Sketch for the Surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomatox

about 1875–80
Artist Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916)


33.3 x 23.5 cm (13 1/8 x 9 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas, mounted on plywood

On View

Barbara and Theodore Alfond Gallery (Gallery 234)





This sketch, like many of Eakins’s paintings, betrays a tension between the two subjects he most favored: modern, psychological portraits and nostalgic, historical scenes of bygone years. Sketch for the Surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox depicts the April 9, 1865, surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Union forces at the house of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Courthouse, a village in central Virginia. Eakins began to paint it around the same time as his William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876–77, Philadelphia Museum of Art); historical compositions were clearly on his mind, although he never completed a finished work on the subject of Lee’s surrender. This sketch is typical of Eakins’s preliminary work and is composed of broad and vigorous brushstrokes that effectively render both the figures and the light with minimal attention to detail.

While the impetus for this project remains a mystery, the National Centennial events, held in Philadelphia in 1876, renewed national patriotism and inspired a wave of nostalgia for the antebellum past. This affection for the colonial period served to shift the American imagination away from the memory of the horrors of slavery and the realities of the Civil War—roughly 625,000 deaths, over one million casualties, and awful destruction, both to property and to the land—and direct it toward a bucolic imagined past.

Almost immediately after Lee’s surrender, the historical event was translated into a plethora of visual material, including images in the magazine Harper’s Weekly and a print by the popular lithographers Currier and Ives in 1865, revised and reissued in 1873. The imagery of the surrender sought to present the complex negotiation ending the war as a decision reached between two equals, a conciliatory gesture for a nation facing an uncertain reunification. In his own depiction, Eakins indicates a tense balance between the two central figures, each general weighing down one side of the dark composition. Once a single sketch showing both men, Eakins’s composition was cut in two, likely by Charles Bregler, Eakins’s studio assistant. The portion depicting General Lee was in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., until the fall of 2011, when it was deaccessioned and sold at auction to an unknown buyer.

Eakins, who strove for faithful accuracy in his paintings, likely sought first-hand accounts of the details of the surrender before beginning his sketch. General Horace Porter, a witness to the surrender, wrote a widely circulated account of the event:
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The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and could not fail to attract marked attention, as they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots … He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant’s senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were a silver gray, and quite thick except that the hair had become a little thin in front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. [1]
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Probably due to this account and others like it, Eakins portrayed General Grant, visible in the MFA sketch, as less ostentatious than General Lee. In the other half, General Lee, clad in his formal uniform, sits and waits for the terms of surrender. In the MFA’s half, Grant, attired in less formal grab, writes out the terms. Perhaps it was the action of writing that drew Eakins to this subject—he frequently represented that task in his paintings, most famously in his sensitive portrait of his aging father, The Writing Master (1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Since these sketches are the only evidence of this uncompleted painting project, they act as significant historical documents making evident both Eakins’s artistic processes and also his interest in representing events from the United States’ past. It was not the only historical subject Eakins planned but did not complete; during the 1870s he began paintings of Hiawatha (about 1874, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.) and Columbus in prison (about 1876, location unknown). Eakins scholar Kathleen A. Foster, discussing these uncompleted historical works, writes:
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Nothing survives to tell us why the pictures of Columbus, Grant, and Lee were left undone; we know only that he abandoned Hiawatha when he judged it sickeningly “poetic.” The rejection of Hiawatha…seems to illustrate the chastening that Eakins’ grand schemes received from his realist ideology and its academic entanglement. Devoted to detail, he must have been uncomfortable reconstructing Columbus from inadequate sources and unhappy with the prospect of painting at least one of the principals at Appomattox from photographs. [2]
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As a sketch for an uncompleted painting, this work represents aspects of Eakins’s oeuvre that he avoided or abandoned, perhaps reflecting his desire for absolute fidelity. In his unswerving quest to capture the realism of the moment—through life studies, historical props, and his own photographic models—he could not paint the scene of surrender, an event that was too far in the past and lacked substantial physical evidence. Later, Eakins did complete one work relating to General Grant, sculpting (together with William Rudolph O’Donovan) the horses for two equestrian figures, Grant and Abraham Lincoln, for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in 1892.

1. General Horace Porter, “Grant’s Last Campaign,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 35 (November1887–April 1888): 145.
2. Kathleen A. Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 162.

Naomi H. Slipp


The artist; to Susan Eakins (the artist's wife); to Charles Bregler, 1931; to Mrs. Charles (Mary L.) Bregler; to her estate; with Christie's East, April 9, 1998, lot 37 ("Estate of Mary L. Bregler to benefit Charles Bregler Scholarship Fund"); with Alexander Acevedo, New York; with David Dufour, New York; with Alfred J. Walker, Boston, 2000; to MFA, 2001, purchase.

Credit Line

James E. Neill Memorial Fund