Text: Michael J. Deas, “Mathew B. Brady,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 87-90 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 87, continued:]

Portraits Attributed to Mathew B. Brady

One of the most widespread misconceptions concerning Poe portraiture is the belief that Poe once posed for the celebrated American photographer Mathew Brady (c. 1823-1896). Brady himself fostered this myth, claiming not only to have photographed Poe but to have been present one evening when the poet, “in one of his moody moments,” rattled off the first draft of “The Raven.”(52) Neither claim has ever been substantiated.

Brady, remembered primarily for his photographic chronicles of the Civil War, first gained prominence during the 1840s as a portrait daguerreotypist active in New York City. He opened his first daguerrean parlor in 1844, and the following year undertook an ambitious plan to photograph every prominent man and woman in America, thus forming a “Gallery of Illustrious Americans.” His second studio, opened in 1853, was one of the most opulent in the country; its satin and gilt-lined walls were adorned with portraits of Brady's most distinguished sitters — “Presidents, Generals, Kings, Queens ... men and women of all nations and professions.”(53) Despite his early success, failing eyesight and poor business investments left Brady heavily in debt after the Civil War, and the remaining years of his life were spent in obscurity. He died alone and penniless in the alms ward of New York's Presbyterian Hospital on January 15, 1896.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 39)
Portrait attributed to Mathew B. Brady
[Illustration on page 88]

As an old man, Brady was occasionally sought out by journalists who encouraged him to elaborate about some of his more celebrated sitters. Unfortunately, the aged photographer had a gift for exaggeration, and his newspaper “reminiscences” are notoriously unreliable.(54) In April 1891 he told New York World reporter ­[page 88:] George Alfred Townsend: “I had great admiration for Poe, and had William Ross Wallace [a poet] bring him to my studio. Poe rather shrank from coming, as if he thought it was going to cost him something. Many a poet has had that daguerreotype copied by me. I loved the men of achievement.”(55)

Brady's claim of having daguerreotyped Poe, though widely publicized, has never been corroborated. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that such a sitting never took place. Two years after Poe's death, Brady published an advertisement in Doggett's New York City Directory listing 107 of his most notable sitters, including dozens of politicians and soldiers, as well as a number of poets and authors. Poe's name is not to be found among them.(56) Ten to twenty years later, Brady's galleries did begin to circulate two portraits of Poe, but both images were merely modified versions of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype (fig. 14) — taken in 1848 by the Rhode Island daguerreotypist Edwin Manchester.

The more familiar of the two Brady portraits is a heavily altered photographic print showing Poe in reverse, situated against a stippled background (fig. 39). Although this portrait is obviously a retouched version of the “Ultima ­[page 90:] Thule” image, its exact genesis is uncertain. Photographic historians have sometimes speculated that the likeness was worked from one of the several copy plates of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype then in existence. It must be noted, however, that the Brady portrait bears a marked resemblance to an undated lithograph by Alexis Perrassin (fig. 15). Clearly, one of these two likenesses was copied from the other — but which was progenitor and which was descendant is difficult to determine. Data regarding the origin of the Perrassin image are sketchy, but the slight evidence at hand indicates the lithograph predates Brady's portrait by several years. This implies that Brady somehow acquired one of Perrassin's lithographs, photographed it, and after heavily retouching the negative, had it printed in the form shown here. Considering the decidedly lifeless quality of the Brady image, this scenario seems quite likely. Moreover, copies of the Perrassin lithograph would have been far more accessible to Brady's studio technicians than would a daguerreotype copied from the original “Ultima Thule” plate.

The Brady portrait was circulated for at least two decades, in a variety of sizes and formats. One version, an albumen carte-de-viste photograph measuring approximately 3 1/2 by 2 1/4 inches, was distributed during the 1860s; it sometimes bore the stamp of Brady's associates E. & H. T. Anthony. In 1873 an enlarged version of this photograph was reported hanging on the walls of Brady's gallery in New York City.(57) A decade later, Brady's Washington, D.C., gallery was still circulating the image, though in a slightly different format. Measuring 16 3/4 by 14 1/2 inches, this later print was accompanied by a caption indicating that it had been produced not long after the death of President James A. Garfield in 1881: “Brady's Photos. Printed by Brady, Chester & Handy, 1113 Penna. Ave, Washington, D.C., for the Garfield Memorial Monument Fair.”

Drawing of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 40)
Drawing attributed to Mathew B. Brady
[Illustration on page 89]

A second likeness of Poe attributed to the Brady studios is an oval portrait (fig. 40), known only via a glass plate copy negative now preserved in the Brady-Handy Collection at the Library of Congress. Although the whereabouts of the original are unknown, the portrait appears to be a drawing in either charcoal or crayon. It is inscribed at the extreme left, “Brady N.Y.” Like the photographic derivative discussed above, this likeness is a reversed and somewhat idealized version of Edwin Manchester's “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype. A contemporary crayon copy of this drawing, measuring 27 1/4 by 21 1/2 inches, is now preserved in the Gimbel Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Its previous owner, Col. Richard Gimbel, erroneously described the picture as having been drawn from life “for publicity purposes” in April 1849.(58)

Brady's misstatements, coupled with his radically altered versions of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, have led to considerable confusion among writers on Poe, who have sometimes credited Brady with Edwin Manchester's original daguerreotype. For example, in March 1889 a wood engraving derived from figure 39 was used to illustrate the reminiscences of Mary Starr Jenning (“Poe's Mary”), published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine; the engraving appeared with the somewhat misleading caption “From a photograph by Brady, New York.” In the early 1920s one of Brady's photographic derivatives was discovered by Prof. E. M. Gwathmey among the papers of John P. Kennedy at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore. The picture was seen by Poe scholar J. H. Whitty, who mistook it as a little known portrait from life and published it as such in the October 1923 issue of the Literary Digest International Book Review.(59)






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