Text: Michael J. Deas, “Portraits of Virginia Poe,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 168-172 (This material is protected by copyright)


­[page 168:]

Portraits of Virginia Poe

Virginia Clemm Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 76)
Virginia Clemm Poe
[Illustration on page 169]

The only unquestionably authentic likeness of Poe's wife and cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe (1822-1847), is a carefully painted watercolor portrait, approximately half the size of life (fig. 76). The portrait is rendered with poignant simplicity, the palette consisting largely of earth colors. The hair, neatly coifed, is painted brown, while the sweeping eyebrows are of a slightly darker shade. The complexion is pale, the eyes are hazel colored, and the entire image has been crisply silhouetted by an opaque black background. The vacant expression of the face and listless tilt of the head betray the grim circumstances under which the portrait was painted. Begun in the hours following Virginia's death from tuberculosis on January 30, 1847, the likeness is said to have been commissioned only when it was realized no portrait of her in life existed. The white, shawllike garment encircling the shoulders is almost certainly made of the “fine linen sheets” in which Virginia was laid to rest on February 2, 1847.(1)

The portrait is unsigned and the identity of the artist has not been firmly established. In 1977 Poe scholar John Carl Miller speculated that the portrait was painted by Virginia's nurse, Mrs. Marie Louise Shew; of the several individuals identified as being present about the time of Virginia's death, only Mrs. Shew is known to have possessed any artistic ability.(2) This attribution, though cogent, is not indisputable. In her correspondence with Poe biographer John Henry Ingram during the 1870s, Mrs. Shew often speaks of her fondness for dabbling with paints, but in none of her extant letters does she mention having painted a portrait of Virginia Poe.(3) Moreover, the skillful rendering of the likeness indicates the watercolor is not the work of an amateur, and the delicate crosshatching of the cheek is characteristic of the line employed by professional miniaturists of the period. Since the painting of deathbed portraits was not an uncommon practice in the 1840s, it may well be that the watercolor is the work of a professional artist from New York City, brought to Fordham by one of Virginia's mourners for the purpose of limning a final portrait of the deceased.

Alleged Portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 77)
Alleged Portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe
[Illustration on page 171]

The portrait was evidently given to Virginia's mother, Maria Clemm, and remained in her possession until her death in Baltimore in 1871. The portrait then passed to the Baltimore branch of the Poe family, headed by Edgar's cousin Judge Neilson Poe (1809-1884). The likeness was hanging in Neilson Poe's home in 1880 when John Henry Ingram of England sought permission to reproduce it, using an acquaintance of the judge, N. H. Morison, as an intermediary. With a Victorian sense of propriety, however, Mrs. Neilson Poe and her daughter Amelia were reluctant to have the watercolor published, and in April 1880 N. H. Morison explained to Ingram:

The real difficulty with the portrait is a very simple & natural feeling. The portrait was taken after Mrs. Poe's death, and shows unmistakable marks of this fact, so I understand. Mrs. Edgar was so sweet & lovely in her living beauty that Mrs. Judge Poe and her daughter feel the greatest “repugnance,” that is the word he used, to having it copied as a representation of her to the future. The judge had the portrait taken down and they [the Poes] went over the whole subject anew. He has himself no feeling on the subject, but he does not like to seem counter to the sentiment so strongly felt by those most interested in Mrs. Poe. He asked me to go to his house to see it; but I have not found time. Besides, I did not think I could urge the copying of the portrait under the circumstances. The ­[page 170:] Judge seemed to be concerned about the matter, and really wanted, if possible, to allow it to be copied; tho’ he says it has a pale and deathly look, & would misrepresent her in most respects.(4)

Eventually the Poes would bow to requests to have the portrait reproduced, and in 1893 Amelia Poe authorized photographic reproductions of the likeness to be distributed at the Maryland Exhibit of the Chicago World's Fair. The watercolor later served as the basis for several derivative portraits in other media, the most popular being a highly romanticized drawing by Arthur G. Learned.(5) The original watercolor remained with the Poe family until February 1937, when it was lent to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Here the portrait remained until September 1974, when it was remitted to Mrs. Carl F. Meyer (née Gertrude Poe), a descendant of Neilson Poe. The likeness subsequently passed to Mrs. Meyer's sister, the late Mrs. Miriam Poe Bond. It is presently owned by Mrs. Bond's son, Mr. R. B. Bond, Jr., with whose kind assistance it is reproduced in these pages.

Alleged drawing of Virginia Clemm Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 78)
Alleged Drawing of Virginia Clemm Poe
[Illustration on page 172]

In addition to the one authentic portrait just described, at least two spurious portraits of Virginia Poe have come to light since the turn of the century. The first of these to appear is a decorative oil painting (fig. 77) measuring approximately 39 by 30 inches. It depicts a young girl in a forest setting, cradling a garland of flowers in an apron held outstretched by her left hand. The painting first surfaced in 1929, in the collection of the late Joseph Thomas Scott of Great Marlow. According to Scott's widow, the picture had been acquired by her husband during a visit to the United States in the 1870s. Although it was evidently unaccompanied by any sort of documentation, during Scott's ownership the painting “was always said to represent Virginia Clemm.”(6) Scott's widow subsequently sold the picture to Howard Young, a New York art dealer, who then attributed the work to Thomas Sully.(7) The painting is indeed reminiscent of Sully's style, but the attribution, if accurate, effectively cancels the painting's being a likeness of Virginia Poe: Sully's exhaustive register of paintings, now preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, contains no record of his ever having painted a portrait of Virginia Poe. In 1943 the painting was sold by the Howard Young Galleries to the Meinhardt Galleries of Houston, Texas, but has since dropped from sight.

A second doubtful portrait of Virginia Poe is a lightly tinted pencil drawing, measuring 6 1/2 by 5 5/8 (fig. 78). It has occasionally been attributed to Edgar Poe.(8) The drawing's known history is identical to that of a fraudulent self-portrait of Poe (fig. 59) purportedly discovered in Genoa, Italy before 1930. Both portraits were purchased in Italy by Gabriel Wells, a rare book dealer who then brought them to the United States. Although the pictures were quickly denounced by J. H. Whitty as forgeries, Wells sold them through an intermediary to Poe collector Josiah K. Lilly in 1931. They remained in Mr. Lilly's collection until 1956, when they were donated to their present owners, Indiana University. Although the alleged drawing of Virginia bears a resemblance — a marked resemblance — to the portrait produced at her deathbed in 1847, its tainted provenance makes its authenticity unlikely.



The portrait noted above as figure 77 was exhibited at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia in 2009, on loan from the current owner, Dr. Marion Rundell, a prominent pathologist in Houston, Texas. At that time, it was also reproduced in full color posters, which were sold through the Poe Museum gift shop. — JAS (07/28/2011)






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