Text: Michael J. Deas, “The Whitty Portrait,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 114-117 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 114:]

The “Whitty” Portrait

This somewhat primitive drawing (fig. 53) was donated to the Poe Foundation by J. H. Whitty in 1921, and carries a handwritten inscription in sepia ink on the recto: “This crayon portrait of Poe is from a miniature in oil painted by the Virginia artist [William James] Hubard, about 1836. It was in the possession of Rosalie Poe, the poet's sister and copied by Davies, the old-time Richmond photographer. This picture was reproduced from Davies original negative, owned by J. H. Whitty of Richmond — (Copyrighted J. H. W.).” Thomas O. Mabbott, in his edition of The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, described the drawing as “the earliest fully authenticated picture” of Poe.(104) The picture is anything but that: its early history is hopelessly convoluted and the image itself is derived from an 1855 woodcut published in Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia of American Literature (fig. 54). This woodcut, engraved by “Roberts” after a sketch by “WMD,” was undoubtedly based on John Sartain's 1849 mezzotint of the Osgood portrait (fig. 26).

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 53)
The Whitty Portrait
[Illustration on page 116]

Much of the confusion surrounding the drawing can be traced to its former owner, James Howard Whitty (1859-1937). An avid and sometimes eccentric collector of Poe memorabilia, Whitty first became interested in Poe while a young man. In 1900 he left his position as a manager at the Bradstreet Company in Richmond to devote all his energies to researching Poe's life and works. In 1916 he became an organizer and later the first president of the Poe Foundation of the Poe Museum in Richmond. But a conflict of interest eventually led to a feud between Whitty and the Foundation's directors, and in 1924 he angrily severed his ties with the Foundation. In 1917 he had begun corresponding with Thomas O. Mabbott (1898-1968), then a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at Columbia University. During the next five years Whitty played a pivotal role in Mabbott's development as a Poe scholar, but in the mid-1920s a rift grew between the two men, largely because Mabbott was rapidly surpassing Whitty as an authority on Poe. Their correspondence ended abruptly in 1926, although a reconciliation between the two took place shortly before Whitty's death in 1937.(105)

How Whitty acquired the drawing reproduced here is uncertain, and much of what is known of the picture's origins is gleaned from a statement made years later by Mabbott. When the portrait was first published, in Whitty's 1911 edition of The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company), it appeared with the caption: “EDGAR ALLAN POE. The earliest authentic portrait, from a miniature in oil in possession of his sister Rosalie Poe. Taken at the old ‘Lee Gallery’ of Davies, Richmond, Va.” In 1949, twelve years after Whitty's death, a curator at the Valentine Museum wrote Mabbott asking if he could shed any light on the portrait as well as the caption quoted above. Mabbott replied:

I knew Mr. W. very well. ... Whitty was eccentric ... he often was right, though perhaps often wrong. Fortunately he talked to me about the so-called Whitty miniature. The remark you quote about it made by him was badly phrased. But what I understand happened is this. The picture is of a very young man, and I believe it was painted, and at one time owned by Rosalie Poe. That was photographed at the Davies place. All that Whitty seemed to have seen, from what he said, was the plate. I have a curiously definite memory it was a glass plate. He got a print, but whether he actually got the plate I don’t know. He sometimes sold things. But I never got the impression he owned or even saw the miniature.(106) ­[page 115:]

Engraving of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 54)
Wood engraving by Roberts and WMD
[Illustration on page 117]

What led Whitty and Mabbott to attribute figure 53 to a miniature once owned by Poe's sister is uncertain, although the two men may have been influenced by a letter of Edward V. Valentine, now preserved in the Ingram Collection at the University of Virginia. Dated Richmond, 1875, the letter states: “There is a likeness of [Poe] in the possession of Dr. Claude Baxley, recently of Baltimore. ... This likeness was given by Miss Rose Poe (sister to the poet) to the Dr. in the last two years. It is a miniature ... but not [a] good likeness.”(107) It is doubtful that this lost miniature, regardless of whether it played a role in the genesis of figure 53, was a portrait painted from life. Rosalie Poe had been separated from her brother while an infant and had only sporadic contact with him in later years, leaving little opportunity for her to have acquired a life portrait of Edgar. It is far more likely that any portrait of Edgar Poe owned by Rosalie was a reproduction or possibly a painted copy of one of the established likenesses of the poet. Indeed, after the Civil War the impoverished Rosalie is known to have supported herself by peddling not only postcard portraits of her famed brother but virtually any artifact she could claim as having been once used by him. As Poe scholar John Carl Miller pointed out in 1963, “Astonishing is the number of desks and chairs now cherished in Virginia homes as the ones Edgar Allan Poe used in writing his tales and poems. ... Any Poe-association artifact must now be suspect, if [Rosalie Poe's] name is connected with it.”(108) The “Whitty” portrait seems to fall within this category.

Based on available evidence, a hypothesis might be offered concerning the origin of the “Whitty” portrait. Sometime after 1855, an artist (possibly Rosalie Poe) made a painted copy of figure 54, the woodcut published in Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia. This derivative eventually surfaced at the “Lee Gallery,” a photography studio operated by J. W. and W. W. Davies at 920 Main Street in Richmond. The likeness was later sold, but before its sale a photographic negative of the image was made. The negative was seen by J. H. Whitty, who, evidently unaware of the woodcut in Duyckinck's, mistook the image for a little-known life portrait. Whitty subsequently acquired the negative, from which the present crayon portrait was derived. Why Whitty chose to attribute the original portrait to William James Hubard, the noted Virginia portrait and silhouette artist, is uncertain, although the attribution may have been prompted by Poe's February 11, 1836, letter to John P. Kennedy, which makes lengthy mention of one of Hubard's portraits.(109) In light of its overwhelming resemblance to the woodcut in Duyckinck's, as well as John Sartain's 1849 mezzotint, the “Whitty” portrait must be categorized as a derivative likeness.






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