Text: Michael J. Deas, “The Saturday Museum Woodcut,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 15-18 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 15, continued:]


In May 1843 the Philadelphia editor and publisher Thomas C. Clarke placed an advertisement in a local periodical, the Citizen Soldier, announcing his intention to publish a series of articles profiling that city's leading poets. The series was to be entitled “The Poets and Poetry of Philadelphia” and each installment, trumpeted Clarke, would appear in his own weekly Philadelphia Saturday Museum. All of the articles were to be illustrated by a series of “beautifully engraved Full Length Portraits” drawn from daguerreotypes taken specifically for reproduction in the Museum.(9) Clarke's announcement was a trifle belated: his series had commenced three months earlier with a profile of Philadelphia's oldest living poet, Dr. James McHenry. It had continued a week later, on February 25, 1843, with an extensive biography of Clarke's close personal friend, Edgar Allan Poe.

This, the earliest published biography of Poe, was accompanied in the Museum by a crude woodblock portrait — the first printed likeness of the promising young author. No copies of the February 25 issue of the Museum are known to survive, but the article on Poe attracted such favorable notice that it was reprinted a week later, on the front page of the Saturday Museum for March 4, 1843. It is from this second printing of the woodcut that our reproduction (fig. 5) is taken. Although the essay accompanying the woodcut was ostensibly written by Poe's friend Henry B. Hirst, scholars now believe Poe furnished much of the biographical matter himself, and probably exercised a strong hand in writing the finished article. Included with the biography was a description of Poe that might well be construed as a verbal self-portrait of the poet at age thirty-four: “In person, he is somewhat slender, about five feet, eight inches in height, and well proportioned; his complexion is rather fair; his eyes are grey and restless, exhibiting a marked nervousness; his forehead is extremely broad, displaying prominently the organs of Ideality ... His hair is nearly black, and partially curling. Our portrait conveys a tolerably correct idea of the man.”

Engraving of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 5)
The Philadelphia Saturday Museum Portrait
[Illustration on page 17]

The woodcut depicts Poe resting stiffly in a wooden armchair, his right arm rigidly propped atop two volumes — possibly an oblique reference to the two-volume edition of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque published in Philadelphia three years earlier. The portrait's features are coarse, almost brutal, and their disagreeableness may account for the fact that the picture has been rarely published since its original appearance in 1843. The thickset torso is probably not Poe's but an improvised one [page 16:] added after the bust had been completed. The woodcut contains two concealed signatures, which can be found faintly incised in two of the three visible chair legs. The extreme left chair leg is inscribed “PINKERTON del” (del being an abbreviation for the Latin delineavit, meaning “he drew it”). The right chair leg is inscribed “PARMELEE Sc” (sc being an abbreviation for the Latin sculpsit, meaning “he carved it”). Since the process for creating a woodblock portrait in the 1840s was not unlike that of an assembly line, the double signature found here indicates the image was first drawn onto the wooden block by an artist, Pinkerton, and then carved by an engraver, Parmelee.

Upon seeing the portrait in late February 1843, Poe was aghast. In a letter to his friend F. W. Thomas, he lamented, “I am ugly enough, God knows, but not quite so bad as that.” Eight months later he forwarded a copy of the Museum article to James Russell Lowell, enclosing it with a letter explaining, “I send you the paper with my life and portrait. The former is true in general — the latter particularly false. It does not convey the slightest idea of my person. No one of my family recognised it. But this is a point of little importance.”(10) Poe's dissatisfaction with the likeness was promptly echoed by Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, the editor, physician, and personal friend who years later would attend him as he lay dying in a Baltimore tavern. Writing in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for March 11, 1843, Snodgrass remarked that the “likeness is perhaps as good as a wood-cut could make — but not very truthful we think.” A writer for the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times disagreed, pronouncing the woodcut “a very fair likeness of our friend, Edgar A. Poe, Esq.”(11)

In a reminiscence published in 1868, the Museum's former owner, Thomas C. Clarke, confirmed that the woodcut had indeed been copied from a daguerreotype, just as he had claimed in the pages of the Citizen Soldier twenty-five years earlier.(12) Although Clarke did not specify which daguerreotype had been used, he was probably referring to either the “McKee” daguerreotype (fig. 3) or, as shall be seen, a variant daguerreotype produced at the same sitting as the “McKee” image. The resemblance between the woodcut and the “McKee” plate is striking, and their similarity was observed as early as 1894 in an article by Poe biographer George E. Woodberry: “The [daguerreotype] portrait of Poe ... owned by Mr. Thomas J. McKee, so closely resembles that printed with Hirst's Biography in the ‘Philadelphia Saturday Museum,’ March 4, 1843, as to suggest that the latter, though very rude in execution, was copied from it, and to place its authenticity beyond doubt.”(13)

Woodberry, however, may have been only partially correct in observing the relationship between the two images. If their features are compared individually — particularly the crescent-shaped shirt collar, the furrowed brow, the lusterless left eye — the woodcut and daguerreotype seem remarkably alike, leaving no doubt that they are in some way related to each other. Yet despite these similarities, the images differ in two important respects. First, each portrait depicts Poe at a slightly different angle, the daguerreotype portraying him at approximately eye level, the woodcut representing him from slightly below that point. Secondly, the daguerreotype is a full-face likeness while the woodcut is essentially a three-quarters view, with the sitter looking to the right. Since woodcut portraits of this kind were typically copied from an original likeness with slavish fidelity, these variations point to the possible existence of a second daguerreotype, taken at the same sitting as the “McKee” plate and subsequently used to produce the Saturday Museum woodcut. If this daguerreotype did exist at one time, no further trace of it has come to light.

Of the artist and engraver we know but little. [page 18:] “Pinkerton” was undoubtedly one E. J. Pinkerton, an obscure artist and lithographer active in Philadelphia between 1840 and 1846. It is ironic that this man was selected to limn the first published likeness of Poe, for Poe knew his work and disliked it intensely. In 1841 he had derided one of Pinkerton's drawings as “execrable” and “shockingly botched,” and went so far as to urge Prof. Thomas A. Wyatt, a literary acquaintance who had had the misfortune of commissioning the piece in question, to “refuse to pay Pinkerton for what he has so botched, and get the design executed by some competent artist, who will ask you but little more than he does.”(14) If nothing else, this circumstance suggests that Poe had little say in selecting the artists who were to execute his portrait for the Museum. Less is known of the woodcut's engraver, “Parmelee.” He may have been one Charles N. Parmelee (or Parmalee), born in Connecticut about 1805 and known to have been working in Philadelphia between 1837 and 1854. Like Pinkerton, he too seems to have been personally acquainted with Poe.(15)

Surviving copies of the Philadelphia Saturday Museum are extraordinarily scarce. As already noted, no copies of the issue for February 25, 1843, containing the first printing of the Pinkerton-Parmelee woodcut, are known to exist. The issue for March 4, in which the woodcut made its second appearance, has fared only slightly better. Although several copies of that issue are reputed to survive, only one has been definitely located; it is currently owned by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Addendum - I

William F. Stapp, formerly curator of photographs at both the National Portrait Gallery and George Eastman House, differs markedly in his opinion on the genesis of the Saturday Museum woodcut. Mr. Stapp, whose pioneering research on Poe daguerreotypes for Facing the Light: Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes (Washington: National Portrait Gallery, 1978) laid much of the groundwork for this volume, agrees that the woodcut and the “McKee” daguerreotype bear a distinct similarity to one another. However, enough significant differences exist between the two images to warrant a reconsideration of the woodcut's origin. Stapp writes:

The strong resemblance between the two likenesses has more to do with them dating from probably no more than a few months of each other than anything else [ ... ] The fact that Poe is wearing completely different outfits in the two images is very telling. When a portrait was translated from a photograph into a wood-engraving or lithograph, it was done very faithfully: so the pose, the clothing, even studio details, and the perspective of the image were rendered as exactly as the wood-engraver's or lithographer's skill permitted. In the Saturday Museum wood engraving, the head is more upright and turned slightly more to the right than in the “McKee” daguerreotype, but the perspective is spot-on, with no apparent awkwardness or distortion in Poe's features — which indicates that it's very faithful to the image being copied. The clothes in the two images, moreover, are completely different: Poe is wearing an overcoat over a dark suit coat and a dark, high-necked vest in the “McKee” daguerreotype, whereas he is wearing a dark suit coat over a light-colored, low-cut vest and light-colored trousers in the Saturday Museum portrait. It was just not usual practice to alter a copy image so drastically. [William F. Stapp to the author, February 24 and March 16, 2011]

Poe is known to have sat for his daguerreotype portrait on six documented occasions. Stapp's observations, however, suggest a seventh, hitherto unrecorded sitting, held evidently in Philadelphia before March 1843. In light of Poe's open fascination with daguerreotypy (his published remarks on the subject first appeared in January 1840), such a scenario seems quite possible, even likely, and would make this lost daguerreotype one of the earliest literary photographs taken in the United States. It would also increase the probablity that the “McKee” daguerreotype was indeed made by the Chilton Brothers in New York, subsequent to Poe's departure from Philadelphia in April 1844 — much as E. C. Stedman initially suggested in 1894. Unfortunately, without supplementary evidence of some kind, such as the reappearance of the original “McKee” daguerreotype, the exact origins of the Saturday Museum portrait must remain conjectural. — MJD (04/23/2011)


Addendum - II

A second original of the issue of the Saturday Museum for March 4, 1843 may be found at the University of Virginia, in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library (Call # PS2631 .E29 1843). It was given to the library by James Southall Wilson. A third original appears to have been in the collection of James H. Rindfleisch (see Heartman and Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 1943, p. 249), but is currently unlocated. A number of large photostats were made of the Rindfleisch copy about 1940 and sent to various archives, including the American Antiquarian Society, the Maryland Historical Society, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, and the University of Pennsylvania. — JAS (02/21/2011)







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