

Physical empirical evidence is also lacking in this regard though. The publication of Napoleon’s manservant’s diaries led to a series of tests being performed on several hair samples. At least seven hair samples purportedly Napoleon’s have undergone testing for levels of arsenic.


One hair sample did contain high levels of inorganic arsenic (rat poison) while the rest only showed natural levels of arsenic. It is also worth noting that none of the hair strands were 100% verifiably from Napoleon as no DNA testing was conducted and without exhuming Napoleon’s remains, we might never know.

So, it seems more likely that if arsenic is to blame for Napoleon’s death, it is due to it being in his environment rather than due to any deliberate attempt by Napoleon’s British captors to kill him.


What killed Napoleon? Was it a deliberate arsenic poisoning, or stomach cancer, or a combination of factors that led to his death? We may never really know.

The lack of exercise and boredom most certainly affected his overall health and mental well-being and probably played a hand in exacerbating his poor health. His medical history of abdominal pain and a family history of cancer presents a strong case for the official cause of death being stomach cancer. But being surrounded by and eating food from his arsenic-laced garden doesn’t clear up the case very much either.

Could the combination of the stomach cancer and being surrounded by and eating food contaminated by arsenic have hastened an already slow and painful end for the man who was once the Master of Europe?

What do you think?


CORSO, PHILIP F., and THOMAS HINDMARSH. “Further Scientific Evidence of the Non-poisonous Death of Napoleon.” Science Progress (1933- ) 79, no. 2 (1996): 89-96. Accessed April 24, 2021.

Historical Films to Watch (2020-2021) by Doug Daye

With the 93rd annual Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, April 25th, Doug Daye is back to give us his suggestions for interesting films to watch with a historic theme. I can smell the popcorn already!

Doug Daye

Hey history buffs! If you love movies, especially movies about history, you are in for a treat! In honor of the film award season (Academy Awards, Golden Globes, etc.), here is a list of a few historical films that have recently come out that complement the National Trust’s theme of “Telling the Full Story.” These movies are all available on streaming services, so look them up, grab some popcorn, and enjoy!

United States Vs Billie Holiday

United States Vs Billie Holiday is a biographical film following singer Billie Holiday in the peak of her career. She is targeted by the government in an effort to boost the “War on Drugs” initiative, with the overall goal to force her to stop singing the controversial song “Strange Fruit.” However, Billie Holiday refuses to let them silence her voice.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 

This film centers around the trial of seven defendants who faced charges of conspiracy to enact a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What was meant to be a peaceful protest ignited into a violent uprising against police officers. The trial of the seven men, who were leaders of various advocacy groups, became one of the notorious trials in history and sparked outrage across the country.


The 1970 Miss World Competition, hosted by comedian Bob Hope in London, England is underway. It is the most watched event on television at the time, however it takes place in the midst of the women’s liberation movement. A group of protesters interrupt the broadcast arguing that the pageant objectifies women, which results in an uproar.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is the biographical story of how Bill O’Neal was sent by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell and J Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and betray Party Chairman Fred Hampton as he rose to power. O’Neal suffers an internal struggle as he gains the trust of Hampton, but has to hide the fact that he is working with the government to destroy him.

Villa Finale’s Texas Artists: The Onderdonks

The Villa Finale collection includes some notable Texas artists, including Robert Julian and his father Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, and Mary Bonner.  In fact, Mary Bonner was, early in her studies as an artist, a student of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk.

Lisa Stewart, practicing artist and Villa Finale’s Visitor Services Coordinator, offers a quick introduction to the work of Julian Onderdonk and his father Julian. Be sure to check out Lisa’s accompanying art project here (YouTube link) and stay tuned in May for a continuation of this blog series, with a focus next on the life and work of Mary Bonner.

Lisa Stewart

Robert Julian Onderdonk (1882 – 1922)

“Julian”, as he was referred, was raised in San Antonio, Texas, and was often called “the father of Texas painting.” He received his initial art training from his father, Robert, but eventually studied with other artists, such as Texas artist Verner Moore White, also a San Antonian.

Julian was inspired while taking long walks, visiting patrons’ homes and ranches along the river, and on his drives into the Texas Hill Country. His interest in botany and wildflowers is evident in his paintings and detailed drawings. Viewers are invited into his landscapes with many variables such as different placements of the horizon line, changing seasons, and times of day.

His love of the Hill Country is expressed through his art, and his words.

“There are several distinctive features of this country…the cacti in bloom, in the sunlight; the blue-bonnet, as it blooms in masses on the hillsides; the gulf clouds that roll by here in the mornings; the head waters of the rivers where the color is wonderful in varying lights of the day; the live oak trees; the wide reaches of rolling hills; and the brush country in winter.  These subjects are my dreams, my aims, my work…an every-changing symphony of color…”  (From Villa Finale’s Collection)

Julian Onderdonk was truly not only a painter and naturalist, but a poet in the way he expressed himself.

“The dazzling beauty of these roads impels me to park my car in the dust, and heat, and work.  The same roads are wonderful in color at late afternoon and at twilight.”

The Onderdonks managed on very little income, but at the age of only 19, with the help of a generous neighbor, Julian was able to leave Texas to study in New York with renowned American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase.

He spent the summer of 1901 taking outdoor painting classes at Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art on Long Island, New York. After his summer of study, Julian moved to New York City to try and make a living as an “en plein air” artist. He met his wife there, Gertrude Shipman, and had daughter Adrienne.

Portrait of Julian Onderdonk by William Merritt Chase (The Witte Museum)

By 1906 Julian was splitting his time between New York and San Antonio. He spent a lot of time studying other Naturalist artists in New York City museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He exhibited in both cities, most notably in New York City at the National Academy of Design.

Finally, in 1909, Julian returned to San Antonio permanently with his wife Gertrude and their two children Adrienne and Robert where, according to reviewers, he produced his best work.

Unfortunately, at the peak of his success, Julian died of intestinal obstruction and appendicitis. However, Julian’s work, and that of his father, Robert, can be seen in museums beyond San Antonio, and even in The Oval Office under George W. Bush, who, during his presidency, decorated its interior with 3 of his paintings.

Julian Onderdonk’s art studio now resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum.

Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852 – 1917)

Julian’s father, Robert Onderdonk, was a long-time art teacher who formed art associations and leagues to support and promote other artists.

Robert Onderdonk studied at the National Academy of Design and Art Students League, both in New York City. One of his teachers, William Merritt Chase, founded the Chase School of Art, which later became Parsons School of Design.

“Buffalo Hunt” by Robert Onderdonk (from Wikimedi Commons)

Robert was from Maryland and had a friend, Robert Negley, who had already moved to Texas (in 1878) to become a rancher. Robert hoped to make portraits of rich Texans to earn enough money to travel to Europe but didn’t accomplish that. He stayed in Texas for 38 years and was an important influence for artists in Texas.

Robert Onderdonk founded the Van Dyck Club which was an art association for women painters.  It later became the San Antonio Arts League. His daughter Eleanor was an important member and organizer. The Arts League still thrives today, supporting local artists with exhibitions and classes.  

Robert Onderdonk (from WikiArt)

Robert Onderdonk wasn’t ambitious, nor was he careful in signing his work. Despite painting hundreds of portraits, he never earned a suitable living.  For example, he only charged $3 per month for studio classes. He did a little better went he went to Dallas (1889) when he was offered $100 per month to teach.

Several of the first art clubs in San Antonio were organized by Robert which helped to develop state and nationwide interest in Texas art and gave Texas and American artists places to display and the opportunity to win awards.

Robert was known to always carry a wood panel (such as a cigar box top) so he could paint small scenes wherever he went. His most famous work was “Fall of the Alamo,” painted in 1901 – a large commission by well know Texas historian, James T. DeShields. He also provided the illustrations for the autobiography of Texas gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin, known as “the fastest gun in the west, east, north & south,” published in 1896.

Check out this art tutorial video about landscapes featuring our own Lisa Stewart!

Walls Do Talk! The Snapshot

There was a time during the pandemic when Villa Finale had to close its doors to the public. We took advantage of the lack of foot traffic to begin some much-needed maintenance work. If you visit us now, you can still see some of that going on. While I was deep cleaning throughout the house, Buildings and Grounds Manager, Orlando Cortinas was busy overseeing painting, restoration of porches, and cracks in walls.

One morning while I was busy working upstairs, Orlando called me down to the basement where he had been busy in the crawlspace looking at foundation issues: he had found something interesting and wanted me to look at it. Last time this happened a few years ago during the re-wiring of the house, electricians found old Coca-Cola cans and old wallpaper inside the home’s walls. I was excited to see what he’d found, but nothing prepared me for the great discovery!

Orlando in Villa Finale’s basement crawlspace, summer 2020.

Tucked between the limestone blocks was what looked like, at first, a piece of paper which turned out to be a photograph of a young woman. Thankfully Orlando was careful to pull it out without so much as a slight tear. After the initial surprise and careful cleaning, I began to wonder, who was this woman and why had she been in our walls for nearly 100 years? We were all eager to share this find with the public but not until we knew more about the mysterious gal: now we do!

Capturing the moment of the find!

Thanks to a source who asked to remain anonymous, we discovered her name was Matilda Fausse. Our source’s grandmother had shared a room with Matilda in the late teens when the property, then at 407 King William, was under the control of the War Service Board; the Board would rent out rooms in the house to visiting female relatives of soldiers stationed at the nearby Arsenal, now HEB headquarters.

Ad for rooms for rent at what is now Villa Finale, San Antonio Express News, 1920s.

Matilda was apparently quite the character, always the life of the party and a progressive woman for the time. In fact, after working odd jobs and saving her money, Matilda insisted on paying to have a private telephone line installed in her room, the only one in the house. According to our source’s grandmother, Matilda was more than happy to let all the girls in the house use her telephone to call their men on base, and vice versa. When a girl’s beau would call, he knew “Telephone Tilly,” as Matilda became to be known, would connect them to their favorite gal. The telephone was the only way a girl’s beloved would be allowed “in the house” and Telephone Tilly was more than happy to make “virtual dates” happen! Allegedly, the photo we found was taken at the height of Tilly’s popularity with her fellow boarders.

But what started out as innocent fun and games crossed the line. Soon, Telephone Tilly was playing match-maker for half of the young women in San Antonio via the telephone. Calls were coming in day and night for weeks: 1:30am, RING! 3:00am, RING! 3:45am, RING! Sleep was non-existent for the rest of the girls who had had more than enough of Tilly. Everyone was walking around with huge dark circles under their eyes! They wanted sleep, desperately! One chilly fall evening in the middle of the night, Telephone Tilly – and yes, her phone, too – were escorted out of the house and onto King William Street never to be heard from again.

Photograph being added to our archives.

Exhausted, the female boarders took Tilly’s photograph and stuffed it in the basement crawlspace where not even the telephone in the picture could ever keep them from sleeping again … until our discovery in the summer of 2020, that is. No one knows what happened to Matilda “Telephone Tilly” Fausse. Some say she started her own party line. Others think she opened a coffee house / telephone bar east of New Braunfels called “Hello, Is It Bean You’re Looking For?” Whatever happened to our gal, next time you hear a phone ring think of Telephone Tilly, and on behalf of Villa Finale, do have a HAPPY APRIL FOOLS DAY!

Anonymous girl on telephone Photoshopped on Stein Photography mat, San Antonio. Source: Pinterest

Thank you to Orlando Cortinas for going into the basement crawlspace for the sake of this April Fools Day blog post!

Celebrating Children’s Literature Illustrators

Today, March 2nd, is Read Across America Day! In celebration of this wonderful activity, Doug is back with a blog post celebrating his favorite illustrators of children’s books. Do enjoy!

Doug Daye

As a child I loved books! I really liked to listen to story books being read to me by my parents, my grandparents, teachers, or the local librarians during story time programs at the local library. I grew up watching shows like “Reading Rainbow” and listening to story books on cassette tape which encouraged my love for books. I felt like story books fueled my imagination and transported me to another world! Here’s a look at a few children’s book artists that I remember from my childhood.

Eric Carle (1929 – )

Eric Carle (from

Eric Carle grew up in difficult circumstances during WWII. During the war, his German immigrant family moved from New York back to Germany where his father was drafted into the military and was held captive as a prisoner for many years. Despite adversity, Carle went on to study graphic art at the Academy of Visual Art in Stuttgart, Germany. He returned to New York City to become a graphic artist for the New York Times in 1952, until being drafted during the Korean War. Upon returning from the war, he returned to his position at the Times, then left to become a freelance artist in 1963. He met children’s book author Bill Martin who encouraged him to pursue book illustration. Together they published their first collaboration project Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? which became a bestseller. Despite their many collaborations together Carle still wrote and illustrated his own books, 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was his most famous book.

Carole Byard (1941 – 2017)

Carole Byard (from

After attending high school in New Jersey, Carol Byard went on to study art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and the Phoenix School of Art of Design in New York City during the late 1950s to early 1960s. She was inspired by the Black Arts Movement which began as a result of the Black Power Movement, which called for Black culture to be reflected across music, poetry, theater, and other art media. Byard used her artistic talents to create projects that fit within that goal. She contributed her artistic skills to illustrations for many children’s books including Dreams of Africa (1978) and Cornrows (1980). She was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award for both books. Her other works include Working Cotton and The Black Snowman.

Ezra Jack Keats (1916 – 1983)

Ezra Jack Keats (from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation)

Growing up in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, NY, Ezra was artistically gifted as a child. His family was very poor and suffered hardship during the Great Depression. Though his mother was supportive, his father wanted him to focus on more practical skills in order to get a decent job. However, Ezra continued to excel in his artistic talents. After high school, he took art classes when he could but mostly worked to support his family after father died. He worked as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and he illustrated backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic book series before going into the military during World War II. He went on to publish his first children’s book, My Dog is Lost! (1960) which featured Juanito, a Puerto Rican boy, as the main character. Ezra wanted to make it a point to cast minority children as main characters for his stories. His most famous book, The Snowy Day (1962) featured Peter, who was based on a young Black child he saw pictures of in Life magazine. He was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his work in 1963. He also went on to feature Peter in six more books following The Snowy Day. Watch the animated film “The Snowy Day” on Amazon Prime!

Children’s Book Museums

Get info on museums dedicated to children’s books and view artwork by other authors and illustrators here!!

R. Michelson Galleries:

Eric Carle Museum:

National Center for Children’s Literature:

University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum:

Nina Simone: Artist, Activist

Doug Daye is back with a great post during Black History Month: a profile of Nina Simone. Do enjoy!

Doug Daye

When I was a teenager, I remember going to a Black History program that was put on at Abilene Christian University, in my hometown of Abilene, TX. The song “Feeling Good” started to play during a brief intermission and I instantly fell in love with the song. It was so poetic and the singer’s voice was so haunting. I looked at my program to see if the song and artist was listed and I found that it was Nina Simone. I did not know much about her at the time, but later I learned more about her life. She was a well-respected musician and singer who put out prolific blues ballads like “I Put A Spell On You” and songs for liberation during the civil rights era such as “Four Women” and “Young Gifted and Black.” With her sultry voice and her powerful storytelling, Nina Simone was a jazz icon whose legacy is still honored to this day.

Early Life and Education

Young Eunice Kathleen Waymon (from

Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted prodigy. She started playing piano by ear at the age of three! Her parents, recognizing her talent, provided opportunities for her to play piano in church where her mother preached. She went on to study classical music with an English woman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich where she developed a love for classical artists such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and others. After Waymon graduated as valedictorian from high school, her community raised the funds for her to attend Julliard in New York City before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However, she was denied admission to the institute because of her skin color. This and other events growing up in the Jim Crow south inspired her to speak out against racial discrimination.

Music Career

While teaching music to local students, Waymon auditioned at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she soon gained recognition. To hide the fact she was singing in bars from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone. She was later signed to King Records after being recognized after a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania. During a recording session in 1956 she sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which had been covered by other jazz artists such as Nat King Cole. This song launched Nina’s career and it was later used in a commercial for Chanel perfume in the 1980s. She went on to move to New York City where she was signed to Copix Records and gave various live performances. She was a featured artist at the famous Newport Jazz Festival and had other great successes.

My Baby Just Cares for Me album cover (from

Nina Simone also used her songs to speak out against racial injustice. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned in the South but she did not let it deter her. Violent events during the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to use her music to condemn racism. By putting out songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Four Women,” Nina took risks by using her voice as a platform for liberation at a time when many artists were reluctant to do so.

Nina Simone by Jack Robinson (from by Getty Images)

With a long rewarding career behind her, Nina Simone passed away in April 2003. Many artists paid tribute to her including Patti Labelle and Ossie Davis, who attended her memorial service, and Elton John who sent flowers.

Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Tour

With funding efforts from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and Preservation North Carolina, Nina Simone’s childhood home has been saved from demolition. This was done as the beginning of an ongoing effort to preserve Nina Simone’s early life and legacy for future generations. The National Trust website features a virtual tour of her home where viewers can get a glimpse of her humble beginnings.

View the virtual tour and learn more about funding efforts here:

Learn more about Nina Simone here:

“Collecting History”: The Most Famous Death Mask You May Have “Kissed”

Seine River, 1880s. (From

Villa Finale is pleased to have a copy of what may be Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask in our collection. As famous as this one may be, there is a death mask more widely seen – and even “kissed” – throughout the world. According to lore, in the late 1880s, the body of a young woman around 16 years old was found in Paris’ Seine River. When investigators pulled her lifeless body from the water, the young woman showed no signs of violence on her person anywhere. She was taken to the Paris Morgue where a pathologist examined her further. After a thorough investigation, the woman’s death was ruled a suicide.

Crowds looking at unidentified bodies at the Paris Morgue. (From

Reports about the young woman’s death were reported widely, her corpse was even put on public display as was the custom with unidentified bodies; however, no one claimed her. In the hopes she would be identified, the mortician in charge decided to make a death mask of the woman’s face. He also couldn’t help feeling captivated by the young lady’s beauty and haunting smile that remained on her lifeless lips, one compared to that of the Mona Lisa’s. This mortician admitted to casting the death mask with another intent. He said, “Her beauty was breathtaking and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved.”

“L’Inconnue de la Seine”

Although the woman was never truly identified, her death mask caused a sensation; it was reproduced and sold as a morbid fixture to be displayed in the private homes of Parisians, and by 1900, she could also be found abroad. L’Inconnue de la Seine or “the unknown woman of the Seine” was seen as a type of muse within the artistic community; she could be found hanging as a decorative piece in the homes of poets, writers, and artists like Picasso and Vladimir Nabokov. Philosopher Albert Campus called her “the drowned Mona Lisa.”

“L’Inconnue de la Seine” and “Rescue Annie” (From the International Life Cast Museum)

In the 1950s, an Austrian doctor, Peter Safar, was working with Norwegian medical device manufacturer and toy maker, Asmund Laerdal, to create the first CPR mannequin. Laerdal’s young son had nearly drowned but he was saved by Laerdal’s quick use of a form of CPR. Around the time the mannequin was in development, Laerdal paid a visit to his parent’s home. While there, he became instantly inspired by a copy of “the unknown woman of the Seine” displayed in his parent’s home. Just like the French pathologist who had originally examined the young woman over fifty years earlier, Asmund Laerdal found her completely ravishing. It was then the decision was made to use L’Inconnue’s likeness – as she is commonly known today – on the mannequin that became known as “Rescue Annie” or Resucci Anne. Today, the woman who may have drowned by suicide over 100 years ago is responsible for possibly saving thousands of lives. Maybe there was a little bit of foreshadowing in the young lady’s curious smile!

THREE’S COMPANY – “Boy Meets Dummy” – Airdate: December 1, 1981. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)JOHN RITTER;CHRISTINA HART;RICHARD KLINE

(If you would like your own copy of L’Inconnue, L’Atelier Lorenzi, a family-run workshop in southern Paris, can create hand-made copies using their own 19th-century plaster mold.)

See the video introducing L’Inconnue de la Seine here: