Text: Michael J. Deas, “Miniature Portrait before 1847,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 142-143 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Miniature Portrait (Possibly a daguerreotype) before 1847

The sole authority for the existence of this likeness is Mrs. Marie Louise Shew, the friend and practical nurse who attended Poe's wife as she lay dying of tuberculosis in the Poes’ cottage at Fordham, during the winter of 1846-47. The portrait, if it did indeed exist, originally belonged to Virginia Poe, who, shortly before her death, presented it as a gift to Mrs. Shew.

During the 1870s Mrs. Shew (then Mrs. Roland Houghton) opened a correspondence with Poe's English biographer, John Henry Ingram. It is a rambling and, at times, garbled correspondence, containing several passing references to a small portrait of Poe which, by 1875, had already been lost. Mrs. Shew's comments about the likeness are fragmentary, and the little that is known of the picture can be summarized as follows. Shortly before Virginia's death on January 30, 1847, Mrs. Shew prepared to leave the Fordham cottage to obtain provisions and briefly look after her own family's affairs in New York. Calling Mrs. Shew to her bedside, Virginia supposedly took from under her pillow a small likeness of Poe and, kissing it, placed it in Mrs. Shew's hands. According to Mrs. Shew, Virginia also bequeathed her nurse a small jewel case that had once belonged to Poe's mother.(2)

Whether the likeness was a painted miniature or a daguerreotype is not clear. In one of her letters to Ingram, Mrs. Shew refers to the image as a “portrait,” while in another letter she calls it “[Poe's] picture or Deguerotype [sic].”(3) Its existence, however, seems to be corroborated by the fact that the likeness contained a small note in Poe's hand addressed to Virginia — the only letter from Poe to his wife that is known.(4) These items, as well as several other autograph letters and manuscripts received from Poe, remained in Mrs. Shew's possession until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time she temporarily retired to a secluded home in upstate New York. During this period many of Mrs. Shew's personal effects were packed away in boxes, while others were dispersed among her several ­[page 143:] children. At some point before 1875, when Mrs. Shew opened her correspondence with John Ingram, the likeness of Poe vanished.

Whether the picture was stolen, borrowed, or simply misplaced is not clear. In a letter to John Ingram dated January 23, 1875, Mrs. Shew states only: “Someone relieved me of his portrait given me by his wife, but ... I have no idea who took it[.] It being done during an abscence [absence] in the country I had to submit to its loss.”(5) What became of the likeness following its disappearance from Mrs. Shew's home is unknown. A miniature of Poe on ivory, said to have been once owned by Mrs. Shew, is now preserved in the Gimbel Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia; it is not a portrait from life but rather a stylized derivative of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of 1848. A daguerreotype of Poe that surfaced briefly in New York about 1900 (reproduced as the “Daly” daguerreotype, fig. 12) may be the likeness mentioned by Mrs. Shew, although no firm link has yet been established between the two images.






[S:1 - PDEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (M. J. Deas) (Miniature Portrait before 1847)