DAVIS, Varina Jefferson

Bust-length, full-face, dressed in black bonnet and cape, tied with black silk bow, a gold pin in the shape of a wreath with first national confederate flag in the centre placed on her left lapel. Oil on canvas, 24” x 20” (60.9 x 50.8 cm), signed upper right ‘A. Muller-Ury.’

Beauvoir: The Historic Last Home of Jefferson Davis, Box 200, W. Beach Boulevard, Biloxi, Missouri 39531.

The picture was given by Mrs. Davis to her daughter Mrs. Hayes, then of Colorado Springs, who ‘…thinks it a wonderful picture…’ according to a letter from Mrs. Davis dated merely ‘Friday 16th’ and written from the Gerard Hotel (artist’s papers). The picture later passed from the family to the Museum.

DURAND-RUEL GALLERIES, 389, Fifth Avenue, New York, March 1 – 15, 1897.

Washington Post, December 15, 1896.
Mail and Express, New York, February 27, 1897
New Yorker Staats Zeitung, February 28, 1897
New York Times, March 2, 1897
New York Herald, March 14, 1897
Town Topics, March 18, 1897
New York World, April 18, 1897 (reproduced in Sunday World few days before, n.d.)
Ishbel Ross, First Lady of the South: the Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, (New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958), p. 393, also illustrated.
Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 (online e-book 2010)

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The sitter, who was born at Natchez, Mississippi in 1826, the granddaughter of a Governor of New Jersey, married the future Confederate President Jefferson Davis on February 25, 1845. She died at the Majestic Hotel in New York in 1906.

The picture was certainly painted in 1896, and is often known as “Widow of the Confederacy”. The New York Times for March 2, 1897 said that ‘…it is admirable in color and expression, while the texture of the crêpe bonnet and bodice is unusually well rendered.’ Ishbel Ross, in her biography, quotes Muller-Ury’s opinion of Mrs Davis, from the letter quoted in the entry of her daughter Winnie’s portrait, saying that “nobody could help admiring the intelligence, grace and personality of Mrs. J. Davis.” (p.393).

The full text of the letter, on black-edged mourning paper, quoted under provenance above reads:
‘The Gerard, Friday 16th
My dear friend
Can you advise me immediately of a reliable and reasonable packer to prepare the picture you painted of me for a journey to Colorado Springs — Since I have no one but myself to see the picture I have given it to my daughter Mrs Hayes who lives there and thinks it a wonderful picture.
I was very sorry not to see you when you called and hope you will come to see me after the holidays. The contrast between these and last years happy season will render me but poor company until these are over.
If you know such a packer who may be depended upon will you please give the bearer the answer as haste is necessary.
Faithfully, your friend
V Jefferson Davis’

Another picture of Mrs. Davis was certainly begun in January 1902.  An undated letter in the artist’s papers reads:

‘Dear Mr. Ury

My grandchild leaves me tomorrow and I must be here until she goes. Could I not go to you the next day instead?  I would not delay the sitting if I could help it.  Yours cordially

                                                V. Jefferson Davis.

This work was evidently left unfinished and has disappeared.