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General Robert E. Lee, 1870
Edward Virginius Valentine (1838-1930)

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22 1/2 inches; overall width is 21 1/2 inches; overall depth is 10 1/2 inches
Signature Details: Edward V. Valentine in stamped letters
Status: The Westervelt Company, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Robert E. Lee is known to have sat for only four painted portraits during his life--and only one direct portrait in sculpture. In June 1870, a weary Lee began a series of sittings with the young sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine in Lexington.





American, circa 1870

Sand casted bronze with brown patina

Titled on the back: Gen. Robert E. Lee in raised letters

Signed: Edward V. Valentine in stamped letters 

The overall height is 22 1/2 inches; the overall width is 21 1/2 inches; and the overall depth is 10 1/2 inches.


This portrayal, encompassing head and chest, shows General Lee in his CSA uniform with his head slightly turned to the right. His hair is parted on the right and there is a bow tie on his collared shirt. Over his vest is a double-breasted uniform coat with three stars on each lapel.



Edward Virginius Valentine was born in Richmond on November 12, 1838 to Mann Satterwhite Valentine, a successful merchant, and his wife, the former Elizabeth Mosby. The youngest of nine children, Edward’s talent was revealed early on, and young “Ned” won his first art award at the age of seventeen, for a bust of the Apollo Belvedere exhibited at the Mechanics Institute Fair in Richmond. In 1856, he studied human anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia and received instruction in drawing from the Richmond artist, William James Hubard. From 1859 to 1865, Valentine traveled in Europe, studying under Couture and Jouffrey in Paris, Bonanti in Florence and August Kiss in Berlin. Upon Professor Kiss’s death--and the conclusion of the War Between the States--Valentine returned to Richmond, opening his own studio. There he produced classical pieces as well as commissioned work. Most scholars and texts recognize Valentine as the most renowned sculptor in the South during the second half of the nineteenth century. Certainly, Valentine’s sculptures of Lee, especially the recumbent statue of Lee at his burial site in the chapel at Washington and Lee University, are his most famous. Other significant works include the statues of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis in Richmond.



In late May 1870, General Lee visited Richmond and underwent thorough physical examinations by his doctors. In response to encouragement from friends, he took this opportunity to call on the noted young sculptor Edward Valentine. Evidently, he liked the young man, for he allowed detailed measurements to be taken for a portrait head. The sculptor said that he would like to do the actual modeling in Lexington. Should he come now or in the fall? Let him come now, said Lee, even though he himself would have more leisure for sittings toward autumn--and Valentine sensed that Lee felt his hold on life to be uncertain. (1) Four months later--October 12, 1870--Lee passed away.


The sittings commenced on June 7 and were completed on June 12. The sessions took place at in a makeshift workroom--a vacant store below Valentine’s hotel. The sittings were kept private, at Lee’s request; only his son Custis and one of the Washington College professors were admitted. The casting took place on June 20, 1870. On July 27, 1870, the Richmond Dispatch reported on Valentine’s latest work, describing it as "a noble work that belongs to the nation."


There are two plaster busts existing of this work, one at the Valentine Museum and one in private ownership. Both of the bronze castings are in private ownership, this being one of the two. The other is now in a private collection in Texas, sold by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.  The National Portrait Gallery has a copy in bronze, made in 1978 from the plaster bust in the Valentine Museum's collection (with great loss of detail).


This sculpture was produced by sand casting, a procedure used in American foundries through 1895. (See Shapiro’s Bronze Casting and American Sculpture, page 108.)  The foundry mark is on the backside at the lower right, and it is in the form of the box used to make sand castings. It is believed to be the mark of the Tredegar Iron works in Richmond, a Confederate enterprise that had made bronze cannons during the Civil War.  This particular bronze was examined by the then curator of the Valentine Museum and has been identified as one of the two 1870 castings.



There are no major faults or damage, and there are no apparent repairs or restorations.  Expectably, there is "bronze disease” from aging, in the form of noticeable surface verdigris and grunge, and there are minor scuffs and wear points. The underside appears never to have had a plinth base attached, though the mounts are present.



This extraordinarily rare and significant piece represents the ultimate confluence of Southern history and art: the most famous Southern hero portrayed by the most widely regarded Southern artist of the day, likely cast by a famous Southern foundry noted for producing Confederate armaments.



"The head of my bust is a little elevated and turned to the right side. The Gen'l said that Mrs. Lee seems to prefer a three-quarter view of his face, and this view you get when standing in front of the bust."


The artist to his sister, Sarah B. Valentine, on June 7, 1870. (Valentine Museum Archives)



"...a sad, slightly surprised look...the expression is one Lee might have had when surveying the dead soldiers on a battlefield.”


Melinda Moss, "Edward Valentine: A Southern Artist," p.  46.

M.A. thesis, 1969. (Valentine Museum Archives)



If I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of General Lee, my answer would be, “A complete absence of the melodramatic in all that he said and did.” And I may add that an artist, above all other men, is quick to observe the faintest suggestion of posing; the slightest indication of movement or expression which smacks of vanity.... Such weaknesses...were totally lacking in General Lee.


Edward Virginius Valentine (as quoted in Meredith, p. 102)



(1) Roy Meredith, The Face of Robert E. Lee in Life and in Legend (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), p. 101. See also p. 102, 105.


See, too, Elizabeth Gray Valentine, Dawn to Twilight: Work of Edward V. Valentine (Richmond: William Byrd Press, Inc., 1929).


For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.


This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC






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