Text: Michael J. Deas, “The McKee Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 12-15 (This material is protected by copyright)


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The “McKee” Daguerreotype

The earliest and perhaps least familiar of the known likenesses of Edgar Allan Poe is the so-called “McKee” daguerreotype, named for its last identified owner, Thomas J. McKee. The daguerreotype bears almost no resemblance to the later, more celebrated images of Poe, save perhaps two daguerreotypes taken in Lowell, Massachusetts (fig. 20 and fig. 21), yet its authenticity seems beyond question. Unpublished since 1905, the daguerreotype has been almost totally overlooked by modern scholars, although Poe's earlier biographers seem to have been well acquainted with the image. James Southall Wilson, for example, noted the daguerreotype was “certainly of Poe in spite of one's first impression of doubt.”(1) E. C. Stedman thought it a “rather painful” likeness, but chose to include an engraved version in his 1894-95 edition of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe.(2) And Gabriel Harrison, a personal acquaintance of Poe's, found the daguerreotype to be “the most characteristic of all the portraits of Poe known.”(3)

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 3)
The McKee Daguerreotype
[Illustration on page 13]

The daguerreotype is a seated half-length portrait, depicting Poe full face with one hand resting on the arm of a chair. He holds the pose stiffly, punctiliously: one can clearly sense the ordeal of keeping still for the daguerreotypist's lens. Contemporary descriptions indicate Poe wore no mustache until about 1845, but the absence of one in this portrait, taken presumably about 1842, is disconcerting. Poe's features seem coarser, more obtuse than in the later portraits — an effect accentuated by the thick side-whiskers bordering the chin. The resemblance is obscured even further in what is perhaps the best surviving reproduction of the daguerreotype, published in the April 1905 issue of The Critic (fig. 3). Here, the likeness has been clumsily altered, with a retoucher's handiwork discernible about the eyes, nose, and mouth of the image. Still, the brooding demeanor that permeates the portrait is unmistakably Poe's, and his gently tapered shoulders are framed by the same distinctive greatcoat visible in the “Whitman” daguerreotype of 1848 (fig. 17).

Documentation concerning the daguerreotype's history is sparse, but the picture's existence can be partially retraced through a series of reproductions, the earliest of which appeared in print during Poe's lifetime. In March 1843 a crude woodblock portrait (fig. 5) bearing a striking resemblance to the “McKee” daguerreotype was published on the front page of the Philadelphia Saturday Museum, where it accompanied an extensive account of Poe's life. Since this woodcut was clearly based on the “McKee” daguerreotype, or possibly a now lost variant daguerreotype (page 16) from the same sitting, its publication in the Museum firmly establishes the date of the daguerreotype as no later than the winter of 1843.

According to a statement published by E. C. Stedman in 1895, the daguerreotype next surfaced in the possession of “a Mrs. Chilton, whose husband and his brother were daguerreotypers, on Broadway, New York, somewhere back in the [eighteen] forties.”(4) How Mrs. Chilton acquired the daguerreotype is unknown, but two brothers named Chilton were indeed active as daguerreotypists in New York City during the 1840s.(5) This circumstance has led a number of writers to attribute the “McKee” image to the Chilton studios. However, without some sort of additional documentation this attribution seems premature, for daguerreotypists commonly bought or traded plates — particularly those of celebrities — with virtually no attention paid to a portrait's authorship. Hence, Mrs. Chilton's ownership of the daguerreotype cannot be construed as firm evidence of the picture's origins. Since Poe was [page 14:] living in Philadelphia between the invention of daguerreotypy in 1839 and the publication of the Saturday Museum woodcut in 1843, it seems probable that the “McKee” daguerreotype is the work of a Philadelphia daguerreotypist, identity unknown.

Engraving of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 4)
Wood engraving by R. G. Tietze
[Illustration on page 14]

In September 1894 a vignetted wood engraving of the daguerreotype appeared in the Century Magazine (fig. 4), accompanying an article by Poe scholar George E. Woodberry.(6) The engraver was R. G. Tietze, and the likeness was published with the caption “From a daguerreotype owned by Mr. Thomas J. McKee” The daguerreotype's owner, Thomas Jefferson McKee (1840-1899), was a prominent New York attorney and collector of rare books whose personal library contained not only a scarce first edition of Poe's Tamerlane but a holograph copy of “Ulalume” In a letter to E. C. Stedman, McKee explained that he had acquired the daguerreotype of Poe directly from Mrs. Chilton; he added the plate had been purchased along with a group of daguerreotypes of Daniel Webster, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and William Cullen Bryant, and was preserved in a case bearing Poe's name.(7)

The daguerreotype remained in McKee's possession until his death in 1899, at which time his entire library — consisting of several thousand rare books, manuscripts, and portraits — was consigned for auction at New York's Anderson Galleries. Owing to the enormity [page 15:] of the McKee collection, however, the daguerreotype of Poe would not reach the auctioneer's block for another five years. On February 19, 1905, a small photographic reproduction of the image appeared in the New York Herald, accompanied by a note announcing the impending sale of the original plate. Two days later, its covers broken at the hinge, the daguerreotype was auctioned to an unidentified buyer for 21 dollars.(8) No further trace of the plate has come to light, and the present fate of this extraordinary photograph is unknown.



Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 3a)
The McKee Daguerreotype
[Additional illustration]

Aside from the heavily retouched print in The Critic, the only other known photographic reproduction of the “McKee” daguerreotype is a coarsely screened newspaper image which appeared in the New York Herald, February, 19, 1905 (fig. 3a). While considerably cruder than the reproduction given in The Critic, this image shows fewer signs of a retoucher's handiwork, and bears a noticeable resemblance to the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype (fig. 14). It is published here for the first time since 1905.

Sadly, no trace of the “McKee” daguerreotype has surfaced in the years since the original publication of The Portraits & Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe in 1989. Two of the Poe items offered at the “McKee” sale of 1905 — a manuscript of “Ulalume” and a letter to Susan V. C. Ingram — are both now in the collection of the J. P. Morgan Library, New York City. A thorough search of the Morgan's archives, however, yielded no trace of the “McKee” daguerreotype, and a handwritten receipt from the Anderson Auction Company, dated August 28, 1906, makes no mention of the daguerreotype. Thus, it seems unlikely the daguerreotype was purchased at the McKee sale by J. P. Morgan. The identity of the buyer remains unknown.

Since the “McKee” plate was in relatively poor condition by 1905 (the plate already showed distinct signs of tarnish, and was housed in a broken case), and because daguerreotypes at that time were not treated as the unique rarities they are recognized as being today, the possibility that the “McKee” daguerreotype was eventually discarded cannot be ignored. Still, it can only be hoped that this — the rarest and most singular of all Poe daguerreotypes — will yet resurface, restoring us with history's earliest known glimpse of Poe's face. — MJD (01/20/2011)







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