Text: Michael J. Deas, “Thomas Sully,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 120-123 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 120:]

Alleged Portraits by Thomas Sully

Another persistent misconception associated with Poe portraiture is the belief that Poe once sat to the celebrated Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872). The misapprehension seems to stem from the fact that Poe, as a youth in Richmond, befriended Sully's nephew Robert M. Sully (q.v.), and in 1803 Poe's mother performed onstage with Thomas's brother, the actor Matthew Sully.(114) Because of the coincidental ties between the Poe and Sully families in Richmond, it has long been assumed that when Edgar Poe moved to Philadelphia in 1838 he was somehow introduced to the uncle of his boyhood friend and later had his portrait painted by him. This presumption has led to the “discovery” of several so-called Poe portraits attributed to Sully, none of which appear to be authentic.

While it is not improbable that Poe was at some point introduced to Thomas Sully, there is no firm evidence that such a meeting actually took place, and absolutely no documentation exists to prove that Poe ever sat to the artist. The most compelling evidence against the existence of a Sully-Poe portrait is the artist's own manuscript register, entitled ‘Account of Pictures.’ Now preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the register is a remarkable document, a book seven inches square containing entries for 2,520 artworks painted by Sully between 1801 and 1872. It records the completion of more than 1,900 portraits and approximately 600 genre paintings, and includes not only the sitter's name but the date each portrait was begun and the estimated value of the completed work. Nowhere among this staggering number of entries is there any mention of a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe.(115)

Alleged portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 56)
Replica of a lost portrait attributed to Thomas Sully
[Illustration on page 121]

Despite the scope of the register, authorities on Sully have pointed out that the volume is not an entirely complete record of the artist's oeuvre, that Sully transcribed his entries on a yearly basis, occasionally omitting those works that had not yet been finished. Predictably, some have taken this to mean that Sully could, in theory, have painted Poe's portrait and somehow neglected to enter it into the register. This seems highly unlikely. Omissions in the register are relatively few. Moreover, Sully outlived Poe by twenty-three years and at his death left an unusually large body of documentation concerning his work. Sully's correspondence (preserved in the Archives of American Art, the New-York Historical Society, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania), plus two unpublished journals and a reminiscence published in 1873, contain no mention of Edgar Allan Poe.(116)

Nevertheless, the presumed existence of such a potentially valuable work — a painting of one of America's foremost authors limned by one of the nation's most celebrated artists — has led to the appearance of no less than four alleged Sully-Poe portraits. The most notable and yet most enigmatic of these was a painting owned during the early 1900s by a Philadelphia physician and art collector named Isaac W. Heysinger (1842-1917). The portrait, which has frequently been referred to by scholars but which has never been reproduced, dropped from sight during the 1920s and is presently unlocated. Fortunately, however, in April 1905 Dr. Heysinger filed a small copy photograph of the image with the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress (deposit no. CLI 14152). The copy photograph (fig. 56) has been crudely colored by hand, obliterating much of the underlying image and giving a less than exact impression of how the original painting must have looked. Still, enough of the picture is visible to make it clear that the portrait was not a likeness of Edgar Allan Poe; the sitter's features simply do not accord with those found in the ­[page 121:] authentic images of the poet. The picture depicts instead a bearded young man with a narrow face and shoulder-length hair; an indigo cloak with a scarlet lining is draped loosely about his shoulders, and his shirt bosom is held fast by a small, ruby-colored stud. The painting is signed at the lower left with Sully's monogram, “TS.” Accompanying the reproduction at the Copyright Office is a three-page document, also filed by Dr. Heysinger, in which the original portrait is described as an oil painting, rendered “in Sully's best style” on a panel measuring 9 1/4 by 7 1/4 inches.

Although the portrait bears no resemblance to the established images of Poe, Heysinger was convinced that it was an authentic likeness of the celebrated poet. To support his argument, Heysinger wrote a somewhat rambling account of the painting's purported origins that was published four years after his death, in Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding's The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1921):

This portrait of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe was painted by Thomas Sully in 1839 or 1840, while Poe was residing in Philadelphia. George R. Bonfield, the artist, was well acquainted with both Poe and Sully. All three attended social meetings of artists, actors, writers, etc., in the Old Falstaff Hotel, 6th St. above Chestnut, Phila. ... It was the fashion at this time to call Poe the American Byron, and Murray's Childe Harold edition had recently appeared (see Byron portrait), and Sully posed him, for his own pleasure, in the Byron attitude, modified by Poe's dress. James McMurtrie [a wealthy Philadelphia merchant] supplied the cloak. ... Poe wore no mustache at that time, as shown in Sully's picture.

As proof that the portrait was genuine, Heysinger offered up the fact that the painting was “strikingly like” the one extant picture of Poe's mother.(117) The art historians Biddle and Fielding evidently considered Heysinger's claims legitimate, for they cited the painting in their 1921 catalogue of Sully's works. Nevertheless, the portrait's inclusion in The Life and Works of Thomas Sully cannot be considered a guarantee of its genuineness as either a portrait of Poe or even a painting by Sully, for the Biddle and Fielding catalogue is now known to contain a number of serious errors, including several paintings wrongly attributed to Thomas Sully.(118) Even Biddle and Fielding may have had doubts about the picture's authenticity: in 1922, when they mounted a major retrospective of Sully portraits at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the alleged portrait of Poe was conspicuously absent from the exhibition.(119) ­[page 122:]

The painting was acquired before 1921 by a Mr. Alfred Percival Smith of Philadelphia, but little is known of its subsequent history. Poe scholar James Southall Wilson evidently saw the original painting before 1926 and initially accepted it as authentic. He thought it the “most beautiful” of all Poe portraits but, presumably because of the copyright restriction imposed by Heysinger in 1905, noted that the painting was not allowed to be reproduced, nor even verbally described.(120) In 1949 Wilson completely retracted his authentication of the portrait, commenting, “I no longer believe this [to be] either a Sully or a Poe.” He added cryptically, “The information on which I based this change of opinion I am not free to quote.”(121) In February 1945 the portrait was reportedly offered for sale to Mr. Joseph Katz, a Poe collector from Baltimore, who declined to purchase it.(122) No further trace of the portrait is known.

Alleged portrait of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 57)
Portrait erroneously attributed to Thomas Sully
[Illustration on page 123]

Another alleged portrait of Poe attributed to Thomas Sully is currently owned by the City of Baltimore. Measuring 13 by 11 3/4 inches, it is an awkwardly rendered painting on wood, depicting a young man in an artist's smock reclining near the base of a tree; in his hand he holds an opened book (fig. 57). The picture formerly belonged to Col. Clifford G. Stokes of Baltimore, who reportedly acquired it among a group of paintings purchased in Baltimore from an unidentified acquaintance.(123) The painting eventually passed to Stokes's widow, Mrs. Anne Howell Stokes of Dade County, Florida, who in 1949 bequeathed it to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Thirty years later the portrait was presented by the Poe Society to the City of Baltimore, and is now exhibited at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum on Amity Street.

When it first attracted public notice in 1949, the painting was unaccompanied by any sort of documentation, and inquiries into its history have yielded no additional information regarding the picture's origin. The work is unsigned, and the attribution to Thomas Sully — which rests solely on a small plaque once affixed to the picture's frame — is doubtful. Stylistically, the painting does bear some resemblance to the work of Sully's nephew, the artist Robert M. Sully, who painted at least one portrait of Poe (q.v.), but at a much later age than that of the young man depicted in figure 57. Until some further evidence comes to light, the present likeness is best categorized as a work of doubtful authenticity.

A third alleged portrait of Poe attributed to Thomas Sully was reproduced as lot 506 in the Parke Bernet sales catalogue no. 745 (New York, February 28-March 2, 1946). The portrait, an oil on canvas measuring approximately 30 by 21 inches, once belonged to Chester Dale, a collector of early American paintings. In 1958 Dale recounted that the likeness had been “owned originally by Henry Kingman, [a] Brockton, Mass. art collector, then went to a relative, then to Mr. L. Denis Peterkin, Andover, Mass., who has done considerable research to convince himself that it was a portrait of Poe.”(124) The note of skepticism sounded by Dale seems apt, for nowhere among the many firsthand descriptions of Poe is there a mention of his having worn eyeglasses — as does the anonymous gentleman depicted in this likeness. The painting's resemblance to the authentic portraits of Poe is nonexistent, and the attribution to Sully seems equally doubtful. The original portrait, which in 1958 belonged to a Mr. Harold B. Levi of Rome, Italy, is unlocated.

Still another so-called Sully portrait of Poe was reproduced in the S. V. Henkels & Son sales catalogue No. 1380 (Philadelphia, November 12, 1925), lot 65. The likeness, a nondescript oval portrait of a young man with curly ­[page 123:] hair, bears no resemblance to the authenticated images of Poe and carries a fraudulent inscription on the verso: “T S. 1861, Edgar Allan Poe from the Wilson print.” The painting is clearly not the work of Thomas Sully, and no pre-1861 print of Poe by “Wilson” is known to exist. The present whereabouts of the painting are unknown.



I would like to thank Mr. Ichigoro Uchida of Kyoritsu Junior College for locating the extremely rare reproduction of the alleged portrait attributed to Sully (figure 56). Since the original publication of this book in 1989, no further trace of this picture has come to light. — 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) (Thomas Sully)