Text: Michael J. Deas, “Samuel S. Osgood,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 24-27 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 24:]

Portrait by Samuel S. Osgood

Richly painted in warm earthen hues, this oval canvas (fig. 9) is the only known life portrait of Edgar Allan Poe in oils. The painting’s most striking feature is its vivid coloration: the face is rendered in brilliant shades of sienna and vermilion, emerging from a deep umber background; the eyes are hazel-colored, mottled with flecks of black. The hair, softly curling, is painted a dark brown, and Poe is shown wearing a chestnut-colored frockcoat — possibly the same frockcoat worn in the “McKee” daguerreotype (fig. 3 and fig. 4). The brushwork is loose and painterly, the pigments applied in a thick impasto over what appears to be a black and white underpainting.

Painting of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 9)
Portrait by Samuel S. Osgood
 
[Illustration on page 25]

Despite the technical facility with which it is painted, the Osgood portrait remains a benign and somewhat idealized likeness of Poe. Woodenly posed and devoid of expression, it lacks the emotional intensity that makes the daguerreotype images of Poe so compelling; it lends little insight into the character of the sitter. Indeed, several of the poet’s contemporaries were sharply critical of the likeness for precisely this reason. Sarah Helen Whitman, who first saw the painting seven years after Poe’s death, was particularly vocal with her objections to the picture, publicly deriding it as “cold [and] automatic . . . valueless as a portrait to those who remember the unmatched glory of his face when roused from its habitually introverted and abstracted look.”(27) John R. Thompson, commenting on an engraved version of the picture in 1851, noted that it “scarcely resembles him at all.”(28) Nevertheless, the portrait was to become the first widely copied image of Poe, and served as the standard likeness of the poet for nearly twenty years after his death.

Surprisingly little is known of the portrait’s early history. The New-York Historical Society, where the portrait has been housed for more than a century, has no record of when the picture was completed, and Poe scholar E. C. Stedman noted in 1895 that the likeness “bears no date, and the exact time when it was painted is still a matter for research.”(29) Traditionally, the portrait is believed to have been completed in 1845, the year Poe was enjoying the phenomenally successful publication of “The Raven.” Although this dating does not rest on any firm documentary evidence, a sitting in 1845 or possibly 1846 seems highly probable, for Poe did not meet the artist, Samuel S. Osgood, until at least March 1845 and apparently saw little of him after 1846.(30) Poe’s only known mention of the picture was supposedly made just weeks before his death in 1849, when he despondently asked the Philadelphia engraver John Sartain to make certain that the canvas would eventually be given to his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.(31) The lack of reliable documentation concerning the origin of the portrait is both frustrating and unfortunate, for the picture’s existence seems to have a direct bearing on Poe’s tangled and still disputed relations with the artist’s wife, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood.

Although he is now largely forgotten, Samuel Stillman Osgood (1808-1885) was one of the more fashionable portrait painters of his time. His sitters included such celebrities as Martin Van Buren, Davy Crockett, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay; at least five of his paintings were displayed at the Royal Academy in London.(32) He seems to have been an adventuresome and highly independent man — an anecdotal biography, published when Osgood was twenty-five, describes him as a man who “will get sustenance from a barren rock.”(33) He was raised in Boston, but at an early age was placed in the care of an uncle and two aunts who lived in what was then the district of Maine. He had an early habit, it is said, of playing truant in order to draw pictures in the smooth sand of a nearby riverbank; his uncle, a ­[page 26:] strictly disciplined artillery major, was not pleased with the boy’s artistic endeavors and rewarded his creativity with several lashings. After repeated attempts to run away, Osgood was returned to his parents who by this time were living in Connecticut, possibly in Hartford. Illness and a controversy of some sort beset the family about 1823, and the Osgoods were impelled to return to Boston. To support his ailing parents, Samuel took up a succession of jobs, apprenticing as a typefounder, a cabinetmaker, and eventually a housepainter. It was in this last role that Osgood had his first opportunity to dabble with paint and brushes, and his employer, recognizing the youth’s natural talent, obtained him a position as an ornament painter’s apprentice. After spending some time at sea, he took up portrait painting, and about 1830 sailed to London to continue his training. While there he is said to have become the house guest of a well-to-do patroness.(34) When he returned to Boston in 1831, his painting technique had improved considerably and he quickly established himself as one of this country’s leading portraitists. While exhibiting his work at the Boston Athenaeum in 1834, Osgood was introduced to the young New England poet Frances Sargent Locke. He painted her portrait, and in 1835 the two were married. The couple eventually settled in New York City, where Frances Osgood’s beauty and intelligence rapidly made her a favorite among the city’s literary circles.

Of the several romantic attachments formed by Poe during the last decade of his life, his association with Frances Osgood remains the most complex and paradoxical. The two were introduced in March 1845, and in the months that followed, proceeded to flirt openly with each other. Verses were exchanged in the pages of the Broadway Journal, meetings took place at social soirees, and Mrs. Osgood would later recall listening to Poe “for hours . . . entranced by strains of such pure and almost celestial eloquence as I have never heard or read elsewhere.”(35) Poe’s wife was still living at this time, though quite ill, and according to Mrs. Osgood she encouraged the flirtation with the hope that it might stop Poe from drinking. The duration of the romance is somewhat obscure, although widespread gossip apparently brought it to a halt sometime in 1846.

Poe’s apologists have traditionally dismissed the affair as platonic, while his detractors have insinuated that it bordered on the adulterous.(36) While the existence of a Poe portrait by Samuel Osgood does not disprove an illicit liaison between Poe and Mrs. Osgood, it certainly weighs heavily against one. Osgood was well aware of the gossip surrounding his wife and Poe, and, as the artist’s niece prudently noted some years later, “there never would have existed a portrait of the poet from my uncle’s brush had there not been a kindly feeling between them.”(37)

Osgood was reportedly a slow, meticulous painter, yet his portrait of Poe seems to be a somewhat hastily completed work. Viewed closely, the brushwork appears unusually vigorous, and the portrait lacks the detail and overall rendering that Osgood typically applied to his commissioned portraits. This distinction, combined with the fact that Osgood’s fees were quite high at a time when Poe’s income was quite low, suggests that the portrait was painted gratuitously, possibly at the request of the artist’s wife. Such an arrangement would certainly explain why the portrait remained in the Osgoods’ possession until after Poe’s death in October 1849.(38)

The provenance of the portrait immediately following Poe’s decease is strangely convoluted. Within weeks it was decided that the likeness would be used to illustrate the first volume of Poe’s works, then being prepared for publication by Rufus W. Griswold. The painting was presumably shipped to Philadelphia, where it was engraved by John Sartain. The completed ­[page 27:] engraving (fig. 26) was in print by early January 1850, accompanied by a deceptively simple caption: “Engraved by J. Sartain from the Original Picture in the Collection of R. W. Griswold.” Griswold was, of course, Poe’s notorious literary executor and the author of a slanderous obituary of the poet published weeks earlier in the New-York Tribune. He was well acquainted with Samuel Osgood (he later owned at least six of the artist’s works), and it has been traditionally assumed that Osgood had simply turned the portrait over to Griswold, who then published it as being from his private collection. But a hitherto unpublished note, written by Osgood ten months after the picture’s reproduction in the Griswold edition of Poe’s Works, makes it clear that this was not the case. Instead, it seems that the portrait was not yet in Griswold’s hands, and had perhaps been merely promised to him. The note is curt, consisting of but one sentence addressed to a Mr. Wyatt:

New York Sept. 7, 1850

Mr. Wyatt will please deliver to Bearer, the Portrait of the late Edgar A. Poe, now in Mr. Wyatt’s possession and owned by S. S. Osgood

S. S. Osgood(39)

Painting of Frances S. Osgood [thumbnail]

(fig. 10)
Frances S. Osgood
 
[Illustration on page 27]

The bearer of the note was Griswold; the identity of “Mr. Wyatt” is not certain, but it may well have been one Prof. Thomas A. Wyatt, an Englishman residing in Philadelphia, who had in 1839 collaborated with Poe on The Conchologist’s First Book. Wyatt, who thought very highly of Poe, despised what Griswold had done to the poet’s reputation, and voiced his abhorrence in both public and private.(40) How the portrait came to be in his possession is unknown, but it seems likely that once his, he refused to turn it over to Griswold. The note written by Osgood on Griswold’s behalf must have been effective, for Wyatt did eventually deliver the portrait to Griswold — reluctantly, one can imagine — and the painting remained in Griswold’s possession for the next five years.

By 1856 Poe’s literary executor had fallen on hard times. His career ruined by scandal, his body racked by illness, Griswold was forced to give up his house in New York City and take lodgings in a small room at 239 Fourth Avenue. A fairly avid art collector, Griswold had a number of his paintings transferred for safekeeping to the home of his friend and former protégé, Alice Carey. Miss Carey and her sister Phoebe were both minor poets who periodically hosted gatherings for the city’s literary lights in their house on Twentieth Street. Here the portrait of Poe was used to form the centerpiece of an odd tableau, hanging in the Careys’ parlor just opposite a portrait of Frances Osgood (fig. 10) and flanked on one side by a portrait of his “unrelenting biographist,” Rufus Griswold.(41) Griswold died in August 1857, and in his will bequeathed several paintings, including those of Poe and Mrs. Osgood, to the New-York Historical Society.

 


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Notes:

None.


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