Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Jack Custis, Race, and the Unseen in Colonial Virginia Portraits

· August 31st, 2020 · No Comments

by Janine Yorimoto Boldt

One painfully obvious fact as one scrolls through Colonial Virginia Portraits is that the faces are overwhelmingly white. Colonial Virginia Portraits includes more than 500 recorded portraits of which approximately 95 are documented but no longer extant. Only four of the total represent a non-white person. Three of these feature unnamed individuals who are included in the portraits as an enslaved attendant and as visual props to whiteness. These three portraits are Lucy Parke Byrd, William Byrd III as a child, and Edward Hill III. The pictured attendants may not even be representations of real people, but stock figures of attendants.

Only one of the documented portraits features a Black subject, and we cannot even see it because it no longer exists. John “Jack” Custis (ca. 1733-1751) was the son of John Custis IV and “Young Alice,” an enslaved woman owned by John. John emancipated “John otherways called Jack” in 1744. In his will, John provided Jack with land, horses, a house, and furnishings to be inherited when Jack turned twenty. Intriguingly, John left to Ann Moody, wife of Williamsburg tavernkeeper Matthew Moody, “the picture of my said Negro boy John.” This statement in his will is the only record of Jack’s portrait. The fate of the portrait is unknown.[1]

John Custis by Charles Bridges

Anyone interested in eighteenth-century family drama may be familiar with the Custis family. John Custis IV (1678-1749) and his wife, Frances Parke (1685-1714), are notorious for their unhappy marriage. They had two surviving children, Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757) and Frances Parke Custis (1709-1744). Daniel did not have a good relationship with his father. He eventually married Martha Dandridge, but not without some opposition from John. One family story says that Martha won John’s approval after giving a gift to Jack. Later Custis descendants remembered Jack only as a favorite of John’s, essentially erasing Jack from the family’s genealogy. They recorded that Jack was “a small negro boy to whom the old gentleman had taken a most violent fancy; and on one occasion when in great displeasure with his son, Daniel, on account of his refusing to concur in his ambitious views, he made a will, duly recorded, leaving all his fortune to this boy. Through the solicitations of his friends and his own paternal feelings, when the ill-humor had vanished, he destroyed that will, but manumitted the boy with his mother, Alice, and provided them with a most comfortable maintenance.”[2] Sadly, Jack died young and left no writings of his own that could provide insight into his relationship to his parents or half-siblings.

Benjamin Grymes and Ludwell Grymes by Charles Bridges

We can only imagine what Jack’s picture looked like. John died in 1749 when Jack was about 16, so the portrait was painted in the late 1730s or 1740s, when Jack was only a child. Few artists were working in Virginia at the time. The likeliest candidate of documented painters is Charles Bridges, who painted John’s portrait. But another, unknown artist, also painted John. Were John and Jack painted at the same time? Did Jack’s portrait similarly display the trappings of wealth and status that appeared in his father’s portrait or his half-brother’s later portrait? Were there props, such as a book to signify his education? Or a squirrel, an emblem associated with diligence and self-discipline? Did he appear outdoors or indoors? How big was this portrait? Was it the same size as his father’s or was it smaller, only bust-length? Did Jack’s portrait proudly hang in John’s hall or parlor, perhaps near his father’s portrait, or was it tucked away in a more private room?

Daniel Parke Custis by John Wollaston

The fact that John commissioned a portrait of Jack is powerful evidence that he valued Jack as a son and family member. The Custis family had a multi-generational portrait collection. John incorporated Jack into the visual family tree by commissioning his picture. Portraits were expensive, so John paid a decent sum of money to preserve Jack’s likeness. Further, while portraits of children were not unusual, they were not necessarily common. There are far fewer surviving portraits of children than adults. However, Jack’s picture was left to Moody rather than kept in the family. I can only speculate about why this was. Perhaps John knew Daniel and Jack had a contentious relationship and feared Daniel would destroy it. Maybe there was an undocumented agreement that Moody would give Jack his portrait when he acquired his house. Matthew Moody was a trustee for the land that John left to Jack in his will, so he trusted the Moodys to look after Jack’s interests.

Nevertheless, Jack’s portrait reminds us of what remains unseen in Colonial Virginia Portraits – Black subjects and the interpersonal dynamics between the white subjects and the Black people they enslaved, whose labor funded the oil portraits. Jack’s story is unique in many ways, but in other ways, perhaps not so much. We cannot fully understand the relationship between John and Alice but we know that the rape of enslaved women by white men was common and that fathering enslaved children was a natural result of such sexual encounters. Some other white men also acknowledged or freed their enslaved children, though it was not common or expected practice. None, as far as I know, commissioned a portrait of their Black child. The fact that Black subjects remain absent from this colonial visual archive is as intentional as the marginalization of Black people from written archives. On the one hand, portraits were expensive, so wealthy white people were the ones who could afford them. But with very few exceptions, white subjects chose not to allude to slavery in their own portraits, chose not to commission portraits of Black people, and, if there were more portraits of Black people, chose not to preserve them. Even Jack’s portrait has been lost, a victim of either intentional or accidental destruction. Yet other Custis family portraits were deemed worthy of preservation or were remembered in family histories after their destruction.

If colonial portraits are genealogical records, then they also record by omission the family members deemed unworthy of this form of remembrance. What little we can tease out from Jack’s story – told by white family members and descendants who denied his paternity – is a sad reminder of how little we can know and how many stories have been lost.

As a database, Colonial Virginia Portraits can only document recorded portraits. Unfortunately, there are very few records of non-white people appearing in colonial portraiture. But this absence was intentional. Erasure or elision was part of the colonial planters’ larger strategy to disavow the realities of slavery and construct a racial hierarchy. After acknowledging their intent, we can begin to deconstruct the implicit message embedded in the surviving paintings – that to be a subject (not just a prop), to be visible and have humanity worth preserving on canvas, one had to be white. Or, like Jack, be particularly valued by someone with wealth and power.

Sometimes people ask me whether “there could have been more portraits that featured enslaved people or Black subjects that have been lost.” That’s possible, of course. Fires, wars, water damage, these and other incidents have destroyed portraits accidentally and purposefully. But think about how many portraits of white people survive. There are even stories about people taking the time to save family portraits from burning buildings. Is it not telling that at some point, if there were more portraits featuring Black people, no one thought to preserve them?

I plan to expand this work on erasure and invisibility in colonial portraiture in future publications. For now, I want to stress that, like so many repositories of historical documents, Colonial Virginia Portraits is a very white archive – a historical imbalance that renders the images in it partial, never full, representations of the people depicted. But there are always ways to remember the unseen and interrogate the whiteness presented to us by these surviving portraits.  

Images:

Charles Bridges, Benjamin Grymes and Ludwell Grymes, 1735-1744. Virginia Museum of History & Culture. This is an example of a portrait of boys that is contemporary with Jack’s portrait. Perhaps Jack’s image used similar portrait conventions.

Charles Bridges, John Custis IV, 1735-1744. Washington & Lee University. This is a portrait of Jack’s father. Did Bridges also paint Jack?

John Wollaston, Daniel Parke Custis, 1757. Washington & Lee University. This is a portrait of Jack’s half-brother.


[1] For the Custis family documents and histories referenced in this post, see The Custis Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society/Virginia Museum of History & Culture; and Josephine Little Zuppan, ed. The Letterbook of John Custis IV of Williamsburg, 1717-1742 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), esp. 15-16. A copy of John “Jack” Custis’s manumission papers is at The Rosenbach, AMs 788/12. See a picture of it here.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington…, ed. Benson J. Lossing (New York, Derby & Jackson, 1860): 20.

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