*This piece originally published in The Journal of Southern History by one of our owners, Charles Parmenter, an authority on and noted collector of Thomas Sully*
Her days were spent in quiet solitude within the drawing room the the antebellum mansion. In this, her favorite room, surrounded by books, musical instruments, and objects of art, she is most in her element.
The woman, forever timeless, reposes in a flowing dress the color of spring azaleas. Perched on a petite antique sofa, she relaxes her embrace on a small guitar. It slips silently to her side. She turns slightly, as the sound of a welcome visitor interrupts her reverie. Charm radiates from her soft face now as it did when she was a young woman in the 1830s.
Octavia Celestia Valentine Walton Le Vert, better known as Madame Le Vert in the days before the war between the states, was the epitome of southern ladyhood. This Georgia "belle" was born in 1811 at her mother's ancestral home near Augusta. The young Octavia was raised, however, in the provincial Territory of West Florida, where her father served as its first governor. Thus, it was only natural that the gifted Miss Walton would gravitate to the bustling cotton port city of Mobile, Alabama. In Mobile, the young debutante met and married the city's most prized batchelor, Dr. Henry Strachey Levert, and it was here she became famous in her own right.
Octavia Le Vert is best remembered as Mobile's most talented hostess and socialite. Her linguistic, writing, and musical abilities, coupled with her beauty and world-wide social connections, made her famous. Madame Le Vert reigned as "Queen" of her adopted city until her fall from grace, when she committed the unpardonable sin of inviting "cultured yankees" into her Government Street home during the period when Mobile was under Union Army occupation. She died in self-imposed exile in 1877 at her ancestral home in Georgia.
Although Madame Le Vert lived a charmed and colorful life, both in Mobile and on her many travels to the continent, her legacy to Mobile was her youthful oil painted portrait that is now in the collection of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. The portrait, acquired by the society from a Kansas City estate in 1953, now hangs in the formal parlor of Oakleigh mansion in Mobile's Garden District.
Mobile has been blessed with innumerable treasures, many of which go unnoticed in the day-to-day bustle of the late twentieth century. This was not the way of life, however, when a twenty-two year old woman posed for the American born, internationally famous portrait painter Thomas Sully in the fall of 1833. The whole length canvas of the young Octavia Walton captures not only her grace and beauty, but is symbolic of a way of life that no longer exists. The carefree countenance and the adolescent innocence of America are captured forever by Thomas Sully's brush. The dream-like quality of Sully's portraits can only be achieved when a true master takes brush to canvas. The softness and purity of Thomas Sully's paintings have never been duplicated.
When Thomas Sully painted the future Madame Le Vert, of Pensacola, Flaorida, in 1833, he was eleven days in producing the finished work. The price of his labor was a staggering $300.00. In 1833, the average American earned approximately fifty-five dollars per year.
The art Thomas Sully created was the finest money could buy. E. Biddle and M. Fielding write in their book, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully, "He was undoubtedly at his best when portraying the galaxy of lovely women distinguished both by birth and beauty that flocked to his easel." Three years after Octavia Walton was immortalized by Sully, he painted the only surviving child of Thomas Jefferson, his beloved daughter, Martha. The picture was a head and shoulders view, and the cost was $150.00 In 1837, Thomas Sully was in England painting the most celebrated woman of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria. He charged the recently crowned sovereign $500.00 for the twenty-five days itrequired to complete the composition. The original painting is now displayeat the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
Thomas Sully's work is that of a recognized genius. his life-like canvases, when offered for sale, receive the highest prices. Joanne Kleine of the American Paintings division of Christie's in New York City, when interviewed recently by telephone, commented that full length paintings by Thomas Sully are scarce. She believes a painting of this magnitude could command a price at auction as high as $60,000.00. Indeed, paintings by Sully are rare treasures.
In Mobile, Alabama, in the lofty drawing room of Oakleigh Mansion, Madame Le Vert, forever enchanting, waits for guests as if she were hosting one of her famous antebellum Monday salons. Biddle and Fielding are correct in concluding that, "Fortunate, indeed, are possessors of such canvasses from Sully's brush."