Text: Michael J. Deas, “Self-Portrait,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 126-127 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Alleged Self-Portrait

This nineteenth-century drawing of an unidentified man (fig. 59) was once believed to be a self-portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. The likeness, supposedly completed in 1845, carries a forged signature in the upper left corner: “Edgar A. Poe.” It is one of three drawings, all erroneously attributed to Poe, that were reportedly discovered in Italy sometime before 1930.

The drawing attracted wide attention in 1930, when it appeared in the hands of Gabriel Wells, an American rare book dealer then traveling in Europe. According to Wells, the picture had been brought to him by “an elderly American who had made his home for many years in Italy.” This former owner, who would later be identified as a “Mr. W. Mills” of Genoa, had supposedly inherited the portrait from an ancestor, Henry O’Reilly. O’Reilly, it was said, had received the likeness as a gift from Edgar Allan Poe himself. Accompanying the portrait were two other drawings, said to be sketches by Poe of his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, and his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe.(130)

Alleged self-portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 59)
Alleged self-portrait
[Illustration on page 127]

Wells eventually brought the three portraits to New York, where they were examined by Thomas O. Mabbott, then Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College and a leading American authority on Poe. After scrutinizing the three pictures Mabbott declared that he had “no hesitation in pronouncing [them] genuine and of the greatest importance historically. The pedigree which accompanies them is perfectly satisfactory and the signature, while unusually ornate, is not without parallel.”(131) News of the discovery generated considerable excitement, and Mabbott's remarks were carried in a front page article in the New York Times.

Within a matter of days, Mabbott's authentication of the portraits was attacked by J. H. Whitty, the former director of the Poe Shrine (now the Poe Museum) in Richmond. Whitty denounced all three drawings as blatant forgeries: “The mysterious American resident in Italy whose name is withheld in your article is, I believe, W. Mills. I had correspondence with him when I was president of the Poe shrine some eight years ago. ... I could not verify all that was claimed [by Mills], and candidly wrote the owner that I did not believe his drawings were authentic. And now, with [photographs of] the drawings before me, I do not believe that Poe had anything to do with them.”(132)

Despite Whitty's rebuttal, Gabriel Wells in May 1931 consigned the three drawings to a salesman from Pittsburgh named C. B. Randall. Randall then sold them to Poe collector Josiah K. Lilly for $8,715, without informing him of the controversy they had attracted. Lilly, when later told of Whitty's refutation of the pictures, was not pleased.(133) Nevertheless, he chose to keep the drawings, and in 1948 permitted two of them to be reproduced in John Ward Ostrom's Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1956 all three portraits were donated to the J. K. Lilly Library at Indiana University.

In retrospect, it seems almost inconceivable that all three portraits could have at one time been regarded as authentic drawings by Poe. While Poe is known to have possessed some natural artistic ability (he reportedly adorned the walls of his dormitory with “fanciful & grotesque figures” drawn in charcoal), the alleged self-portrait is clearly the work of an artist with some degree of formal training, which Poe had not.(134) Moreover, the three drawings are noticeably inconsistent in style, and appear to be the work of three separate artists: the alleged drawing of Miss Royster is handled with considerable assurance, the line crisp and skillful; the alleged portrait of Virginia Poe (fig. 78) is awkward, even amateurish; the alleged portrait of Poe is soft-edged and somewhat idealized. It ­[page 127:] should be noted, too, that the resemblance of the “self-portrait” to the authenticated likenesses of Poe is almost completely superficial.

In 1960, thirty years after the unfortunate incident with Gabriel Wells, Mabbott was asked by officials at Indiana University whether he had any additional information concerning the history of the three portraits. Mabbott summarized, somewhat ruefully:

Yes, I know about those three pictures. I regard them as arrant forgeries. I am glad that they are at last in public hands.

Wells showed them to me, and I was told a straight story supposedly coming from O’Reilly. It did not occur to me that I was being misled. But it turned out that the things had been showed to Whitty with a different story altogether. Of course he denounced them (and me — as it was between the days of our friendship and reconciliation) — but I am sure the things are bad. I did not think Wells the soul of candor in his dealings with me, in this matter. Any way I am sure the items are for your “Cabinet of Forgeries.”(135)






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