Text: Michael J. Deas, “A. C. Smith,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 18-23 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 18, continued:]

Portrait by A. C. Smith

This likeness has been often reproduced in the form of a steel engraving by the Philadelphia firm of Welch & Walter (fig. 7). Surprisingly, the original life portrait — a tiny watercolor sketch by A. C. Smith (fig. 6) — has been reproduced only twice;(16) its publication here marks its first appearance in book form.

Although Poe was barely thirty-five at the time he sat for the watercolor, he had already written many of his finest prose works, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The recently published “Gold-Bug” was enjoying wide public acclaim, a stage version having been enacted at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre in August 1843. Invitations to lecture publicly were beginning to arrive, and for the first time in his life Poe was receiving nationwide recognition for his writings. It was a prosperous period, perhaps the most prosperous of Poe's entire career.

Watercolor of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 6)
Portrait by A. C. Smith
[Illustration on page 19]

In a sense, A. C. Smith's watercolor reflects Poe's short-lived prosperity. Compared to the later images of the poet, the Smith portrait seems unusually serene, almost benevolent: the hint of a smile appears to cross Poe's ordinarily sullen features. Although highly stylized and bordering on caricature, the likeness manages to capture the essential characteristics of Poe's appearance. The eyes are grey and expressive, and have been set into the face with a pronounced asymmetry; the forehead is not only broad, but sloping — a physical peculiarity which, although mentioned by many of Poe's [page 20:] contemporaries, is not readily apparent in other portraits of the author. The taper of Poe's shoulders seems exaggerated, though not excessively if the painting is compared to the “Daly” daguerreotype (fig. 12). The coloring of the portrait is skillful and attractive, consisting of muted greys highlighted with a dusty pink. The complexion is pale yet luminous, the cheeks delicately shaded with rose madder.

The precise date of the watercolor is unknown, although the sitting was certainly held sometime before Poe moved from Philadelphia to New York in April 1844. The earliest known mention of the picture is found in a letter from James Russell Lowell to Poe, dated March 6, 1844, inquiring, “When will Graham give us your portrait? I hope you will have it done well when it is done, & quickly too.”(17) Lowell's eagerness to see Poe's portrait was no doubt due to the fact that the two men had never met, though they had been corresponding with each other for nearly a year and a half. The “Graham” to whom Lowell referred was George Rex Graham, the proprietor of Graham's Magazine, a national monthly published out of Philadelphia. Poe had served as its editor until May 1842 when he resigned — supposedly under stormy circumstances. If Poe did indeed quarrel with his employer, Graham certainly bore him no ill feelings, and in fact remained very kindly disposed toward his former editor. He continued to accept free-lance contributions from Poe and at some point promised to include in Graham's a featured essay on the writer, to be illustrated by a portrait. Curiously, this portrait — the watercolor by Smith — was completed and placed into the hands of an engraver well before the proposed essay was even begun, a circumstance which suggests that the entire project was under consideration for some time.(18) It is likely that the affable and sometimes extravagant Graham defrayed the cost of the sitting himself, since Poe's income at this time was still meager. The chosen artist, A. C. Smith, lived just blocks from the offices of Graham's Magazine, then situated on the top floor of a building at the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. The sitting may well have taken place here.(19)

Little is known of A. C. Smith. He seems to have been an itinerant, residing in Philadelphia for only a brief time. City directories show that he was living in Baltimore between 1831 and 1837, at about the same time Poe was residing there. He was apparently an extensive traveler, for in January 1834 the Charleston Courier carried an advertisement for Smith's services as a miniature painter.(20) The dates of his birth and death have not been established, although he is believed to have settled in Clark County, Kentucky, during the 1850s.

Engraving of Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 7)
Steel Engraving by Thomas B. Welch and Adam B. Walter
[Illustration on page 19]

Sometime before March 1844, Smith's portrait of Poe was submitted to the Philadelphia engraving firm of Welch & Walter. The task of etching Poe's likeness for publication in Graham's must have been a faintly galling experience for Thomas B. Welch, the firm's senior partner: in 1835 Poe had reviewed one of Welch's engravings as “hard and scratchy in manner, and altogether unworthy.”(21) Still, Poe was more impressed with Welch & Walter's work than with A. C. Smith's original watercolor. On March 30, 1844, he replied to James Russell Lowell's question of March 6: “You inquire about my own portrait. It has been done for some time now — but is better as an engraving, than as a portrait. It scarcely resembles me at all. When it will appear I cannot say.”(22)

In fact, the engraving was not to appear in Graham's for another ten months, a delay that has led to a persistent misdating of both the engraving and Smith's original watercolor. Yet for Poe the postponement would prove unexpectedly fortuitous. When Graham's finally carried the engraving and accompanying essay in its issue for February 1845, Poe had just days [page 22:] earlier been thrust into the literary limelight by the New York Evening Mirror's publication of “The Raven.” The favorable essay in Graham's enhanced Poe's status even further, and, coupled with the immense popularity of “The Raven,” his reputation on the nation's literary stage was secured at last.

The Smith portrait received decidedly mixed reviews upon its publication in Graham's. Writing in the Broadway Journal for January 25, 1845, Poe's colleague Charles F. Briggs unleashed a small tirade against the engraving, sarcastically referring to it as “a something” that had been titled “a portrait of Edgar A. Poe.” He continued: “It is poor as a work of art, and something much worse as a portrait. It is a gross wrong to Mr. Poe, and a fraud upon the purchasers of the Magazine. It bears no more resemblance to that gentleman than to any other of Mr. Graham's contributors.” Joseph E. Snodgrass, writing in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter of the same date, was kinder. “The likeness is good,” remarked Snodgrass, “though rather wanting in that nervousness of expression so peculiar to Mr. Poe.”

The whereabouts of Smith's original watercolor following its publication in Graham's Magazine are unknown. It drops out of sight from 1844 until about 1870, when it surfaced in the possession of a New York Times reporter named William Swinton (1833-1892). How Swinton acquired the portrait is a mystery, though in 1870 he told one admirer that the likeness had “hung in my own room in Brooklyn for years,” and added that it had been “painted by a Charleston artist and [is] altogether a remarkable picture.”(23) About 1869 Swinton departed Brooklyn to serve as a professor at the University of California, and the portrait was passed to his brother, John Swinton (1829-1901). A well-known journalist and radical social reformer, the elder Swinton was extremely fond of the tiny portrait. In 1870 he lent it briefly to T. C. Latto, a devotee of Poe's works, who noted that the watercolor had by this time been badly cropped. In a letter to the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, Latto wrote:

The Portrait, of which I wrote you, is now before me — Mr. Swinton called about ten minutes ago & left it with me for a few days. It is a rather coarse colored miniature, of which you have seen the engraving in Graham's Magazine 1843 [sic]. The figure which has, by the scissors of some vandal, been cut short immediately below the waist, is that of a handsome man, the face not unlike in contour to that painted by Mr. Osgood now in the Historical Library [fig. 9] — but thinner in the cheek ... the eyes [are] very large, not staring, but the artist has caught the quiet, calm introverted look which might have been totally missed in a painting of greater pretensions ... it certainly leaves the impression — “Look again at me — but you won’t understand me any better.”(24)

Engraving of Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 8)
Steel engraving by Thomas B. Welch and Adam B. Walter
[Illustration on page 23]

The portrait presumably remained in Swinton's possession until his death in 1901, after which point it again drops from sight. The picture eventually entered a private collection in New York, and in February 1920 appeared at an auction held at New York's Anderson Galleries. By this time the likeness had been bound into a blue morocco volume containing several engraved portraits and autograph letters of Poe.(25) The volume was purchased at, or possibly sometime after, the Anderson sale by the noted financier and railway executive Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927), and is now owned by the Huntington Library.

The steel engraving by Welch & Walter has over the years been published in varying states, although the earliest and perhaps most common edition of the print — that bound into the February 1845 issue of Graham's Magazine (fig. 7) — depicts Poe surrounded by an irregular octagon, [page 23:] beneath which is printed the caption “OUR CONTRIBUTORS” and the facsimile signature “Edgar A. Poe.” In a subsequent printing the octagon and caption were struck out. By the late 1870s the original steel engraving plate had been acquired by John Chester Buttre, a New York publisher and engraver, who trimmed it to a smaller size (8 1/4 x 5 3/8 inches), burnished out the torso and extraneous matter of the original image, and surrounded the remaining bust with an engraved oval matte. The resulting image (fig. 8) was then printed in volume two of Lillian C. Buttre's sumptuously illustrated American Portrait Gallery; individual copies of the Poe print were also available from the Buttre firm at ten cents a piece.(26) The original steel engraving plate cut by Welch & Walter in 1844, and altered by Buttre during the 1870s, is currently owned by Paulette Greene Rare Books of Rockville Centre, New York.



I would like to acknowledge my colleague Mr. Ichigoro Uchida for locating the original watercolor by A. C. Smith, long thought to be lost, in the collections of The Huntington Library, and for freely sharing details of his discovery. — MJD (02/17/2011)







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