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Note from Mary Custis Lee to Edward Valentine Discussing Valentine’s Bust of R.E. Lee – June, 1870

$2,150

Unpublished Note from Mary Custis Lee to Edward Valentine Discussing Valentine’s Bust of R.E. Lee – June, 1870 – This previously unpublished note recently surfaced in the Charlottesville area. In the note, written by Gen. Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, to famed Richmond sculptor, Edward Virginius Valentine, she addresses the need for a Confederate uniform to be delivered to Valentine so that he might use it to aid in his sculpting of a wartime General Lee. During the summer of 1870, just a few months before Lee died, Valentine visited the Lees in Lexington, Va. where the former general was serving as the president of Washington College; Valentine visited Lexington to have the General pose for him so that he might sculpt a statue of the famed general. The sculptor recounted this visit in a newspaper article published in 1906 (included below). Mrs. Lee, in her note to Valentine, tells the sculptor that currently the General is not in Lexington, but should return shortly, and that they will attempt to find a suitable uniform. (Former Confederate officers were prevented from wearing insignia, uniforms, belt plates and buttons that belied their wartime allegiance, by a Federal statute implemented shortly after the surrender at Appomattox). Mrs. Lee tells Valentine that once a suitable uniform is located, she will send it to Valentine’s Richmond home, via a trusted courier or by a canal boat. She also tells Valentine that she will send a “back view” of the General (one assumes that she meant to have an image taken of this view) to him, as well. Finally, Mrs. Lee expresses the hope that Valentine’s bust will be the best done, to date. Included with the note is the original cover in which Mrs. Lee sent her note to Valentine, addressed to: “Mr. Edward Valentine / Corner of Valentine &  Franklin / Richmond Virginia”; above this address, in pencil, is written: “Left by Dr. Fairfax”.

The note and cover are currently archivally housed in an attractive frame that includes an early picture of Mary Custis Lee and a picture of Edward Valentine, in his studio, with the bust of General Lee. Ultimately, Valentine sculpted a statue of General Lee, in full uniform; this bronze sculpture was installed in the crypt of the United States Capitol as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. The statue was donated by the commonwealth of Virginia, in 1909.

Measurements: Frame: W – 29.5” x Ht. – 17.5”

Note:    W – 5” x Ht. – 7.5”

Transcript of the Note

I fear you will think me very negligent my dear Mr. Valentine in not sooner replying to your letter but the Genl was absent & we did not know if he had a uniform coat left. He will return some time during the course of this week & if there is one available for your purpose I will send it to you by express or by a trusty man on board the Canal boat if he can take it to your home. If I cannot get one to him I will write and let you know as soon as the Genl  returns. I will get him to stand for that back view I promised you which I can send by mail. I am most deeply interested in your progress. I hope you will make the best bust of the Genl of the army that has been taken. I feel confident that you have already done so. My kind regards believe me truly, your friend   MC Lee

Edward Virginius Valentine

Edward Virginius Valentine (November 12, 1838 – October 19, 1930) was an American sculptor born in Richmond, Virginia. He studied in Europe–in Paris with Couture and Jouffroy, in Italy under Bonanti, and with August Kiss in Berlin. He briefly headed the Valentine Richmond History Center, which was founded by his brother, Mann S. Valentine, Jr.The Wickham-Valentine House, part of the Valentine Museum in Richmond is on the National Register of Historic Places and was named for him and his brother.[1]He died on October 19, 1930 in Richmond, Virginia.

 Works

Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907

Note: The following reminiscences, originally published about a month before the centennial of Robert E. Lee’s birth, is taken from General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, edited by Franklin L. Riley (New York, 1922), pp. 146–56.

 REMINISCENCES OF GENERAL LEE

By EDWARD V. VALENTINE, Richmond, Virginia

This interesting contribution was written by the honored sculptor, still living, who made the celebrated “Recumbent Statue” of General Lee. The greater part of the article was published in The Outlook of Dec. 22, 1906, though Mr. Valentine has kindly added a few concluding paragraphs for this publication.—Editor.

IT was Thorwaldsen’s good fortune (he may have thought it at the time his ill fortune) to model a bust of Lord Byron. Be that as it may, the sculptor had no little difficulty in the prosecution of his work, for before the sittings had fairly begun trouble had already developed. The genial artist himself tells the story of the morbid poet’s posings for him. He says: “When this nobleman came to sit for me in my atelier, he took a seat opposite me and put on directly a strange expression entirely different from his natural one. ‘My lord,’ I said to him, ‘plese keep perfectly still, and I beg of you do not look so disconsolate.’ ‘It is my natural expression,’ replied Byron. ‘Really,’ I said, and without paying attention to this affectation, I began to work in my own way. When the bust was finished, everybody thought it a striking likeness, but my lord was dissatisfied. ‘This face is not mine,’ he said. ‘I look far more unhappy than that’—for he was positively bent on looking miserable!”

Possibly, if I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of General Robert E. Lee, who sat for me for a bust in 1870, my answer would be, “A complete absence of the melodramatic in all that he said and id.” And I may add that an artist, above all other men, is quick to observe the faintest suggestion of posing; the slightest indication of a movement or expression which smacks of vanity he is sure to detect. Such weaknesses (which, as far as I know, are shared by many who are called the “great ones” of the world) were totally lacking in General Lee.

In my diary (which, with the omission of a single entry, I have kept since 1857) I have endeavored to note down the very words of my sitters at times; and only on one occasion did General Lee make the slightest remark in regard to the likeness which would lead me to believe that he had critically been watching the progress of the work, and this was when the bust was in an unfinished condition.

On the 25th of may, 1870, General Lee was at my studio in Richmond, and it was my great privilege to make accurate measurements of his face for the bust. His stay in the city was a short one. I was able to take only this important preliminary step, yet it was on that occasion that I experienced for the first time his quiet sense of humor. During the conversation I had with him on that day I spoke of how my fortunes had changed since the war, possibly with the expectation of hearing some very sympathetic words from him; but to my surprise he simply remarked that “an artist ought not to have too much money.” I am sure that he had at the moment no conception of the condition of my purse, for in less than ten days after this conversation I had to borrow from a relative the necessary funds to go to Lexington to model the bust which I have mentioned. Maybe, however, it was for my consolation that later in the conversation he said, “Misfortune nobly borne is good fortune.” At the moment I thought the sentiment was original with him, but some time after his death while my wife was reading aloud the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,” I discovered that it was a quotation from that author. At any rate, no more appropriate epitaph could be carved on the tomb of the great Virginian.

Just before parting with the General I remarked that I would go to Lexington then or in the fall, and he replied that he would have more time at the latter season, but that I had better go then. The fact of his appointing an early date for the sittings made the impression on my mind that he was at the moment thinking of the uncertainty of life. Had I waited until the fall, possibly I should never had him pose for me. He died October 12.

On June 3, 1870, I left Richmond for Lexington by way of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, going via Goshen Pass, made ever memorable by the words of another great Virginian, Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, who on his death-bed asked that his remains be taken through this beautiful defile “when the laurels are in bloom.” I arrived in Lexington by stage early the next morning, and called on General Lee at his residence. He was very kind in his manner; showed me the portraits hanging on the wall; and then I started to seek a room where I might model the bust. After an unsuccessful search for this temporary studio, I reported to the General, who possibly from my manner saw that I was disappointed in not finding one. At any rate, he said, “You can work in here,” speaking of the room on the left of the front hall. I at once remarked that there was a carpet on the floor. “I will have that taken up,” he said. But I preferred not to accept his kind offer, and in a further hunt I found a vacant store under the hotel on the main street. Unfortunately, it had been closed I know not how long, and I feared the dampness. Although it was in June, I had a fire lighted, for I had noticed that the General would put his hand on his breast from time to time, probably suffering with a heart trouble that followed an attack of pneumonia after the battle of Fredericksburg.

The day of my arrival the General walked with me up into the town. Stopping at a store he espied an acquaintance (Mr. Archibald Alexander), he said, “Mr. Archie, here is a young gentleman from Richmond who has come to make a bust of me. I wish you would sit for him.”

All such jokes could but be reassuring to me, and I began to feel less dread at being closeted for days with this great man.

After the sittings began we were in reality closeted. I had been requested by him not to allow any one to come into the room—“no one but Professor White and my son Custis,” he said. That suited me exactly. Seeing the earnest manner in which I went to the work, he gave me every advantage. I carefully studied the face, and told him I would like to see his mouth. He knew what that meant, and I raised his mustache and took measurements of his lips. While the work was progressing he would from time to time entertain me with reminiscences and anecdotes. He seemed to be fond of speaking of his boyhood, swimming in the Potomac—of his teacher, Weir, at West Point, and of the Mexican War. I was also much interested in hearing his comments on persons and things of a more recent date.

I think from the beginning that the General must have seen that I was fond of humor. So I am, but it is very doubtful whether there was much levity about me when I approached for the first time this grand idol of the South. I had been told of his noble simplicity, of his gentle and kindly bearing, but I confess that I could never appreciate how these qualities could ever neutralize the inquietude which I felt until I was once in his company. He who poses for a bust or a portrait may be expected to look his best, or what at least may appear to him his best. I could observe no difference in General Lee’s manner when he was sitting for me from that which was his ordinary bearing. After I had made some progress with the work, he very quietly remarked, “They say Custis is like me. Let him come now and sit for you.”

One day during the sittings he asked me if I knew a certain sculptress, and then began repeating, or trying to repeat, some syllables of the name. I knew whom he meant as soon as he asked me the question, but I let him shoot at the name two or three times before I called it, and on doing so he said: “Oh, that is the name! Well, the lady wrote me a very polite letter in which she asked if I would give her sittings for a bust, at the same time inclosing photographs of some of her works which were not too profusely draped. In her letter she also asked when she could come to make the bust, and a friend, who had been looking at the pictures, suggested July or August, as the most of her works seemed to have been done in the summer-time.”

Every artists of experience in portraiture appreciates the advantage of being able to work from a costume which he knows has been worn by the subject whom he has to represent. I could not expect to get a whole costume, but I did desire to be the possessor of a pair of the General’s military boots. The question was how to get them. I at last thought of the expedient of approaching the subject by telling my sitter an anecdote of an office-seeker who begged that President Andrew Jackson would consider his claim as a Minister to England. In reply the man was told that there was already a Minister at the Court of St. James. Then the applicant desired to be sent as Secretary of Legation, but was told that that office was also filled. Then he wished to be sent as Consul, but there was no vacancy. “Well, then,” said the importunate man, “will you give me the place of Vice-Consul?” “And there is no vacancy there either,” said “Old Hickory,” sharply. “Well, then, Mr. President, would you give me a pair of old boots?”

“That is what I would like to have you do for me, General,” said I.

“I think there is a pair at the house that you can have,” said he. And the next morning the General brought them under his arm to my working-room, and they are now safely stored in a bank in Richmond. While I prize them most highly, they were not exactly what I wanted. I was in hopes that he would give me a pair of military boots similar to those which I have often worked from, though I have found difficulty in getting a man of any size who could pose in them for me. They were too large for the General. The size of the pair he gave me is Number 4½ C, and they are dress boots. Written on the lining is the following: “R. E. Lee, U.S.A.”

While on the subject of costume, I may mention that the General wore a colonel’s uniform in the army. There was scarcely any possibility of his ever being mistaken for an under officer, however, but on one occasion a subordinate seemed not to recognize him. It was a little captain, and I have the story from an old soldier who witnessed the incident. A road had been very badly blocked by wagons, and General Lee, seeing that it was impassable, rode up and ordered the said captain to have it cleared. With an oath, the little fellow refused to obey the command. The order was repeated, and again disobeyed. “General Lee orders you to remove those wagons!” said the Commander. And no sooner had the name fallen upon the ears of the refractory captain than his shoulders fell upon the wheels of the wagons with all the strength he had. My informant, who had been highly amused at this scene between the Southern leader and his subaltern, stated that after the General had disappeared he approached the captain and asked him in a whisper, “Who’s that old gem’man you was talkin’ to jest now?”

The experience of an acquaintance of mine is another illustration of the humor of the General. When hostilities were about to begin, this gentleman, in great despondence, reported to the General that it would require some time for the old flint-lock “shooting-irons” of his company to be changed into percussion locks. He was in a dilemma, and the only way that the General could suggest to get him out of his difficulty was to “Telegraph to Mr. Lincoln to have the war put off for three weeks.”

As far as I could judge, with the exception of the General’s family, my friend the late Professor J. J. White, of Washington and Lee University, was the closest person in Lexington to him. The two were accustomed to take long rides on horseback together. On one of these rides they were overtaken by darkness, and had to stop overnight at a farmhouse by the road. It so happened that there was only one vacant room in the house and one bed in that, which, to his horror, the professor found that he had to share with his old commander. It had to be done, but he said that he “would as soon have thought of sleeping with the Archangel Gabriel as with General Lee.” He lay for the night on he very edge of the bed, and did not sleep a wink.

While General Lee never posed himself, I thought it would be to my advantage to secure pictures of him in different positions. He kindly consented to go to a photograph gallery, and I had several taken of him.

On one other occasion during my visit to Lexington he passed through another ordeal. Mrs. Lee, being an invalid, could not go to the room where the bust was modeled. It had to be removed to her parlor, where were assembled a number of visitors. There he was by the good wife turned in different positions and the bust compared with the original, all of which he submitted to without a murmur.

The last time I ever saw General Lee was on a summer’s afternoon when I called to take leave of him at his house. A gentleman and two ladies were in the parlor at the time. During the conversation the General made a remark which was calculated to startle the company. “I feel that I have an incurable disease coming on me,” he said—“old age. I would like to go to some quiet place in the country and rest.”