Text: Michael J. Deas, “John A. McDougall,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 28-32 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 28:]

Miniature by John A. McDougall

Watercolor of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 11)
Miniature by John A. McDougall
[Illustration on page 29]

This skillfully painted watercolor is the work of John Alexander McDougall (1810/1811-1894), a talented miniaturist who spent much of his career working in Newark, New Jersey. Trained at the National Academy of Design, McDougall worked at various times in New Orleans, Charleston, and Saratoga Springs. By 1839 he had settled in Newark, at 33 Market Street, but for several years thereafter continued to maintain a succession of studios in nearby New York City, enjoying “a wide acquaintance and many clients.”(42) McDougall's popularity seems to have been well deserved: four examples of his early work now preserved at the New-York Historical Society reflect a level of craftsmanship attained only by the better miniaturists of the period. During the 1840s he also began to experiment with photography, and about 1846 opened his own daguerreotype parlor in Newark. McDougall's interest in daguerreotypy now seems rather ironic — it was the advent of this inexpensive portrait medium that would lead to the decline, and ultimately to the obsolescence, of miniature portrait painting. Although McDougall would continue to paint miniatures for the next three decades (he was, in fact, one of the few American artists to do so), his dabblings with photography evidently had an unfavorable effect on his painting. After 1850 his work began to lose much of its earlier deftness and delicacy, becoming instead clumsier and more photographic. By 1880 he had abandoned miniature painting altogether, his artistic abilities sadly reduced to “touching up and coloring photographs he had taken.”(43)

According to his son, Walter Hugh, McDougall was a likable, learned man who “knew everybody in New York worth the knowing” — over the years his studio would become a haven for such notables as Thomas Dunn English, Thomas Edison, and the painters George Inness, Thomas Moran, and Asher B. Durand.(44) The younger McDougall also asserted that his father had once painted Edgar Allan Poe, and while this miniature of the poet (fig. 11) cannot be authenticated beyond all question, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the portrait was indeed painted from life.

The verifiable history of the likeness begins in Newark, about 1910, when the watercolor surfaced in the hands of Mrs. John A. Crockett, a cousin of McDougall's wife. It was first reproduced in the Century Magazine for June 1910, accompanied by the following caption:


The miniature of Edgar Allan Poe from which the above is made, and which has not before been published, was painted from life by J. A. McDougall, in New York City, about 1846, three years before the poet's death. The artist was a friend of Poe and other literary men of that time. The portrait was given as a wedding present by McDougall to John A. Crockett, from whose widow, now living at Newark, N.J., we have obtained permission to reproduce it.


Shortly before the portrait appeared in the Century, or possibly shortly afterwards, Mrs. Crockett lent or gave the likeness to her third cousin, Louise McDougall of Newark, coincidentally a granddaughter of the artist John A. McDougall. Within a year, one of the two women elected to sell the watercolor, and on April 11, 1911, Mrs. Crockett wrote a brief note attesting to its authenticity: “This is to certify that the picture of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe offered for sale, was presented to us by the Artist, John A. McDougall Sr about 1860. I am positive he painted it, and that the Poet sat for the picture. Any further information regarding ­[page 30:] it I will gladly give.”(45)

By 1917 the miniature had been acquired by John L. Clawson of Buffalo, New York, a collector of rare books and objets d’art. In October of that year Clawson granted the biographer Mary E. Phillips permission to reproduce the image in her Edgar Allan Poe: The Man (1926), remarking that “you can copy the picture from the [Century] magazine and do as well as to have it rephotographed, as it is a very good reproduction.”(46) But barely a year after corresponding with Miss Phillips, Clawson disposed of the likeness, consigning it for auction with the Anderson Galleries in New York City. According to the sale catalogue, the portrait had by this time been bound up with an “unpublished autograph manuscript” attributed to Poe and entitled “The Nucleus of Our Planet in a State of Igneous Liquifaction” Subsequent scholarship would reveal that this essay was written not by Poe but by his correspondent George W. Eveleth.(47) Still, the manuscript and miniature fetched the sizable sum of $650 at auction, sold to a buyer with the initials “H.E.”(48) The portrait then dropped from sight and was for many years presumed lost. Recent research, however, has determined that “H.E.” was in fact Henry E. Huntington and that the tiny watercolor of Poe has, for the past six decades, been in the collection of the Huntington Library.

The miniature, painted on stiff paper and initialed at the lower left with the artist's monogram, is mounted in a large quarto volume made of crushed green levant. Preserved with the portrait are several documents, the most important being Mrs. Crockett's letter of authentication and an unidentified newspaper clipping purportedly giving an account of the miniature's origin. The clipping is undated, but judging from its content, it was published in Newark shortly before the portrait appeared in the Century Magazine for June 1910:

A hitherto unpublished portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, painted from life by a Newark artist, is in the possession of Miss Louise McDougall, daughter of William E. McDougall, of 209 South Sixth Street.

The portrait, which is a beautiful piece of workmanship, was painted under rather romantic circumstances by John A. McDougall in his New York studio between 1845 and 1847. The eminent author was one of a number of authors, artists, and other cultured people who used to make the studio of Mr. McDougall a rendezvous where they retired for a quiet smoke and a chat on things artistic.

One day while Poe was in the artist's studio Mr. McDougall told him of the great admiration a cousin of his wife had for his writings and short stories, and as her wedding day was not remote the idea was evolved for McDougall to paint the author's portrait and present it to her with the compliments of the author and artist.

The picture was done and presented. The recipients were Mr. and Mrs. John A. Crockett, of Newark. Mr. Crockett has since died and Mrs. Crockett recently gave the portrait to Miss McDougall.

This account, appealing though it might be, appears to be a contrivance, for Mrs. Crockett's 1911 letter of authentication clearly states that the portrait was given to her by McDougall, and McDougall alone, about 1860 — eleven years after Poe's death. Whether the story of Poe's graciousness was a deliberate inveigling told by Mrs. Crockett with the intention of eventually marketing the portrait, or merely an embellishment conjured by an enterprising journalist, cannot be determined with certainty, although the language and overall tone of the article tends to suggest the latter.

In terms of authenticity, the McDougall watercolor ­[page 31:] remains the most difficult of all Poe portraits to assess accurately. Its provenance is questionable, to say the least. Moreover, the artist has painted Poe's eyes a bluish grey, rather than the pure grey they are most commonly said to have been. The closely cropped hair seen in the miniature is not found in any of the fully authenticated images of Poe, nor is it a style characteristically worn during the 1840s. Still, these inconsistencies seem slight when compared with the amount of evidence supporting the miniature as a genuine life portrait of Poe.

For example, a search of the New York City directories reveals that in 1844-45 McDougall was operating a portrait studio at 11 Park Place, a matter of yards from Poe's office at the Broadway Journal. His immediate neighbor, at 9 Park Place, was Poe's friend and mentor N. P. Willis.(49) By the end of 1845 McDougall had moved his quarters several blocks north to 386 Broadway, and in December of that year Poe followed suit, moving the Broadway Journal offices to a building nearby at 304 Broadway. While these circumstances do not prove that Poe sat to McDougall, they do establish that the two men moved within the same circles and may well have been personally acquainted with each other.

Stylistically, the bold brushstrokes and quick, incisive crosshatching found in the miniature are wholly consistent with a method of painting introduced by McDougall barely two years before the sitting with Poe is said to have taken place. A writer for the New York Spirit of the Times commented on the new technique late in 1844:

Water Colored Sketches — We are pleased to notice the growing popularity of the English style of rapid miniature painting, quite a novelty among us and a good deal introduced by MR. JOHN A. MCDOUGALL, a painter of much good taste, skill and talent. These sketches wrought freely, forcibly, and strikingly correct, bid fair to supplant the daguerreotype. ... By a visit to the rooms of the artist [at] 11 Park Place, we were convinced of the truth of [this] assertion, and were pleased at the cleverness and taste of this style of colored drawing, and the rapidity with which they can be produced, and their cheapness a mere nothing.(50)

As noted previously, McDougall would abandon this method of painting sometime after 1850, adopting in its stead a more rigid and less spontaneous approach to portraiture based largely on the use of photographs. Since Poe died in 1849, the technique with which figure 11 was painted becomes a matter of critical importance: had McDougall completed the miniature after Poe's death, it is unlikely he would have reverted to a previously discarded style to execute the likeness.

Yet the most compelling arguments in support of the miniature can be based on the painted image itself. Unlike the dozens of posthumously painted likenesses of Poe that have surfaced in years past, the McDougall portrait has no obvious visual source; that is, it does not appear to have been copied from any of the established life portraits of Poe. Instead, McDougall has recorded accurately certain nuances of Poe's appearance that have been overlooked by subsequent generations of portrait painters — nuances so subtle, so idiosyncratic that it seems impossible they were limned by one who was not personally acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe. Although the miniature is essentially an idealized likeness, it compares remarkably well with the known daguerreotypes of Poe (most of which, it should be emphasized, are mirror images of the subject). Here, the artist has captured such minor and seemingly insignificant details as the gentle fall of hair above Poe's right temple (cf. fig. 17), the long, finely incised nostril (cf. fig. 22), the contour of the forehead, as well as the overall shape ­[page 32:] of cheek and chin (cf. fig. 6 and fig. 12), a slight thickness at the nape of the neck (cf. (fig. 22), the longish earlobe joined to the cheek (cf. fig. 17 and fig. 23), and the slight asymmetry of the eyes (cf. fig. 6). Even the style of dress, such as is visible, is distinctly Poe's: the crescent-shaped shirt collar and low, tightly knotted bow of the cravat can be found in no less than seven of the authentic images of the poet. Perhaps more importantly, McDougall has captured Poe's expression — the steady yet unsettling gaze found only in genuine likenesses such as the “Whitman” and “Thompson” daguerreotypes (fig. 17 and fig. 22). It might also be noted that the portrait possesses an immediacy, a lifelike assertiveness that would be difficult for any artist to manufacture without the presence of a sitter. Although the circumstances under which the portrait was painted remain a mystery, the available evidence appears to weigh more heavily in the picture's favor than it does against it; as such, the McDougall miniature may be accepted, at least tentatively, as one of twelve life portraits and daguerreotypes of Poe known to survive.






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