August 3, 2007
Rare watercolor of young, enslaved African American girl exhibited in the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are exhibiting a rare watercolor of an enslaved African American girl. On view in the Introductory Galleries, the painting is signed by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee and daughter of George Washington’s step-grandson. The Museums are located at 325 West Francis Street.
“From the moment we acquired this remarkable painting earlier this year, we realized it would expand our ability to interpret African Americans of the period,” said Barbara Luck, curator of paintings and sculpture. “For the benefit of our museum guests, we looked for the first opportunity to exhibit this wonderful and rare artwork.”
The finely-detailed portrait – dated 1830 and signed “M. A. R. Custis” -- is believed to represent one of the slaves who served at Arlington House – the Custis family plantation -- although 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. The watercolor is simply composed and skillfully executed to show a child of about 10 years. 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.
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.
The artist 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.
Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary 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 – while historic tradespeople research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. 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.