April 6, 2007
CW acquires rare watercolor painting of young enslaved African American girl
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired recently acquired a rare watercolor painting of an enslaved African American girl. The painting is signed by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee and daughter of George Washington’s step-grandson.
The finely-detailed portrait -- signed “M. A. R. Custis” and dated 1830 -- is believed to represent one of the slaves who served at Arlington House, the Custis and Lee family plantation. Though her name is unknown. A penciled inscription on the child’s apron, “Topsy,” is thought to have been added later.
Depictions of enslaved African Americans are rare, particularly sympathetic renderings without caricature and stereotyping. Custis’s watercolor is simply composed and skillfully executed to show a child of 10. With one hand, the girl supports a wooden tub on top of her head, her other hand relaxed and hanging loosely by her side, her eyes fixed calmly on the viewer. In the distance, rail fencing and mountains provide only brief context, leaving focus sharply on the youngster.
"This painting is an extremely important addition to our collection,” said Ronald J. Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president of collections and museums. “It will significantly expand our ability to interpret African Americans of the period through museum exhibitions and other endeavors.”
The portrait is an intimate one, with fine, individualized details suggesting the artist’s familiarity with her subject. In fact, Custis may have known the child from the time of her birth.
The portrait also is a deeply respectful one, conveying the child’s quiet dignity. Though small, female, young and vulnerable, the child exudes composure and assurance.
Custis harbored a lifelong concern for the education of slaves, mirroring the work of her mother in teaching the enslaved at Arlington House to read and write to prepare them for eventual emancipation.
Custis may have acquired painting and drawing skills from her father, who grew up at Mount Vernon. In 1831, Custis married Robert E. Lee. In 1852, she accompanied Lee to West Point, where he assumed duties as superintendent of the United States Military Academy. It appears to have been there that the watercolor was given to J. E. B. Stuart, who was then a cadet and later one of the Confederacy’s best-known generals. The portrait survived amid a collection of autographs, sketches and other objects amassed by Stuart during his years as a student. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, may have inspired the addition of the inscription on the enslaved girl’s apron, as Topsy was Stowe’s heroine. The widely-read novel inflamed abolitionist sentiment and perhaps hastened the advent of America’s Civil War.
Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that reserves and operates the restored 18th-century evolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture — stories of our journey to become Americans. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. Williamsburg is located 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information or reservations, call toll-free
1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg on the Internet at www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com.