The Mystery of Five Family Portraits: IV – Mary Elizabeth Lee & Robert F. Fleming


The last two family portraits in need of artist identification were Mary Elizabeth Lee (1827-1902) and her husband, whose middle name was the same as his last, Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming (1816-1871). Mary Elizabeth was a daughter the subject of the second portrait, Juliana Marian Prosser (1805-1886) and Colonel Richard Bland Lee II (1797-1875), a grandson of the subject of the first portrait, Henry Lee II.


Mary Elizabeth was 19, when she married Dr. Robert F. Fleming in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 2, 1847. At 30, Fleming was eleven years her senior. By 1850, the couple lived in Fredericktown, Missouri, in St. Michael’s Township at the heart of southeast Missouri’s Lead Belt. The French founded the original settlement in 1717 as St. Michel, near Mine La Motte, the first lead mine west of the Mississippi, and for many decades, the most important lead mine on the continent.  To dig the raw material for bullets and cannon balls, the French imported slaves from Santo Domingo. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, land ownership slowly transferred from French to American hands. In 1838, a Philadelphia syndicate, that included the Fleming family, bought Mine La Motte for $16,666.  The company excavated up to a million pounds of lead each year, as well as large amounts of cooper, nickel, and cobalt. Dr. Robert Fleming and his brothers, Thomas Flinn Fleming (1820-1869) and Alfred Walton Fleming (1828-1898), managed the enterprise.((United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, Madison County, Missouri, October 28, 1850, NARA Roll: M432_405, Page: 222B, lines 6-11; Robert Allen CampbellCampbell’s Gazetteer of Missouri: From Articles Contributed by Prominent Gentlemen in Each County of the State, and Information Collected and Collated from Official and Other Authentic Sources (R. A. Campbell, 1875), 342; Howard Louis Conard, Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference, Volume 2, (Southern history Company, Haldeman, Conard & Company, proprietors, 1901), 472.))

Union and Confederate soldiers fought for control of Mine La Motte at the Battle of Fredericktown on October 21, 1861. Rebel casualties numbered 62. Federal forces did not keep a record of their losses, but their victory assured ammunition for the Union throughout the war.((National Park Service, “Fredericktown,” Civil War Battle Summaries,, accessed September 2016.)) The Flemings were not in Fredericktown to witness the fight. Charleston, South Carolina was Robert’s birthplace and Mary Elizabeth’s people were staunchly Virginian. Sometime after June 1, 1860, when the census taker counted them in  Fredericktown, Missouri, they moved to Washington, D. C., where their son Walton was born on August 31, 1861. By December 1, 1863, they lived in St. Louis, Missouri, where Mary Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Julia (1863-1948). By the end of the decade, their home was in Alexandria, Virginia.((United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of Robert F. Fleming,” St Michael, Madison, Missouri; Roll: M653_63, Page 7, lines 36-40; page 8, lines 1-2.))

Robert Fleming died August 19, 1871 at the age of 54. Mary Elizabeth, widowed at 44 and left with six children from 23 to 3, survived him by more than 30 years. She died April 20, 1902 in Washington, D. C., at the age of 74.


Manuel Joachim de Franca

The portrait of Mary Elizabeth Fleming was signed, “MJ Franca, 1848.” Especially since the Fleming family lived in Missouri, where the most popular portrait artist in antebellum years was Manuel Joachim de Franca (1808-1865), the artist was easy to identify. Born on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1808,  de Franca fled to the United States during the Napoleonic Wars. He Americanized his name but his art retained the European elegance he learned in Madrid. His portraits merge continental gracefulness with New World honesty. A ovoid composition typifies his style.

Samuel Bell Waugh

Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming’s portrait was almost certainly painted posthumously. At the bottom left, a conservator noted a signature and date. The date could be read as 1871, but the signature itself was indecipherable.

Indecipherable artist’s signature

The painting’s style did not fit the oeuvre of the few portrait artists working in Alexandria, Virginia, in the early 1870s.  Through educated sleuthing, Fine Art Investigations discovered a record of a portrait of Robert’s brother, Thomas, by Samuel Bell Waugh (1814–1885), and then found an example of Waugh’s signature:

Samuel Bell Waugh Signature

Waugh’s thick flourish on the “g” in his last name and in the “7” of the date, as well as the two brush strokes that form the “h,” are all nearly identical in both paintings. Looking carefully, the “S” and “B” of the artist’s first initials on the Fleming portrait became recognizable. Comparing images of the portrait of Dr. Robert F. Fleming with works by Waugh from the same time period, showed the same ruddy palette and a similar rather stiff, but prestigious pose.


The investigation began with five family portraits of five family members, most from different branches of the same family tree.  The owner knew the names of four of the sitters, but not the names of the five artists. At the end of the investigation, Fine Art Investigations had given her the  names of all five sitters and the names of all five portrait artists. At the same time, what an enjoyable journey it was  traveling through history with the portrait owner’s family from colonial Virginia with American patriots and early portraitists, to Philadelphia in the early republic with merchants and artist , to Maryland to the story of slaves freed before the Civil War, and, finally, to Missouri, to  the history and significance of lead mining. What fascinating tales discovered while identifying the artists of five family portraits.