- Historic Sites
A Son’s Tribute
Three long-lost paintings of Washington in action (above, at Germantown) were part of G.W.P. Custis’ lifelong effort to glorify the foster father he adored
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
In June of that year two hundred acres of Arlington were set aside as a military cemetery. But because the cemeteries in the Washington area had already become crowded with the dead from Bull Run, Chantilly, and other Virginia battlefields, burials had taken place on the estate before then. During the remaining months of the war, hundreds of Union and Confederate dead were buried on the grounds of Arlington, and the place began to take on the character of the great national shrine to American war dead which it has since become.
Immediately following the Civil War, the house, which had once been famous for its associations with Washington, began to attract thousands of pilgrims because of its associations with Robert E. Lee. Those who came found its rooms bare and neglected: a few were used by the cemetery superintendent for offices, and a few served to house the tools of the gravedigger.
Finally, in 1925, with the bitterness of the Civil War fading, Congress passed a law providing that Arlington House be made into a memorial to Robert E. Lee. In 1933, efforts to restore the mansion to its antebellum appearance were intensified when responsibility for it was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. High on the list of objects which the Service hoped would be returned to Arlington were the six Custis paintings described by Lossing and mentioned in Mrs. Lee’s memoir.
No clue to the whereabouts of any of the paintings turned up until 1953, when the Gardiners bought the three Revolutionary battle scenes from Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia. The Gardiners’ suspicion that their three paintings were by Custis arose because they already owned a small painting attributed to him. This was the portrayal of a minor Revolutionary War episode, The Escape of Sergeant Champe , on the back of which was a badly defaced portrait of Custis and the scrawled notation, “Found in attic of General Lee’s residence at Arlington.” The painting, along with two letters by Daniel Parke Custis, George Washington Parke Custis’ grandfather, and a chipped platter from the Mount Vernon Cincinnati service that had belonged to Custis, had been bought by the Gardiners out of the estate of a Connecticut Civil War veteran. All had obviously been looted from Arlington. The style of the small painting was strikingly similar to that of the three large battle pictures.
Even better proof of the hand that painted them was the inescapable similarity between the three paintings and the engravings of the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown that had accompanied Benson Lossing’s article in Harper’s Monthly . Allowing for the improvements which the skilled engraver made in Custis’ primitive work, it was clear that the paintings were the originals for Lossing’s illustrations.
There was a final step to be taken if their authenticity was to be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt: comparison with the one painting in existence which was unquestionably the work of “the inevitable Custis.” This was the Washington at Yorktown which hangs in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Temple in Alexandria. Custis gave this painting in 1812 to Alexandria’s Masonic lodge, of which his foster father had been Master. Custis’ gift and the fact that the painting was by him are mentioned in the minutes of the lodge for that year. There is an additional mention of the painting in the minutes of 1857, the year in which Custis died.
In 1959, the Gardiners loaned their three pictures to the National Park Service laboratory for study. A team of experts compared the age of the three canvases, the type of paint on them, and the brush strokes with those of the painting at the Masonic Memorial Temple. The laboratory concluded that the Gardiners’ three paintings and the Washington at Yorktown had been executed by the same hand.
But where had the Gardiners’ acquisitions come from? How had three of the six lost Custis paintings suddenly appeared at an auction in Philadelphia nearly a century after they had last been seen at Arlington? They had, it turned out, been put up for sale by Mrs. G. Dawson Coleman of Philadelphia, who had bought them through a friend from an Alexandria antiques dealer about 1924. The price, she remembered, had been $150 each. She had not seen the paintings when she bought them, and the artist had not been identified. Mrs. Coleman purchased them simply because at the time she needed three large, colorful paintings for her home. When she moved into a smaller house in 1953, she put them up for sale at Freeman’s.
As soon as one knows that the paintings were sold in Alexandria in the igao’s, a dozen conjectures and questions spring to mind. If they were sold by some member of the Lee family, why did he not capitalize on the Custis connection? Even though Custis never signed his work, a member of the family would hardly be likely to have forgotten where the paintings originated. There was some controversy early in this century among the Lees over rightful ownership of pictures and furniture scattered among various family houses. Were the paintings then placed on the market by a member of the family who was willing to sacrifice the extra money that the Custis name would bring, in order to assure an anonymous sale?