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August 31, 2007

Experts at Museums of Colonial Williamsburg discuss rare watercolor of an enslaved girl

Barbara Luck, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture, and Pam Young, conservator of works on paper for the Foundation, will discuss the history and conservation of one of the museum’s newest acquisitions, a rare watercolor of an enslaved, African American girl. The lecture, “The Mary Custis Watercolor,” will be held 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19 at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The portrait was painted by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington’s step-grandson and, later, the wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee. 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 family plantation.

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 about 10 years. 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 was concerned with 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.

When acquired, the watercolor painting was attached to a larger sheet containing a pencil drawing of a cavalry exercise, a soldier on horseback slicing a watermelon with a sword. The two were separated in order to treat them individually. The condition of the painting included generalized discoloration, and dark, disfiguring spots related to impurities in the paper sizing. The painting was bathed on a suction table to reduce stains and discoloration without alteration of the water-sensitive watercolor pigments.

Preparation for display included consideration of an oxygen-free enclosure within the frame, to allow the object to remain on exhibit with a reduced risk of light damage and motion-activated lights that also will reduce the amount of light exposure the object receives, allowing it to stay on view longer.

The painting currently is on view at the Introductory Galleries at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The program is included in museum admission.

The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and are located at 325 W. Francis St. Admission is included in any Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or by separate museums ticket. For information call (757) 220-7724.

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

Media Contact:
Penna Rogers
(757) 220-7121