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Rarely seen portrait at Confederacy museum

January 03, 2007|Zinie Chen Sampson | Associated Press

RICHMOND, VA. — A portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee not publicly seen since 1868 is being displayed as part of the Museum of the Confederacy's commemoration of the iconic Civil War leader's 200th birthday.

The gilt-framed oil painting, about 26 inches high and 21 inches wide, will be the showcase piece of the museum's exhibit marking Lee's birthday Jan. 19. American artist Thomas B. Welch painted Lee during the general's lifetime, but museum officials said the portrait wasn't based on any known photograph, and there are no records that Lee sat for such a work.

The painting's precise age is unclear, but Welch showed the Lee portrait in 1868 at the Salon de Paris alongside the works of other artists of the day, including French impressionists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Museum of the Confederacy spokeswoman Megan Miller said.

"It went into private ownership and no one knew where it was until it showed up at this estate sale," Miller said. "Nobody knows where it had been for the last 150 years."

The portrait's owner, a Civil War enthusiast who declined to be identified, plans to have 500 prints of the painting made to be sold for $300 each to benefit the financially ailing museum, which has faced encroaching development and declining attendance the past several years.

Another item on display is a draft of Lee's April 20, 1861, letter to U.S. Army commander Gen. Winfield Scott about Lee's plans to resign his commission to lead federal troops against the seceding Southern states. The draft letter explained that he couldn't take up arms against Virginia, which had seceded three days earlier, and includes Lee's notes in the margins.

Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia in several Southern victories that earned him the reputation as a top military commander, but he lost the key battle at Gettysburg, considered by many a turning point in the war.

In the final weeks of the conflict, he took command of the entire depleted Confederate military, eventually surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in April 1865.

After the war, Lee became president of Washington College, now Washington & Lee University, in Lexington. Va. He died on Oct. 12, 1870, two weeks after suffering a debilitating stroke, and is buried under the university's Lee Chapel.

The Museum of the Confederacy will display the Lee portrait through Jan. 31. Its commemoration of Lee's 200th birthday will continue through the year.

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