Mary Anna Randolf Custis: Artist

Ph2007032601504 Apparently the wife of General Robert E. Lee painted one of the family’s slave girls around 1830.  From the Washington Post article:

Before Mrs. Lee gave the portrait to West Point cadet James Ewell Brown Stuart, class of 1854, while her husband was commandant, she inscribed "Topsy" on the dress in pencil, a reference to the slave child in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin." The novel roiled the conscience of abolitionists such as Mrs. Lee, who had earlier defied strictures against teaching slaves to read.  According to historical background provided by the gallery, Stuart pasted the watercolor onto the back of a drawing of a cavalry soldier on horseback slashing a watermelon with his sword.  "Whether the attachment was a conscious act or whether Stuart was oblivious to its meaning, it fails to diminish the significance of pairing an innocent slave with the highly trained soldier a few years before the outbreak of war," the documentation says.  The real name of the child in the portrait isn’t recorded, but she is known to have been one of the slaves at the 1,100-acre Custis family plantation spread out along the Potomac River within view of Washington, D.C.

The painting went on sale in January for $400,000 and was purchased more recently by Colonial Williamsburg for an undisclosed amount. 

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7 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Oct 14, 2008 @ 10:41

    Peggy, — Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I couldn’t agree more re: your reference to the irony of the subject matter and location.

  • Peggy Finely Aarlien Oct 14, 2008 @ 10:20

    A Note on irony: The bare feet of the “enslaved” girl stands on the land that once was called Arlington Plantation–and today is known as Arlington Cemetary. Thus, the enslaved girl stands today as a symbol of remembrance to the days American slavery and subsequent Amerian segregation and discrimination; but also to the days the Civil War with the association of JEB Stuart and with the establishment of the Arlington Cemetary; and today, she symbolically stands over those American soldiers and presidents who fought and stood for the ideals of freedom and democracy.

  • Peggy Finely Aarlien Oct 14, 2008 @ 9:52

    Portraits such as these are tangible evidence that African American history is American history. Its simply intertwined and interconnected and is one history. This is an intimate portrait with delicate and individualized details to suggest that the artisit was familiar with her subject. Often, history is taught so sanitized that controversial subjects, such as enslavement, is simply “vanished” from the canvas. Unfortunately, we generally teach history in the realm of battles and dates and incidents; and dismiss, perhaps, the most vital aspect: social history. That is to say, the relationships that our ancestors had with each other truly reveals the colors of the past; afterall, we live togehter in a culture that expands and constricts. We will in the following years debate why the portrait was pasted onto the back of a soldier’s drawing with the slashing of a watermelon. Watermelon was very a prevalent food source in the colonies at that time. And yet, watermelon has the minstrel association to reduce African Americans as caricatures and denying them as a whole–human dignity. How we read and interpret these facts reflects our standards of research objectivity and our value judgments of the day. Nonetheless, evidence such as this–the portrait is a wonderful and significant find as it will continue to generate discussion and debate about our history and the worldview of the past and present.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2007 @ 10:17

    Sara, — Thanks for pointing that out. Talk of ending slavery was almost always accompanied by colonization.

  • Sara Mar 28, 2007 @ 9:49

    “Abolitionist” is way too strong a word. Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee supported her parents’ desire to emancipate the Custis slaves and assist them in emigrating to Liberia.

  • matthew mckeon Mar 27, 2007 @ 21:45

    “(Uncle Tom’s Cabin)roiled the conscience of abolitionists like Mrs. Lee”

    Is this sarcasm, or did R.E.Lee’s wife actually want slavery abolished? Irony alert!

  • Rebecca Mar 27, 2007 @ 13:27

    Oh that’s neat.

    I’ve passed it on to a grad student who is working on slave clothing in the early nineteenth century.

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