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A Poe Mystery Solved?  

Even though Edgar Allan Poe posed before the camera on at least half a dozen occasions, no documented photograph of his wife Virginia Clemm Poe has ever surfaced. What happened to the photographs of Poe's beloved "little wife," whom he married when she was just 13 years old? The mystery deepens because as late as 1934, a member of the Poe family specifically recalled seeing daguerreotype portraits of Virginia. Where did they go?

Now, independent Poe scholar Cynthia Cirile is proposing an identification of the woman on the left in this daguerreotype as Virginia Poe. (The woman on the right has not yet been identified.)

The daguerreotype was made in Boston by the Southworth and Hawes studio, probably in 1845 when Virginia would have been 23 years old -- and less than two years away from her death from consumption (tuberculosis).

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Poe researchers are in agreement that this picture, a watercolor on paper, depicts Virginia Clemm Poe. It is the only portrait of her that is widely accepted, having descended in the Poe family and having been published as early as 1880. The watercolor has come to be known as the "deathbed" portrait, and the unusual pose suggests the listless subject was reclining or perhaps supported by a chair. Ms. Cirile attributes this work to the American artist Felix O. C. Darley. The realistic shading of the portrait and the near-photographic handling of the light may indicate that the artist used an optical drawing aid called a "camera lucida."

Virginia Clemm Poe portrait

virginia clemm poe portrait daguerreotype comparison
To make this comparison, we have taken the head from the daguerreotype, flipped it horizontally and rotated it to match the general position of the head from the "deathbed" portrait. The far right frame shows the two images superimposed.

Is this the only surviving photograph of Edgar Allan Poe's wife, Virginia Clemm Poe?

One of the few written descriptions of Virginia Clemm Poe's appearance, from a friend of the Poes, was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in February of 1889: "Her sole beauty was in the expression of her face. Her disposition was lovely. She had violet eyes, dark brown hair, and a bad complexion that spoiled her looks."

A closer look at the left figure's face shows what appear to be blemishes on the woman's chin. This is seldom seen in daguerreotype portraits; presumably sitters with complexion problems would have covered them with makeup. (The spot on the woman's wrist appears to be a flaw in the daguerreotype plate.)

This daguerreotype will be included in the exhibition "Poe Revealed," on display from January 15 until March 30, 2011 at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The exhibit, curated by researcher Cynthia Cirile, features "over eighty rarely seen or recently discovered portraits and documents related to Poe and his circle that show us an unknown side of Poe." The Poe Museum notes that Cirile's discoveries are bound to provoke controversy in the Poe community, but it invites both supporters and critics to "visit the exhibit and decide for yourself."

LEARN MORE: Click here for some additional research or click on the banner to the right to enter our online exhibition devoted to the first American masters of photography, Southworth & Hawes
Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes

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The Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype with the proposed identification of Virginia Clemm Poe and Another Sitter is a quarter-plate ( 3.25 x 4.25 inches) , Collection of Wm. B. Becker. Enhanced digital versions Copyright © MMXI . A high-resolution file is available. For reprint/reposting/licensing/permissions, please click here to email details of your request.




Some additional research:

Date The Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype has a platemark indicating that the J. M.L. & W. H. Scovills Company of Waterbury, Connecticut was the manufacturer of the silvered copper plate on which the image was produced. This platemark, "SCOVILLS", is consistent with a production date for the plate prior to January of 1850, when the firm incorporated as Scovill Manufacturing Co. and changed its platemark accordingly.

American costume historian Joan Severa has analyzed the clothing and hairstyles of the two sitters in the Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype, and concludes that it was made in 1844 or 1845.

The most likely date for this portrait would be on or around October 16, 1845, the evening of Edgar Allan Poe's infamous lecture at the Boston Lyceum. However, Poe also visited Boston on or after July 2, 1845.

If the Shew Fits... The woman who nursed Virginia Poe through her final illness was Marie Louise Shew, to whom Poe dedicated at least one poem. She was married to Dr. Joel Shew, a water-cure physician. Four of Joel Shew's brothers were active in the daguerreotype trade: William, Jacob, Myron and Truman. William and Myron were both working in Boston in 1845-- with William's principal business being the production of leather cases to hold daguerreotypes. In 1847 Myron briefly operated a daguerreotype business at 11-1/2 Tremont Row. The Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype studio was just a few doors away, at 5-1/2 Tremont Row. Certainly both Myron Shew and William Shew would have known Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, who had the reputation of producing the most artistic daguerreotypes in Boston. It is entirely possible that one of Marie Louise Shew's brothers-in-law could have arranged a sitting for the wife of Edgar Allan Poe. Is the other woman in the daguerreotype Marie Louise Shew? We have been unable to find a good portrait of her for comparison purposes, but it seems unlikely: Mrs. Shew gave birth to a daughter, Alma, exactly one month before Poe's Boston Lyceum lecture.

Provenance This double portrait, titled "A Conversation Piece" by its present owner, was among perhaps 2,000 or more Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes retained by Josiah J. Hawes in the Tremont Row studio until his death at age 97 in 1901. Some portraits were clearly retained because of the celebrity of the sitters (Daniel Webster, President Franklin Pierce, Jenny Lind as well as some subjects whose fame has since faded out) but the rationale for keeping others, of unknown and presumably unheralded sitters, is uncertain. The children of Mr. Hawes inherited the daguerreotypes upon his death and stored them for three decades. In 1934, Edward Southworth Hawes exhibited and offered for sale a number of images at Holman's Print Shop in Boston; sales arranged by Holman's led to significant holdings of Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. At an unknown time, but presumably in the 1930s and1940s, a Boston X-ray technologist and collector named David Feigenbaum acquired 288 Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes. Mr. Feigenbaum's hoard was rediscovered after his death in 1998 and dispersed at auction (Sotheby's, New York) the following year. "A Conversation Piece" was one of 21 daguerreotypes of women in Lot 57 of this sale. To some extent, daguerreotypes that were housed together when found in Mr. Feigenbaum's basement, and presumably were kept together by Josiah Hawes, were grouped into this lot. It may therefore not be a coincidence that a daguerreotype thought to resemble the poet Lydia Sigourney was also acquired in Lot 57,

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"Deathbed" portrait: Collection of Mr. Ridgely Bond, Jr. All other content: Copyright © MMXI The American Photography Museum, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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