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Robert E. Lee, From Life

Richmond’s Virginia Historical Society has a small canvas by Edward Caledon Bruce of Robert E. Lee, acknowledged to be copied from the artist’s original. I knew Virginius Hall who wrote the book on the portraits in that institution’s fine collection and, indeed, had seen this example. In our 1987 catalogue on The Last Meeting, we had catalogued the handful of life portraits of Lee, and, as a dealer with an interest in such things, I have a working familiarity with them. William Edward West painted Lee as a young lieutenant, and then both Robert Walter Weir and Frank Buchser painted him after the War. That was it.

In the summer of 2005, a gentleman rang up to tell me of a portrait of Lee that he had purchased while on a house call in Los Angeles. Mr. Dutton dealt in used books and had gone in to remove the contents—apparently thousands of volumes—from the home of a Mr. Oldham, the grandson of Edward Caledon Bruce. He described a depiction of Lee that I, in turn, suggested was one of a small series, replicas of a now-lost original. He asked that I name a value, which I boldly did without having seen so much as an image of the work (though I had seen the look-alikes). As he pondered the figure, Mr. Dutton asked if it would not have a greater value if it were from life? He must have heard my chuckle as I wisecracked, “Sure.” In response to the question, “What makes you think it is a life portrait,” he calmly offered that it said so, on both the front and the back. This canvas, unlined and accompanied by its original frame, created an important moment—in terms of both scholarship and sales—in my career.

The verso of the Virginia Historical Society’s Lee replica is inscribed “Gen. R.E. Lee by E.C. Bruce after his study from life,” a clear indication that it was copied from this example, the original study. The National Portrait Gallery has a replica as well, which bears the noncommittal recto inscription “ECB” and “E.C. Bruce/pinxt.” Mr. Dutton’s unearthed treasure was inscribed on its face, “E.C. Bruce/ad naturam/1864-5,” and on the verso, “Gen. R.E. Lee./from life by E.C. Bruce/1865.”

This discovery is, as yet, the only surviving painting of General Lee taken from life during the War. It was painted in Petersburg, Virginia, during the winter of 1864-65 as a preparatory study for a later, full-length portrait by the artist, now lost. Since Bruce had no studio in Petersburg, it is likely that he could only have painted Lee in the general’s busy headquarters. Bruce’s personal interaction with Lee produced a portrait entirely befitting a man who had become the symbol of the nation he aspired to lead. Like Gilbert Stuart’s rendering of George Washington, such from-life portraits play a pivotal role in the formation of American iconography.

Once the painting was cleaned and the frame conserved, my partner in it all, Mr. Dutton, again asked me to name a price, to which I responded with another bold sum. He accepted my number and asked for a short list of those to whom I might offer it. Dutton had his druthers in selecting the first prospective purchaser, a discerning connoisseur who, when I phoned, seized the opportunity. Today, it is privately owned and so may in time resurface to thrill a collector of another generation.

Edward Caledon Bruce (1825-1901)
Portrait of Robert E. Lee (1864-1865)
Oil on canvas
23 3/4 x 18 1/8 inches
Signature Details: Lower right, lower left
Owner: Private Collection, Dallas, Texas
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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