Text: Michael J. Deas, “The ‘Whitman’ Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 42-46 (This material is protected by copyright)


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The “Whitman” Daguerreotype

“This picture of mine has been hidden away all these years because I thought it did not represent him truly, but many persons who have seen it lately think it has the best expression of any picture yet taken of him,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman in 1874.(74) The picture to which Mrs. Whitman referred was a daguerreotype portrait (fig. 17) taken twenty-six years earlier, on the day of her betrothal to Edgar Allan Poe. Traditionally believed to have been an engagement gift from Poe to his fiancée, the daguerreotype is apparently the only known likeness of Poe commissioned by the poet himself.

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 17)
The Whitman Daguerreotype
[Illustration on page 43]

The “Whitman” daguerreotype's origins are closely allied with those of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype (fig. 14) — both images having been taken in the same room in Providence, Rhode Island, at sittings held just four days apart. Poe's expression seems calmer, more subdued than in the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, though Maria Clemm, seeing her son-in-law two days after this picture was taken, found him so changed in appearance that she thought him “hardly recognizable.”(75) Indeed, there is a pervasive uneasiness about the likeness, an inquietude only partially masked by Poe's matter-of-fact attentiveness before the lens. The attire is much the same as in the “Ultima Thule” image: Poe wears the identical frock coat and trousers in both portraits, and his shoulders are framed by the same broad-lapeled greatcoat visible in the “McKee” daguerreotype (fig. 3), taken nearly six years earlier. This greatcoat may be the one Mary Gove Nichols describes as having been used to provide warmth for Virginia Poe as she lay dying of tuberculosis in 1847.(76)

For Poe, sitting for the daguerreotype marked the end of a harrowing fortnight in Providence. Despite the emotional outburst that followed the sitting for the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, Poe was somehow able to persuade Mrs. Whitman to accept his proposal of marriage on November 13, 1848. The engagement secured, Poe quickly prepared to depart Providence via the 6 P.M. train to Stonington, Connecticut, where he would then board a steamer bound for New York City. Before leaving Providence, however, he returned to the Westminster Street studio of Samuel Masury and S. W. Hartshorn and there, possibly accompanied by Mrs. Whitman, posed for a second daguerreotype portrait. The daguerreotypist on this occasion was Hartshorn and the likeness, though traditionally dated November 14, was actually taken late in the afternoon of Monday, November 13, 1848. Mrs. Whitman later remarked that Poe considered the daguerreotype “the best likeness he ever had.”(77)

Daguerreotype of Sarah Helen Whitman [thumbnail]

(fig. 18)
Sarah Helen Whitman
[Illustration on page 45]

The slight confusion over the daguerreotype's date can be attributed to Mrs. Whitman, who in later years gave occasionally conflicting dates for Poe's second visit to the Masury & Hartshorn studio. The “Whitman” daguerreotype is mentioned in at least seven of Mrs. Whitman's ninety-four extant letters to Poe biographer John Henry Ingram. The earliest reference to it is found in her letter of February 11, 1874, in which she lamented that the original plate seemed “faded” and added that it had been taken “a few days after” the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of November 9, 1848.(78) In a subsequent letter Mrs. Whitman became more specific about the date of the sitting, noting, “The photograph ... was taken on the 13th or 14th of November, just as [Poe] was about to leave Providence after his third visit to the city.”(79) But Poe's own letter of November 14, 1848, makes it clear that he had arrived in New York by five o’clock that morning;(80) since a voyage between Providence and New York in 1848 took no less than ten hours, Poe could not ­[page 44:] possibly have posed on the fourteenth. Hence, Mrs. Whitman was probably correct when she wrote John Ingram on March 27, 1874: “The daguerreotype [was] taken for me on the 13th of November.”(81)

Extremely little is known of the daguerreotypist Samuel W. Hartshorn. During the mid to late 1840s he was intermittently in partnership with Samuel Masury; the relationship seems to have been a turbulent one, however, with Masury periodically moving his studio back and forth between 19 and 25 Westminster Street.(82) City directories show that as late as 1858 Hartshorn continued to maintain his studio at 25 Westminster Street, but by 1860 had abandoned photography to become a manufacturer of lampwicks. The attribution of the “Whitman” daguerreotype, though based largely on tradition, is corroborated by two notes: one from William W. Coleman, a later owner of the daguerreotype, the other from his sister, Sarah. In 1895 Sarah Coleman explained in a letter to Poe scholar E. C. Stedman that the “daguerreotype of Poe was taken by Mr. Hartshorn of Providence. His first name is not with the picture — nor the initials but I think I can find out what they were. ... The man has been dead a good many years. He was one of the pioneers of the art [of photography] and his pictures were considered fine I believe. This one of Poe is certainly good.”(83) Nine years later William Coleman reiterated his sister's statement, noting, “This daguerreotype ... was taken in Providence by S. W. Hartshorn, then at 25 Westminster St.”(84)

Poe's engagement to Sarah Whitman lasted barely a month. Their marital agreement had been based on the understanding that Poe would refrain from drinking — a pledge that would be broken just days before their wedding was scheduled to take place. Although Mrs. Whitman was forced to reject Poe, she would nevertheless continue to cherish his daguerreotype for the next twenty-five years. In one of her letters to John Ingram she expressed a fondness for the image, calling it “sweet and serene in expression” and clearly preferring it to the “stormy grandeur” of the “Ultima Thule” likeness.(85) She qualified her admiration, however, by remarking that neither daguerreotype could convey “to one who had never seen him, the unrivalled beauty & nobility of his face.”(86)

Steel engraving of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 19)
Steel engraving by Robert Anderson
[Illustration on page 46]

On August 20, 1874, Mrs. Whitman presented the daguerreotype to William W. Coleman, a photographer who had met Poe during his visits to Providence, and whose firm, Coleman & Remington, now occupied the rooms where the “Whitman” and “Ultima Thule” daguerreotypes had been taken a quarter century earlier. Why Mrs. Whitman chose to part with the daguerreotype is puzzling — her letters to John Ingram make it clear that she considered the picture a precious object. Conceivably, the seventy-one-year-old poet sensed her life growing short, and, by placing the daguerreotype in the hands of a photographer, hoped to have the image perpetuated as an accurate likeness of Poe. If so, her February 2, 1877, letter to Ingram makes no mention of the fact; instead it merely states that Coleman was the picture's new owner, and offers no clue as to why she relinquished ownership of the likeness.(87)

The daguerreotype remained in William Coleman's possession until at least 1895 and very probably as late as 1904; there is some confusion concerning its provenance about the turn of the century. In December 1941 the noted historian, and then director of the American Antiquarian Society, Clarence S. Brigham declared that “fully thirty years ago” he had purchased the original daguerreotype from “an itinerant bookdealer ... the son of Hartshorn, the Providence daguerreotypist.” According to Brigham, he paid $20 for the daguerreotype, and shortly after its purchase resold it to a Miss Hortense Webster, who “told me it ought to be ­[page 45:] given to the Brown [University] Library, and induced me to take just what I had paid for it, although I had been offered $100. Then she gave it to Brown in her own name, without any mention of my considerable part in the gift.”(88) Documents now preserved at Brown University confirm that the daguerreotype was presented to the library on January l, 1905, as a gift of Hortense Webster, but Brigham's claim of having purchased it from Hartshorn's son is otherwise unsubstantiated.

The original daguerreotype, exceptionally well preserved in a leather case lined with red satin, now forms part of the Harris Collection at the John Hay Library of Brown University, Providence. The earliest reproductions of the likeness were poorly retouched carte-de-visite photographs produced and distributed during the late 1860s or early 1870s by the firm of Coleman & Remington.(89) In 1874 Sarah Helen Whitman sent an “unmodified” version of the Coleman & Remington photograph to John Ingram in London, who quickly had the image engraved as the frontispiece to his 1874-75 edition of Poe's Works.(90) The completed engraving (fig. 19), by Robert Anderson of the Royal Scottish Academy, was to become the first widely circulated derivative of the “Whitman” daguerreotype, later serving as the basis for an etching by Edouard Manet (fig. 41). Mrs. Whitman was extremely pleased with Anderson's engraving, praising it as being “more like [Poe] than the photograph from which it was taken.”(91)






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