- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NEW YORK — A haunting portrait of a little slave girl painted by the woman who became the devoted wife of Robert E. Lee has been sold to Colonial Williamsburg for its museum collection.

The Virginia foundation confirmed that it has the “Enslaved Girl” watercolor “on approval” and said a final decision is pending.

“The provenance looks airtight, and it would be an important acquisition,” Colonial Williamsburg spokesman Jim Bradley said Monday.

Laurel Acevedo of Alexander Gallery in New York City said the rare painting has been with Colonial Williamsburg since last week. “We gave them a good price,” she said. “We wanted it to go a public institution.”

The portrait went on sale in January for $400,000, along with other memorabilia from the J.E.B. Stuart Collection of the Confederate general. Only the portrait went to Williamsburg, Miss Acevedo said. She declined to name the purchase price.

Measuring 53/4 inches tall and 4 inches wide, the gold-framed watercolor on paper depicts a somber girl with delicate features, in a red dress with an apronlike white front, balancing a wooden washtub on her head. Trees and a split-rail fence are the background.

Mary Anna Randolf Custis, daughter of George Washington’s only grandson, painted the portrait in 1830 on the grounds of the estate that became Arlington National Cemetery, which was confiscated by the Union government for a graveyard early in the Civil War. Miss Custis married Robert E. Lee, her distant cousin, a year after she completed the painting.

She gave the portrait to West Point cadet James Ewell Brown Stuart, known as “Jeb,” a member of the class of 1854, while her husband was superintendent of the academy. She inscribed the name “Topsy” on the girl’s dress in pencil, probably a reference to the slave child in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The novel roiled the conscience of those who deplored slavery, such as Anna Custis, who had earlier defied strictures and taught slaves to read.

Jeb Stuart is said to have 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 gallery documentation speculates.

The real name of the child in the portrait was not 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 overlooking Washington. Lee freed the slaves, whom he inherited from his wife’s family, in 1862.

The plantation in Arlington, previously owned by George and Martha Washington, was confiscated to bury the Union dead killed at the Battle of First Manassas.

The Lees fled the plantation in 1861 at the outbreak of the war, after Lee declined Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union armies and joined Confederate service. He was soon given command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the principal Confederate army, and near the end of the war assumed the rank of commander in chief of the remaining Southern armies. He died in 1870 as president of Washington College, which became Washington and Lee University. His wife died three years later.

Miss Acevedo said the gallery purchased the J.E.B. Stuart collection earlier this year from a private owner who had obtained it from descendants of the intrepid cavalry general, who died defending Richmond in 1864. She said the gallery wanted the Lee painting to go to a public collection “even though they normally can’t pay as much as private collectors.”

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