“Lee, who served as the president’s valet during the Revolutionary War, was one of the most widely known African Americans of his time and was one of a few slaves manumitted by Washington in his will. Purported depictions of him appear in the background of several paintings, but he never received an official portrait of his own. Kaphar’s efforts to retroactively represent Lee… are contemporary interventions that purposely fail. By defacing the subject… Kaphar exposes scars of historical exclusion” -- National Portrait GalleryOne purported depiction of Billy Lee is in this 1789–1790 painting of The Washington Family by Edward Savage that hangs in the National Gallery of Art. The enslaved African American on the far right may be Billy Lee.
His clothing and his barely visible face may have inspired Kaphar's portrait.
Although the face is more visible in the engraving, also by Savage, Kaphar's work provides an eerie echo of the earlier work.