Text: Michael J. Deas, “Portraits by Robert M. Sully,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 143-145 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 143, continued:]

Portraits by Robert M. Sully probably 1848 or 1849

One of the more perplexing issues associated with Poe iconography is the question of whether the poet ever sat to his lifelong friend, the artist Robert M. Sully. Rumors of one or more portraits of Poe by Sully, lost in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia, have circulated since the late nineteenth century. Although the existence of these portraits has never been completely substantiated, it seems likely that Poe did pose for the artist on at least one occasion, in the late 1840s.

Sully, nephew of the famed Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Sully, was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1803. At an early age he was ­[page 144:] brought to Richmond, where he attended school and befriended the young Edgar Poe. According to an autobiographical account published in 1834, Sully was sixteen or seventeen when he “determined to become a painter, in spite of the many difficulties and deprivations attending the profession. ... I was in my eighteenth year when I visited Philadelphia for the purpose of obtaining instructions from my uncle T. Sully.”(7) On the advice of his uncle, Sully in August 1824 sailed for London, to continue his training and exhibit his works at the Royal Academy. He returned to the United States in 1828, eventually settling in Richmond with his wife, Isabella Jerdone Thompson. The marriage was not a happy one — according to a granddaughter, “No two people were ever more unsuited to each other” — and by the 1840s Sully's five children had moved with their mother to Culpeper County, Virginia.(8) In 1848 and again in 1849, Poe visited Sully in Richmond, and on one of these occasions the artist began a painted illustration of Poe's poem, “Lenore.”(9) Poe would not live to see the painting completed, and Sully is said to have grieved on learning of his old friend's death in October 1849. Six years later Sully left Richmond to settle in Wisconsin, but while en route fell ill and died in Buffalo, New York, in October 1855.

Since Sully outlived Poe by only six years, with many of his papers and personal effects being lost at the Buffalo hotel where he was staying before his death, testimony for the existence of a Sully-Poe portrait is based largely on secondary sources. The most definitive statement on the subject comes from the artist's eldest son, Maj. R. M. Sully, Jr., who as a child sometimes accompanied his father and Poe on walks in the countryside near Richmond. In 1896 the younger Sully wrote Poe scholar J. H. Whitty:

I should have replied immediately to your note of the 24th but I was confident that I could locate the Poe portrait which I am very certain is in Richmond. The portrait in question was painted somewhere between 1846 and 1848, and was a cabinet size oil painting. My father made one or two replicas of the portrait one of which was given to my sister [Julia Sully Chichester] and was taken by the Federal soldiers from her residence near Fairfax C[ourt] H[ouse] on the advance of McClellan's army in 1862. One probably the original was given by my father to the late Dr. Beale. My father was a school mate of Poe and at one time they were very intimate friends. You can probably get some information on this subject from Mr. Jacob Rhinehart, and the picture in question may be in his possession.(10)

The younger Sully's account seems essentially reliable. Poe was not in Richmond in 1846 or 1847, but he was there for three weeks during the summer of 1848 and for two months during the summer of 1849. Union troops under Gen. George B. McClellan were indeed active in the vicinity of Fairfax Court House, Virginia, in 1861-62, and their ransacking of Julia Sully Chichester's house seems to be corroborated by independent statements made in 1918 by her niece and namesake, Miss Julia M. Sully.(11) Whether one of the paintings mentioned in Major Sully's letter was in fact given to Dr. Beale, a resident of Richmond, is uncertain. J. H. Whitty claimed to have searched for the portrait but in 1918 wrote, “I made an effort to locate the ‘Beale’ copy and found the lady who had most of his art treasures out west. She did not have the Poe, or at least, did not seem to know anything about it.”(12)

Another, apparently less reliable source of information concerning a Sully portrait of Poe ­[page 145:] was the Virginia sculptor Edward V. Valentine, who in 1918 claimed to have been “a very particular friend” of Robert M. Sully's youngest son, Edwin “Ned” Sully. According to the eighty-year-old Valentine, Sully had indeed painted Poe's portrait and the likeness had passed to Edwin Sully, who in turn presented it to a member of the Southall family in Amelia County, Virginia. Valentine also asserted that the portrait had not been fully appreciated by its owners, and that Edwin Sully made several ineffectual efforts to relocate the picture with the intention of giving it to Valentine.(13) Using Valentine's statements as a base, a Columbus, Ohio, attorney named Landon C. Bell began an extensive search for the portrait in 1918, but failed to produce the slightest trace of the picture among members of the Southall family.(14) By 1920 Bell had evidently discontinued his investigation, but the aged Edward Valentine continued to refer to the existence of a Sully-Poe portrait. He seems to have altered his recollections considerably, however, for in May 1926 he informed Poe biographer Hervey Allen that the portrait had been “lost in a fire.”(15)

Ironically, one of the few promising leads Landon Bell managed to uncover in his search for the Sully portrait was one he did not pursue. In early 1918 one of Bell's correspondents, a Judge Strother of Richmond, reported to him: “Mr. Kieley of the Norfolk Virginian, a son of A. M. Kieley, tells me he saw the portrait here in Richmond when he was a boy — says between the years 1880 and 1884. Wish he could be clear who had it but would try and recall if possible. He thinks it was in the possession of a family by the name of Gwatkin or Gwathmey, and the wife had been a Miss Allen.”(16) Both the Gwatkin and Gwathmey families were prominent residents of Richmond, where Poe was raised, and one R. F. Gwathmey was a close associate of Poe's foster father John Allan.(17) Although these links — particularly the mention of “a Miss Allen” (possibly a misspelling for “Allan”) — may be purely coincidental, they do seem to give credence to Keiley's otherwise hazy recollections. Regrettably, no further statements from Keiley have been located, and the present whereabouts of the Sully portrait are unknown.






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