by Kevin Alfred Strom
THIS YEAR marks the 200th birthday of the great poet and thinker Edgar Allan Poe. Today, October 7th, is the day of his mysterious death 160 years ago in Baltimore. And last month marked the 174th anniversary of his marriage to his beloved Virginia.
Not too long after Poe’s birthday in January of this year, someone very dear to me gave me a surprise present: two gift boxes from the Poe Museum in Richmond, one decorated with a reproduction of the famous Learned portrait of Virginia Poe (pictured, left) and the other (on the right) having on its lid an image of a very young-looking and clean-shaven Edgar Allan Poe — an image I had never seen before. The portrait is oval and in a thin oval gilt frame. Inside the lid of the second box is written “Edgar Allan Poe – Robert Lee Traylor.”
I have been a reader and student of Poe since the age of 11, but this portrait was one I had never seen. The only references I could find to “Robert Lee Traylor” and a Poe portrait were as the owner of a very different Poe picture, a daguerreotype.
And exhaustive searches of the ‘Net, comprising thousands of articles and representations of Poe, didn’t come up with this portrait or any reference to it. It seemed quite a mystery to me.
But a helpful scholar at the Poe Museum provided the answer:
“I know the portrait of which you speak. It is called the Traylor Miniature, after the Poe collector Robert Lee Traylor, who once owned it. (This is not to be confused with the Traylor Daguerreotype, which was one of the two original daguerreotypes taken at a sitting in Richmond in September 1849. Of these two daguerreotypes, the Thompson is the better known and more widely reproduced, while the Traylor was badly damaged in a cleaning attempt around 1900.)
“The Traylor miniature is an oval watercolor on ivory measuring 2.5 x 2 inches. It is not a life portrait but an idealized image probably derived from the 1885 Sartain engraving of the Osgood oil painting of Poe. The sideburns have been removed to give Poe a more youthful appearance, but the shadow under the nose and hairline are among the points of strong similarity between this painting and the Sartain image.
“The picture’s known history only goes back to 1905, when the Bendann Brothers art dealers in Baltimore consigned the piece to the Bell Book and Stationary Company in Richmond. Traylor purchased it shortly afterwards. The piece is said to have come to Bendann’s from an owner in Annapolis. Although his statement is unverified, Traylor claimed that the miniature had been acquired from a lady in Baltimore who had been a friend of the Poe family. Traylor also claimed the piece had once been owned by Poe himself, though this seems very unlikely.
“James A. Harrison considered the piece an authentic life portrait done when Poe was nineteen, but, in 1926, James Southall Wilson dismissed it as a synthetic likeness.
“The Poe Museum owns the miniature, which was last displayed in our recent exhibit Poe Face to Face: Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe. If you would like to learn more about the portraits of Poe, you might be interested in finding a copy of The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael Deas.” (Deas is also the highly talented artist who created the painting used in the recent Edgar Allan Poe U.S. postage stamp. — K.A.S.)
Another mystery surrounding portraits of the Poes was the question of why there was only only one known image of Virginia Poe. It was a miniature painted by an unknown artist, supposedly immediately after Virginia’s death. The famous Learned portrait is simply a more painterly and artistic rendering of that image, executed many years later. There have been illustrations and engravings made of this image, but all are essentially copies of the one original.
But Poe researcher and author Cynthia Cirile has stated that more — perhaps many more — portraits of Virginia were painted and engraved during her lifetime, two by the renowned painter Thomas Sully. According to Cirile, Virginia modeled for, among other assignments, fashion spreads in Graham’s Magazine as a young woman and was even somewhat famous for her work. But irrational religio-social conventions, which saw modeling as a “scandalous” vocation, caused her family to “hush up” the facts of her work after her death. Cirile, who says that a daguerreotype of Virginia has also been found and will be included in her upcoming book, writes:
“[T]he absurdity of imagining that Poe waited till his wife was dead to have her image taken is simply absurd. The truth was that many paintings and engravings of Virginia were extent, though they were not publicized at the time. Virginia did sit for daguerreotypes, though so far, I have only discovered one of them, which dates to c. 1845.
“The reason for all this lying was to keep Virginia’s ‘image’ as pure and virginal as her name itself. The Poe family did not want it known that Virginia had modelled, because at that time, modelling for painters/artists was thought a sluttish thing for women to do. Of course, now, we see how inane this idea is-but, 150 years ago, that was indeed the common feeling about such things.
“But, there’s no hiding Virginia’s face, or uniquely serene attitude. She’s very easy to identify. Here, I give an instance of a painting of Virginia by the painter who was like an uncle to Virginia, Thomas Sully, taken when she was perhaps 13 years old. From this painting, we get some idea of what Virginia really looked like.
“In 1875, the same year Edgar was reburied, the cemetery in which she lay was destroyed and her remains were almost forgotten. An early Poe biographer, William Gill, gathered her bones and stored them in a box he hid under his bed. Gill’s story was reported in the Boston Herald twenty-seven years after the event. Gill says that he had visited the Fordham cemetery in 1883 at exactly the moment that the sexton Dennis Valentine held Virginia’s bones in his shovel, ready to throw them away as unclaimed. Gill took the remains and corresponded with Neilson Poe and John Prentiss Poe in Baltimore, and arranged to bring the box down to be laid on Edgar’s left side in a small bronze casket. Virginia’s remains were finally buried with her husband’s in 1885 on January 19 — the seventy-sixth anniversary of her husband’s birth and nearly ten years after his current monument was erected. The same man who served as sexton during Edgar’s original burial and his exhumations and reburials was also present at the rites which brought his body to rest with Virginia and Virginia’s mother Maria Clemm.
“It is important to remember that this Leonine Virginia made her mark on the world, quite separate and apart from her famous husband. Her look, as I said, became ‘The Look’ for women of the mid 19th century, and many emulated and admired it.
“It’s also important to remember that while Virginia was a victim of tuberculosis, she was an active participant in life, and shared a very ‘open’ and controversial lifestyle with her husband. Their lifestyle would be as controversial now as it was then.
“Virginia Clemm Poe was beautiful; she was adored; she was exalted. Long Live Virginia Poe…”
Let us today pay homage to Deist, cosmotheist, and racial-aristocratic thinker Edgar Allan Poe, and to Virginia Clemm Poe who inspired and sustained him and his art. Let us rededicate ourselves to raising up new generations which will be capable — biologically and culturally capable — of understanding him, and of creating new worlds of imagination and reality that Poe could only dream of.