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Mort Künstler’s Comments
In 1995, while I was working on the book Jackson & Lee – Legends in Gray, I did a small painting which I called The Great Decision. As the subject of the piece was so compelling, I knew that I would eventually use it as the study for a major oil painting. Now all these years later, I have finally done it!
Robert E. Lee was a colonel in the United States Army when the Civil War started. On April 18, 1861 he was summoned across the Potomac to the nation’s capital and offered command of the Federal Army. Although opposed to secession and slavery, Lee could not take up his sword against his home, Virginia, family and friends. After departing Washington, D.C. and returning to his home at Arlington House (present day location of Arlington National Cemetery), he spent April 19th pondering his great decision. The following day he tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army, traveled south to Richmond and accepted command of Virginia’s troops with the rank of major general.
There are always problems to solve with every painting, but with The Great Decision they were very different. The challenge for an artist to depict Lee’s decision was quite basic. However, on April 19, 1861 he simply did not look like the Robert E. Lee that we tend to remember. He was dark-haired and had no beard.
I made arrangements to visit Arlington House and meet with its curator Maria Capozzi. Unfortunately, my visit was not long after the earthquake on August 23, 2011 in the Piedmont Region of Virginia. As a result there was structural damage to the building and all of the beautiful fully-restored rooms had been emptied of all furnishings. Despite this, Ms. Capozzi was still able to provide me with the information that I needed. I finally settled on what is called the “White Parlor” for the location of the painting although Lee may have thought about his epic decision just about anywhere on the grounds.
I still faced the problem of portraying Lee without his trademark white hair and beard. I realized that if I presented the scene in the evening it would be difficult to tell whether Lee’s hair was light or dark. I also felt that if I could compel the eye of the viewer to focus on the back view of the man, they would naturally pan to the left and see his reflection in the mirror. This was accomplished by the use of the lighting effect from the fire. I also posed Lee with his hand upon his chin. This served two purposes. First, the gesture is one of deep thought. Second, the hand would serve to cover the fact that he had no beard at that time.
I had chosen the White Parlor for my scene specifically for its proportions and elegant furnishings. The mantle above the fireplace was personally designed by the general and the furnishings were chosen by both Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee. The bust I included is of George Washington, Mary Custis Lee’s ancestor.
As my firsthand observations for this painting were made wearing a hard hat, while Lee’s magnificent manor was undergoing restoration, I can only hope that by the time this image is released, Arlington House will be fully restored and open to the public once again. It is a home that has witnessed so many historical moments, including the one where one of America’s greatest soldiers made one of his most difficult decisions.
Remembered today as the leader of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee’s military service was one of distinction long before the Civil War. With a family tree firmly rooted in the armed forces of early Colonial America, his service to the United States Army spanned 32 years.When newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln gave control of the Union Army to Winfield Scott, the general immediately requested that Robert E. Lee be given a top command position. On April 18, 1861, then Colonel Lee was summoned to Washington D.C. where he met with Francis P. Blair who said, “I come to you on the part of President Lincoln to ask whether any inducement that he can offer will prevail on you to take command of the Union army.”Taking command of Union forces in Washington would require Lee to take up arms against his own state of Virginia. Accepting the conundrum of his situation, Lee returned to his beloved home at Arlington House where he spent the next two days pondering the repercussions of his decision. After hours of contemplative thought, he graciously rejected the offer and ended his illustrious career in the United States Army.Lee’s resignation letter to General Scott clearly depicted the difficulty of his decision. It read: “I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.” He closed with “Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword.”