A Gift
Portraits of Lee & Jackson

taken from the
Richmond Whig
December 31, 1869

LEE & JACKSON
~~~~~
The McDowell Family of Rockbridge
Portraits of Lee & Jackson by a French artist
The Virginia Military Institute

From the Lexington Gazette of the 22nd.
 

Below we give the correspondence between Dr. James McDowell, for several years past a resident of France and General F. H. Smith, the able and enterprising Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, in reference to two portraits, one of General Lee and the other of General Stonewall Jackson, which Dr. McDowell has presented to the institute.

The letters explain themselves.  We cannot, however, refrain from calling the attention of the good people of Rockbridge county to the deep affection manifested by Dr. McDowell for his native county.  He is the sixth generation from a Scotchman, Ephraim McDowell, who was one of the pioneers of this portion of the Valley of Virginia.  Ephraim McDowell's only son, John, (from whom the family descended) was killed while commanding in a fight with the Indians near the mouth of North River.  Dr. James McDowell, the donor of these pictures, is the fourth James in succession. (a bit of a correction is in order here - the author misspoke by saying there were 4 James' in a row - there were only 3)  Ephraim, John, and three James are now buried in this county.  His grandfather, Colonel James McDowell, commanded in the war of 1812 the troops from this portion of the valley.  His father, the late Governor James McDowell, was an orator and statesman of whom Rockbridge was justly proud, and as the subjoined correspondence shows, was one of the founders of the V.M.I. So much we deem it proper to say of Dr. James McDowell personally.  Now for the pictures:

As paintings, so far as we can judge, they are superb.  As likenesses, they are beyond comparison, the best we have seen.  General Lee's grand and heroic face is easily taken, and all his portraits are more or less accurate, but this is the very best.  General Jackson's countenance, however is different.  The shadowy expression of his eye and mouth, and the delicacy of his other features are hard to catch.  This artist, however, has reproduced them in a wonderful degree.  The rare eye of Jackson is almost perfect.  The lips are a little too full, thereby robbing the face of a sort of Platonic firmness which rendered his countenance so charming.  This is the only derogating criticism that can be made.  It can be easily removed in another portrait.  We do hope , for the sake of history, that the artist, M. Adolphe Piot, of Paris, will receive many orders, both North and
South, for the painting of Jackson's portrait, as we can, in all sincerity, affirm that it is the only really good likeness extant.

Paris, France, Sept.30, 1869

My Dear General Smith,

When I was last in Virginia it was a source of continual regret to be able to find no where a portrait of General Jackson. It is true, there were photographs of him; but they were always unsatisfactory, for, besides their inability to preserve some of the most characteristic individual traits, they never reflected the soul of intellect of the person represented.

As the flight of years carries away this eminent man's contemporaries, the regret I felt will be shared by many persons.

Artists will attempt to relieve this regret by painting portraits, which, though drawn from photographs, will be tricked out by fancy, and in course of time an imaginary head will be accepted as the likeness of this distinguished Virginian.  Think this would be deplorable.

I determined to try to supply this want.

I collected the materials which seemed most suitable for the efficient execution of my design, and upon my arrival in Paris I placed them in the hands of a distinguished French artist, Adolphe Piot, whose works have repeatedly been admitted to the French annual exhibition of Fine Arts.

He has justified my confidence by executing an admirable work of art and a faithful likeness.  My opinion of its excellence is confirmed by several persons here who knew General Jackson and are judges of painting.

I have sent with it a portrait, by the same hand of another Virginian, whose memory will be cherished so long as our literature survives as a living or as a dead language.

I have addressed these portraits to you, that they may by your care be placed in the gallery of pictures belonging to the Virginia Military Institute.

I trust these images of immortal men may rouse the emulation of many generations of noble youths trained at Lexington, and stimulate them to exert themselves to continue unbroken the long line of illustrious and pure patriots, who have made Virginia's name most glorious.

If you think these hopes over-ambitious, I should beg you to receive these portraits as pledges that the affection my father bore neighboring friends, has lost none of its warmth by becoming hereditary, and that neither passage of time, nor intervention of space, has power to cool the attachment I bear to Lexington institutions and Lexington friends.

Your kind reception of these pictures would be additional evidence that the sentiments borne you are not shared alone by one who remains, my dear General Smith,

Very faithfully yours, James McDowell

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Virginia Military Institute
Lexington, Virginia, - Dec. 3, 1869

My Dear Mr. McDowell:

I have delayed a reply to your letter of 30th of September until I could announce to you the safe arrival of the pictures, and tell you all about them.  That pleasure I have to-day.  I cannot, adequately convey to you in words how deeply I feel the distinguished compliment you have paid to the Virginia Military Institute in making it the beneficiary of such portraits of two of Virginia's most illustrious sons.

Connecting as this gift does the past with the present, I am reminded of the early history, the very birth of this school, when your honored father, then a delegate from the county of Rockbridge, supported by his eloquence and his influence the scheme, deemed so chimerical by many, by which the State Arsenal here was to be utilized to the purposes of education, and when we gave it the name which it still bears of "Virginia Military Institute."

It recalls his labors when in our first board of visitors and his counsels were so effectively given in framing the laws for its government, or, later still, when as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia every measure tending to the honor and usefulness of the school found in him a Zealous judicious advocate.  And when at last he fell at his post, closing a life of public usefulness, at the time a member of Congress from this district, it was a pleasing though melancholy duty for the corps of Cadets to pay the last tribute of respect to his honored name and memory.  And now, after the lapse of years, his oldest son, bearing his name, in a distant land, groups together those precious memories, by causing to be executed for the Virginia Military Institute such life like portraits of Lee and Jackson, to be placed in its Gallery of Art, thus happily blending the hereditary interests and affection of the donor "names that were not born to die."  Thank you my dear Doctor, for a gift so precious in itself and so endeared to us by associations which I have but imperfectly hinted at.

And what shall I say of the pictures themselves as works of art.  Let me tell you that they have been subjected to the severest criticisms, and the universal verdict is, that they will transmit to posterity the character and expression, the life and soul of Lee and Jackson, as they were known and loved by their admiring countrymen.  As soon as the pictures were opened, I sent the portrait of General Lee to Mrs. Lee, that the family might examine it.  Her message in returning it was: that it was the best likeness she had seen.  Jackson's would have been improved with a little more determination about the mouth; but the tout ensemble is so perfect that even this improvement we would not have made lest it might impair the expression so happily caught by the great artist.

Again thanking you, I remain, my dear Dr. McDowell,

Very truly and faithfully yours,  Francis H. Smith,  Sup't.




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