Johanna Wittingham Custis never came to Virginia. She lived in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Her son, John Custis II, immigrated to Virginia in ca. 1650. This portrait descended with the Parke, Custis, Washington, and Lee portraits gifted to Washington and Lee University. Custis family tradition confirms that this portrait, along with a pendant presumed to be the woman’s husband, Henry Custis, has long been in the Custis family and was believed by the family to have come from “Holland.” Based on the family tradition, history, and style of portraits, it was likely painted in Rotterdam and brought to Virginia by the subject’s son, John Custis II (ca. 1629-1696). It is also possible that it represents another member of the Custis family.
While the portrait was very likely painted in Rotterdam, exactly where it hung in Virginia is unclear. John Custis II, who emigrated to Virginia in ca. 1650, established landholdings at Arlington in Northampton County. Arlington passed through several generations, although it was not always a primary residence. It is likely that the portrait hung at Arlington for a time, and then its location is unknown before it was at (a different) Arlington House in the 19th-century.
Probable Reference: a family history of portraits states, “two, now at Arlington, painted by Van Dyke, tradition says, came from Holland,” in Benson J. Lossing, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1860), 21.
Dimensions: 27 x 22 in. (68.28 x 55.88 cm.)
The portrait represents a woman wearing a black dress with a sheer white fichu tied with bows. Another layer of a sheer white fabric is below and is trimmed. She wears a small black cap. She appears inside a painted oval frame. In the top corners of the painted frame are skulls and bones. In the bottom corners are bones and hourglasses.