Text: Michael J. Deas, “Introduction,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 1-9 (This material is protected by copyright)


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The portraits and daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe collected in this volume represent all of the known authentic likenesses of the writer, as well as many of the derivative portraits produced since his death in 1849. Although the face of Poe is one of the most familiar to emerge from America's literary past, remarkably few genuine likenesses of the poet exist. Only two painted portraits, eight original daguerreotypes, and one parenthetically included woodcut comprise the canon of indisputably authentic life portraits of Poe.(1) A twelfth likeness (fig. 11) lacks complete authentication but can be tentatively accepted as a life portrait on the basis of strong circumstantial evidence. Despite many claims to the contrary, no likenesses of Poe in his youth are known to survive; of the eleven authenticated images that have come down to us, the originals of nearly half have been lost, stolen, or destroyed, existing today only in the form of earlier reproductions. While it is relatively certain that Poe sat for other portraits during his lifetime, no visual trace of these images is known to survive.

The iconographic record begins about 1842, with the “McKee” daguerreotype, and ends less than ten years later with two daguerreotypes taken at a sitting held in Richmond shortly before Poe's death at age forty. Though few in number, the portraits are surprisingly rich in biographical content, with each likeness depicting the author at a particularly decisive moment in his career. The three earliest portraits, for example, coincide almost exactly with Poe's emergence as a writer of national prominence, while Samuel S. Osgood's handsomely painted canvas portrays him at the height of his literary success, not long after the publication of “The Raven.” The “Whitman” and “Ultima Thule” daguerreotypes record his appearance just days after he attempted suicide with an overdose of laudanum, while the four remaining images belong to the period in which he produced several of his most enduring poetic works — “The Bells,” “Eldorado,” and “Annabel Lee.” Viewed chronologically, the twelve portraits and daguerreotypes provide a striking visual narrative to the final decade of Poe's life. The limited span of time encompassed by these images, as well as the rarity of the likenesses themselves, can be attributed to the crippling poverty that characterized most of Poe's career. An orphan from the age of three, disinherited by his foster father at twenty, Poe spent his adult years employed as an itinerant editor and journalist. It was a restless and at times precarious existence. Personal possessions were few, and for a man barely able to support himself and his family, portraiture could only have been viewed as an extravagance. Accordingly, the majority of Poe's portraits postdate the huge success of “The Raven;” and all but the “Whitman” daguerreotype appear to have been taken at the behest — and expense — of an interested second party.(2)

Poe, ever mindful of his image as poet and auteur, was seldom pleased with the results of his sittings. While he reportedly expressed satisfaction with a daguerreotype taken for the schoolgirl Mary E. Bronson (probably fig. 12) and another taken for Sarah Helen Whitman (fig. 17), his written remarks concerning his portraits are, without exception, disparaging. Commenting on A. C. Smith's watercolor, for example, he scoffed, “It scarcely resembles me at all.” The engraved copy by Welch & Walter “I do not think ... would be recognised.” A woodcut published in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum “does not convey the faintest idea of my person.”(3) The last image, completed in 1843, was particularly mortifying to Poe, who seems to have made an effort to forget its existence entirely. Responding in 1848 to a female admirer's request for a printed portrait of himself, [page 2:] he laconically answered that the only such likeness he could call to mind was the print by Welch & Walter.(4) Early in 1845 Poe did express a desire to sit to William Page, the noted portrait painter and color theorist, but there is no indication that the artist ever accepted the invitation.(5)

Although contemporary sources imply that Poe was unusually fastidious about his appearance, his chronic disappointment with his portraits cannot be dismissed as mere vanity: in the decades following his death there were many who shared his disgruntlement and openly acknowledged the inadequacy of his likenesses. Maunsell B. Field, who saw Poe lecture in 1848, wrote in 1874 that he had encountered “no portrait ... that does justice to his pale, delicate, and intellectual face and magnificent eyes.” Susan Ingram, who was introduced to Poe at Norfolk in 1849, remarked a half century later: “None of his pictures that I have ever seen look like the picture of Poe that I keep in my memory. Of course they look like him, so that any one seeing them could have recognized him from them, but there was something in his face that is in none of them. Perhaps it was in the eyes, perhaps in the mouth, I do not know, but any one who ever met him would understand what I mean.” Sarah Helen Whitman, in her Edgar Poe and His Critics, echoed the sentiment expressed by Miss Ingram, and attempted to explain the disparity between the sitter and his portraits by noting that Poe's face possessed a “peculiarly changeful character” which made any “adequate transmission of its various and subtle moods ... impossible.”(6)

Poe's Appearance and Manner

Poe's name today conjures a variety of images, the most persistent being one that had its beginnings with an obituary published two days after his death. Written by the New York anthologist and literary critic Rufus W. Griswold, the account has been frequently reprinted and was among the first descriptions of Poe to reach a wide audience: “Thin, and pale even to ghastliness, his whole appearance indicated sickness and the utmost destitution. ... He walked the streets in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer ... with his glance introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched arms beating the winds and rains, would speak as if to spirits that at such times could only be evoked by him.”(7)

Edgar Allan Poe Walking High Bridge [thumbnail]

(fig. 1)
Poe Walking High Bridge
[Illustration on page 3]

Though hardly an accurate account, Griswold's pen-portrait appealed widely to the nineteenth-century imagination, and would soon be adopted not only by detractors who viewed Poe as an example of diseased intellect but by admirers who have preferred to cast him in the role of tragic artist, spurned by literary society and doomed by personal misfortune. While neither view is strictly correct, both have become integral parts of the complex legend now associated with Poe's name — a legend popularized by dozens of imaginative illustrations such as B. J. Rosenmeyer's rendering of Poe roaming the Fordham aqueduct at midnight (fig. 1) and reinforced, to great extent, by the brooding countenance found in several of his best-known likenesses. It is an image Poe himself did little to dispel, and it has inspired a large and at times peculiar body of literature centered on his personal appearance and manner. Herman Melville, for example, in his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, is thought to have fashioned the “haggard, inspired looking man ... peddling a rhapsodical tract” after contemporary descriptions of Poe, while Walt Whitman, in his Specimen Days, recounts a dream in which he envisaged Poe as “a slender, slight, beautiful figure” standing at the helm of a schooner “flying uncontrolled with torn sails and broken [page 5:] spars through the wild sleet and wind and waves of the night.”(8) Newspaper articles describing Poe's portraits began appearing as early as 1870, and in 1906 a volume was published featuring a transposable diagram with which the reader was to compare for himself the “positive and negative” halves of Poe's face.(9) While such discourse may seem odd, it can to some extent be rationalized as an effort to better understand a man who, despite scores of biographies and scholarly studies, remains one of the more enigmatic figures in American literary history.

Ironically, the prevailing public image of Poe is one that is essentially inconsistent with the facts. The earliest descriptions portray him as an attractive youth, athletic albeit extremely slender — “thin as a razor” wrote his foster father John Allan in 1816.(10) His childhood sweetheart Sarah Royster thought him “a beautiful boy — Not very talkative;” while Miles George, a classmate at the University of Virginia, remembered him as “a most pleasant & agreeable companion.” George added: “He was of rather a delicate & slender mould. His legs not bowed, or so slightly so, as to escape notice, did not detract either from the symmetry of his person or the ease and grace of his carriage — To be practical and unpoetical I think his weight was between 130 & 140 pounds.”(11)

Edgar Allan Poe's Enlistment Document [thumbnail]

(fig. 2)
Poe's Enlistment Document
[Illustration on page 4]

Perhaps the most reliable description of Poe dating from this period is the one he himself gave upon his enlistment in the United States Army in 1827. Although he was recruited under the fairly transparent alias of Edgar A. Perry and fictitiously gave his age as twenty-two, his army papers (fig. 2) accurately record his height as five feet eight inches, his hair brown, his eyes grey, and his complexion fair.(12) T. W. Gibson, a fellow cadet at West Point three years later, remembered Poe appearing “much older” than his actual twenty-one years. “He had a worn, weary, discontented look,” said Gibson, “not easily forgotten by those who were intimate with him.”(13)

Descriptions of Poe in adult life vary enormously, but most agree that his features were finely chiseled, that he retained his youthful thinness. He evidently wore no mustache until the last three or four years of his life, preferring instead the long side-whiskers visible in the five earliest portraits. His hair has been variously described as “brown” to “nearly black,” although a lock now preserved among the Sarah Whitman Papers at Brown University shows it to have been much the same shade as Samuel Osgood painted it — a dark curling brown. His forehead was extremely broad but not, as Charles Baudelaire admonished, of “the ridiculous proportions that poor artists invent when, in order to flatter genius, they transform it into a hydrocephalic shape.”(14) Instead it was recessive, sloping back sharply from the brow and producing a silhouette that some found attractive and others thought peculiar. One acquaintance pronounced it “without exception, the finest in its proportion and expression we have ever seen,” while James Russell Lowell could only remember “something snakelike about it.”(15) His eyes were certainly his most compelling feature — virtually every description of length calls attention to their unusual size and color.(16)

His voice was low and melodious, and at least one authority has suggested that he spoke with the trace of a southern accent. His mouth was somewhat weak, and it was perhaps to minimize its want of symmetry that sometime after 1845 he began wearing a small waxed imperial (fig. 12) and later, a full mustache. According to Susan Talley Weiss, who first met Poe in 1849, it was a “dark mustache, scrupulously kept.” J. M. Daniel, however, remembered it as “heavy and ill-trimmed.”(17) In either case it was an addition that altered Poe's outward appearance considerably, accounting for at least some [page 6:] of the disparity between his earliest portraits and those taken after the mid-1840s.

The final years of Poe's life were characterized by a rapid physical decline, the effects of which become plain with a chronological viewing of the twelve life portraits and daguerreotypes reproduced herein. So sudden, so extreme was this deterioration that today one finds it difficult to reconcile the genteel young man painted in 1845 by Samuel Osgood (fig. 9) with the ravaged individual photographed in Lowell, Massachusetts, just four years later (fig. 20 and fig. 21). Yet this same decline — brought on by Poe's increasingly frequent bouts with alcohol and accelerated by the death of his wife in 1847 — seems to have been all too apparent to his contemporaries: as early as 1846 one acquaintance commented publicly that the author was “evidently committing a suicide on his body.”(18) Nevertheless, Poe managed to retain an imposing physical presence that left its mark with virtually all who met him. “An indescribable refinement pervaded all that he did and said,” wrote one admirer; “I saw him only once,” remembered the New England anthologist Thomas W. Higginson, “[yet] I distinctly recall his face, with its ample forehead, brilliant eyes, and narrowness of nose and chin; an essentially ideal face, not noble, yet anything but coarse ... a face to rivet one's attention in any crowd.”(19)

Poe himself seems to have been keenly aware of the dramatic impressions he was capable of creating, and made ample use of the fact by endowing several of his fictional creations with features closely modeled after his own. Both “The Assignation” and the 1837 version of “Mystification” include characters who resemble their creator, but the most obvious example of Poe's self-descriptive tendencies remains his portrait of Roderick Usher, the neurotic protagonist of “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “The character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up a countenance not easily to be forgotten.”

The physical similarities between Poe and a character such as Usher have led at times to an unfortunate blurring of the distinction between life and art, with some readers attributing to Poe the same compulsions and maladies suffered by his fictional creations. The misapprehension is little dispelled by the author's most frequently reproduced portraits, the six daguerreotypes taken during the last eighteen months of his life — each of which depicts a worn and evidently troubled individual. The “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype typifies the matter: with its nocturnal tonality and saturnine gaze, the portrait suggests one of Poe's Gothic tales as readily as it does the sunlit daguerreotype studio in Providence where it was taken in the autumn of 1848. Moreover, later likenesses such as the “Ultima Thule” plate have provided a kind of visual credence to Rufus Griswold's defamatory description of Poe, and have been instrumental in shaping a popular image of the poet which, while perhaps satisfying the public demand for stereotypes of genius, appears to have little basis in fact. Earlier, more representative likenesses such as the Osgood and McDougall portraits impart a considerably different impression of the author, suggesting not “sickness and the utmost destitution” but a quietly elegant figure, handsome in an uncommon sense. The seldom published “Daly” daguerreotype, for example, conveys an air of urbanity and poise, while even the amateurish [page 7:] watercolor by A. C. Smith manages to suggest human warmth and personal grace. Such impressions are echoed in dozens of firsthand descriptions of Poe, the majority of which recall a man who, despite penury and dissipation, carried about him a stamp of refinement. As John H. B. Latrobe summarized upon the unveiling of a monument over Poe's grave in 1875: “He was[,] if anything, below the middle size, and yet could not be described as a small man. His figure was remarkably good, and he carried himself erect and well, as one who had been trained to it. ... Coat, hat, boots, and gloves had evidently seen their best days, but so far as mending and brushing go, everything had been done apparently, to make them presentable. On most men his clothes would have looked shabby and seedy, but there was something about this man that prevented one from criticising his garments. ... Gentleman was written all over him.”(20)

Spurious Portraits

Spurious portraits of historical figures are not uncommon, yet the number of such portraits said to represent Edgar Allan Poe is staggering. Scores of fictitious Poe portraits are scattered in public and private collections throughout the United States; Washington's National Portrait Gallery alone has in its files references to at least twenty-five such likenesses, and the number increases almost yearly. Approximately half of these works are posthumously produced, heavily altered derivatives based on established life portraits (e.g., fig. 38 and fig. 39), while others are merely paintings or photographs of anonymous subjects erroneously identified as Poe. Of these, only the most significant are catalogued here, for fictitious portraits of Poe have been surfacing with astonishing frequency since the turn of the century. One of the earliest examples of the genre is a small oil portrait supposedly painted by Henry Inman (fig. 50). Its origins are typical of the many fraudulent Poe likenesses that have followed it: “discovered” in England about 1900, the portrait surfaced unaccompanied by reliable documentation of any sort, and its association with Poe as well as the attribution to Inman were based solely on elaborate allegations made by its onetime owner.

Few likenesses of this kind have any aesthetic worth, and one is tempted to theorize that they were initially called life portraits of Poe simply to impart value to what might otherwise be considered an unsaleable work of art. To be sure, the romantic aura surrounding Poe's life and works, coupled with the extreme rarity of authentic Poe memorabilia, has made the trade in counterfeit portraits of the author a profitable one. In 1927 a fictitious Poe likeness fetched $2,200; a half century later another was consigned for auction with an estimated value of $7,000 to $12,000.(21) Ironically, the proliferation of these portraits has at times been unintentionally abetted by authorities on Poe. Mary E. Phillips's profusely illustrated Edgar Allan Poe: The Man, for example, contains reproductions of at least four spurious Poe portraits, while Poe scholar Thomas O. Mabbott once gave his imprimatur to a fraudulent “self-portrait” (fig. 59) that later sold for several thousand dollars, largely on the basis of his authentication. In 1949 Mabbott also promulgated the myth that Poe once posed for a fashion plate in Graham's Magazine (fig. 55) and later described the “Whitty” portrait (fig. 53) as the “earliest fully authenticated picture” of Poe, when in fact it was derived from a wood engraving published six years after the poet's death. Amanda Pogue Schulte and James Southall Wilson's pamphlet Facts about Poe: Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe has long been regarded as the standard iconography of the poet, though it too contains a substantial number of errors and omissions and is, as a whole, considerably less reliable than E. C. Stedman's brief but surprisingly [page 8:] accurate survey of Poe portraits published three decades earlier.(22)

In most cases, authentic portraits of Poe can be distinguished not only by the countenance they depict but by their provenance. With the exception of the “Daly” daguerreotype and the recently rediscovered miniature by J. A. McDougall, all of the established likenesses of Poe have histories that can be retraced to within a decade of the poet's lifetime. Spurious portraits, by contrast, are invariably tinged with a shadowy background; more often than not their point of origin proves to be a secondhand store or, as in the case of the aforementioned “Inman” portrait, the library of a collector given more to zeal than to serious scholarship. While it is possible, perhaps even probable, that one or more genuine likenesses of Poe may yet survive undiscovered in a public or private collection, it must be emphasized that spurious portraits of the author have been surfacing with tiresome regularity for nearly a century. Any alleged Poe portrait discovered in years to come will have to be viewed with extreme skepticism.

The Daguerreotypes of Poe

The only form of photography widely available in the United States during Poe's lifetime was the daguerreotype. This earliest and perhaps most beautiful of all photographic processes was introduced by the Parisian artist Louis J. M. Daguerre in the summer of 1839; news of his discovery reached American shores the following autumn. Like most Americans, Poe perceived the invention of these “sun-drawn miniatures” as nothing short of the miraculous. In January 1840 he wrote: “The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps most extraordinary triumph of modern science. ... All language must fall short in conveying any just idea of the truth. ... For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands.”(23)

Before his death ten years later, Poe would sit for his daguerreotype portrait on at least six separate occasions, to produce a total of eight known original plates. Of these, only three can be located today: the “Whitman” daguerreotype, owned by Brown University (fig. 17), the “Annie” daguerreotype, owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum (fig. 20), and the “Thompson” daguerreotype, owned by Columbia University (fig. 22). The remaining five have been either lost or stolen; at least one, the “Traylor” daguerreotype (fig. 23), was defaced during the 1890s and may have been subsequently discarded. Poe's open fascination with the daguerrean process, coupled with his several published commentaries on improvements in the medium, suggests that he may have sat for daguerreotypes on other occasions, but if so, all trace of these plates has dropped from sight.

Because of the complexities inherent in any study of daguerreotype portraits — particularly those of Poe — some explanation of the daguerrean process is merited here. Daguerreotypes differ dramatically from modern photographs, the principal distinction being perhaps the singularity of each daguerreotype plate. No negative was involved in producing a daguerreotype; instead, the image of the sitter was projected through a lens directly onto a light-sensitive, silver-plated sheet of copper, inserted into the camera by hand. Exposures — which ranged anywhere from a few seconds up to half a minute — were made by uncapping and recapping the lens. The plate bearing the latent image was then removed from the camera, developed over a tray of heated mercury, and stabilized in a bath of sodium thiosulfate. The completed image was usually matted and framed in a leather-bound miniature case lined with satin or velvet. Because no negative was used in the process, each plate is unique and essentially irreplaceable.

Early daguerreotype cameras were relatively [page 9:] primitive affairs; most lacked a refracting prism, and the image of the sitter was thus thrown onto the daguerreotype plate laterally reversed, producing a mirror image of the subject. Devices designed to correct this effect were introduced in the early 1840s, but their usage did not become widespread until the close of the decade. Hence, most of Poe's daguerreotypes are reversed images, depicting the author as if in a mirror. The mirror-reversal phenomenon seems to have accentuated the asymmetry of Poe's face, a circumstance that over the years has prompted some peculiar commentary on the lack of “moral character” evidenced by his physiognomy.(24)

The only contemporary method of replicating a daguerreotype was to remove the original plate from its case, position it on a copying board, and carefully rephotograph the original image. In the hands of a skilled daguerreotypist, this process could be accomplished with surprising accuracy, the copy being almost indistinguishable from its progenitor. The mirror-reversal effect would of course be redoubled in the process, producing a corrected image of the sitter (e.g., fig. 21 and fig. 71, fig. 22 and fig. 75). Duplicates of Poe's daguerreotypes began to be produced in quantity shortly after his death in 1849; thus, in addition to the eight daguerreotypes known to have been taken from life, as many as thirteen copy daguerreotypes have been recorded. In this volume, daguerreotypes identified as originals are discussed in the section chronicling life portraits; plates identified as copies are discussed separately in Appendix A. For the sake of clarity, daguerreotypes exhibiting a reversed image of the sitter are captioned with an asterisk (*). (Among the original portraits, these reversed images are the “McKee,” “Daly,” “Whitman,” “Annie,” “Stella,” “Thompson,” and “Traylor” daguerreotypes. Among the copy plates, these reversed images are the “Robins,” “Painter,” “Dimmock” daguerreotypes.) In all cases — portraits, engravings, and daguerreotypes alike — dimensions of the images are given with height preceding width.







[S:1 - PDEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (M. J. Deas) (Introduction)