Did Edgar Allan Poe paint this little watercolor?
Poe certainly showed an interest in visual art and even tried his hand at drawing. In one of his letters he mentions having a drawing he made of his childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster, and he may also have sketched on his dorm room walls at the University of Virginia. It is certainly possible that some of Poe’s drawings could still be in existence. Over the years, however, a series have forgeries and misattributions have been the only pieces of “Poe artwork” to come to light. The most famous of these are three pencil sketches supposedly representing Poe, Royster, and Poe’s wife Virginia. These appeared in Italy in the 1930s and have since entered the collection of the Lilly Library in Indiana.
The Poe Museum owns a drawing (pictured below) said to have been made from a negative of a photograph of a sketch Poe made of Elmira Royster. Nora Houston (1883-1942), the artist who made the Poe Museum’s sketch later recalled the original drawing was only about the size of a silver dollar, but she enlarged it to roughly the dimensions of a sheet of typing paper. Additionally, Houston was not a very skilled draftsman, so her copy is likely only a very vague approximation of whatever she was trying to copy.
Another piece of Poe artwork in the Poe Museum’s collection is an oil painting (pictured below) on canvas entitled The Falls of the James (even though it bears no resemblance to the actual Falls of the James). The Museum purchased it for $50 in 1924 because the acquisitions committee was convinced it was an authentic painting by Poe. The only basis for this attribution seems to have been the fact that the piece is signed “POE” on the lower right corner. There is, however, no evidence of Poe taking up oil painting, and there is no link between this painting and Edgar Poe. It is more likely some other Poe painted it. On close inspection, the signature, on which the attribution rests, appears to have been added at a later date to an already old painting. One of the oldest tricks in the forger’s book is signing old paintings of suitable content with the name of a well-known artist like Rembrandt or Vermeer. In this case, someone found an appropriately moody painting and wrote Poe’s name on it. When seen under magnification, however, the paint surface shows signs of abrasion, but the signature does not—indicating the signature is not as old as the rest of the painting.
That brings us to the Poe Museum’s painting The Fatal Letter. It first came to light among the papers left by the artist Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855) after his early death. Born in Petersburg, Virginia, Robert Sully was the nephew of the famous artist Thomas Sully, whose portrait of Andrew Jackson appears on the twenty dollar bill. As a boy, Robert befriended a young Edgar Allan Poe. Sully first studied with his uncle in Philadelphia before training in London from 1824 until 1828. In London, Robert copied the paintings of famous artists and developed a fondness for the work of Thomas Gainsborough and a number of other British artists. After his return to the United States, Sully opened a studio in Richmond, Virginia where he hosted Poe in 1848 and 1849. Sully was working on a painting based on Poe’s poem “Lenore” when the poet died in October 1849. Sully also painted a portrait of Poe and made at least two copies of it, but, despite the best efforts of Poe collectors to find them, all three are missing. In 1855, Sully began a journey to Wisconsin but fell ill and died on the way.
Robert Sully’s granddaughter, the art critic Julia Sully, found The Fatal Letter among his papers. In 1926, the watercolor was reproduced in two different Poe biographies, Hervey Allen’s Israfel and Mary Phillips’s Edgar Allan Poe: The Man.
According to Hervey Allen,
To Robert Sully, his old boyhood friend, of whom he now once more saw a great deal, spending hours with him in his studio, he gave the picture, called the “Fatal Letter,” which Mrs. Osgood had noticed hanging over his desk at 85 Amity Street. It seems to have been an illustration for one of Byron’s poems, and to Poe represented the despair of Elmira when she had discovered one of his own love letters after her engagement to Mr. Shelton. There was an inscription on the back, now obliterated, with some reference to the Lost Lenore in The Raven, and his signature.
Following Allen’s reasoning, Poe painted the picture to illustrate on of Lord Byron’s poems which represented, to Poe, Elmira Royster discovering a letter from Poe that her father had hidden from her in order to break off their engagement. This is also supposed to represent Lenore from the poem “The Raven.” Allen also believed the painting is the very same one the poet Frances S. Osgood mentioned when she described seeing him “at his desk beneath the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore…”
Mary Phillips had a similar theory about the picture, which she decided to call The Farewell Letter rather than The Fatal Letter.
Another tribute to this lost love seems conclusive in a seeming Poe-copy — somewhat varied, perhaps for his purpose — of Gilbert Stuart Newton’s oil painting, “Forsaken,” of which Poe’s copy was entitled, with some strong significance, “The Farewell Letter.” This copy, with another, was found among effects of Poe’s devoted friend Robert M. Sully by his granddaughter, Miss Julia Sully, who gives the grace of its reprint. On the reverse of Poe’s copy, in his dim pencil hand, appears, — “Edgar A. Poe”; and in Robert Sully’s faint pencil hand is, — “From Edgar A. Poe.” No other clue to this gift-picture is known; but it follows the drawn conclusions mentioned. It seems a drop-curtain on one of his young life’s tragedies. The original painting Miss Sully found in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There are various records of Poe’s drawings and among them were several sketches of Miss Royster. Newton’s picture may have presented her as Poe saw her in his visions as given by his copy and new title.
Unlike Allen, Phillips correctly identifies the watercolor as a copy of Gilbert Stuart Newton’s painting The Forsaken. Newton’s painting depicts a seated woman weeping over a letter which is resting at her feet. To Phillips, the letter in the painting held a special meaning for Poe because it reminded him of an episode from his failed romance with Royster.
Mr. Whitty [Poe collector and co-founder of the Poe Museum] notes that the old colored servitor of the Allan home said that both Mrs. Allan and Edgar were sad at heart the day he started for the University, and on the way Edgar hinted his wish to break away from Mr. Allan and seek his own living. It appears that his servant was entrusted with a letter to be given to his sweetheart Elmira and it seemed to be the last — but one — she received from her young lover — for many a year. It seems certain that Edgar at this time and with this letter sent, as a souvenir of their mutual devotion to Elmira the mother-of-pearl purse he never could have kept full…However, Mr. Royster, deeming his daughter “O‘er young to marry Poe” destroyed further letters but “one” from Edgar, until Elmira’s marriage, at seventeen, to Mr. Alexander B. Shelton. This “one” letter she found too late, excepting to make her mind on the subject unpleasantly clear to those most concerned in her loss of the others. This action at that time seems definitely to include her father and Mr. Shelton. Perhaps Poe’s treasured “Farewell Letter” picture, of later noting, was a reflex of a real or a dream one he wrote her in this connection. That the misgiving harbored in the heart of his beloved must have been in fact, or dreams, imparted to Edgar seems certain…
Even though both Phillips and Allen thought Poe had painted the picture, Julia Sully believed it to be the work of her grandfather. Since Robert Sully was a painter while Poe was not, it seems more likely that Sully made the painting. It is a copy of the painting The Forsaken by the British artist Gilbert Stuart Newton (1795-1835). Born in Nova Scotia, Newton (a nephew of Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one dollar bill) went to Europe in 1817 and exhibited a portrait of Washington Irving at the Royal Academy in London in 1818. Irving, who printed an engraving of Newton’s portrait of him in his Sketch-Book, wrote in 1820, “Newton is busy with a brush in each hand, and his hair standing on end, turning Anne’s portraits into likenesses of Mary Queen of Scots, General Washington, and the Lord knows who.” The identity of Anne is unknown, but she was Newton’s unrequited love who probably lived on Sloane Street because Irving referred to her as “The Sloane Street Goddess.” It was about this time that Newton painted The Forsaken, which first brought him to public attention when he first exhibited it in 1821. It was so popular an engraving of it appeared in The Literary Souvenir, or Cabinet of Poetry and Romance in 1826. This version of The Forsaken was very different than the one reproduced in the Poe Museum’s picture. Adding to the confusion, the engraving from the Souvenir was reprinted with the title The English Girl in William Cosmo Monkhouse’s 1869 book Masterpieces of English Art.
Newton soon attained distinction as a portraitist. He was elected an Honorary Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1827. He became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1829 and an Academician in 1832. It was shortly after this that his mind began to fail, at which point he was institutionalized in an asylum at Chelsea in 1833. He died in London from consumption two years later. Newton’s brilliant but tragic life inspired Israel Zangwill’s novel The Master (1895).
Newton made at least two copies of the version of The Forsaken reproduced in the Poe Museum’s watercolor. One of these was eventually acquired by Thomas Gold Appleton, who bequeathed it to the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. The other, which is nearly identical, entered the collection of the Glasgow Museums, but it is entitled The Disconsolate. Since Robert Sully was living in London in 1824-1828, he could have seen this copy of Newton’s The Forsaken/The Disconsolate and made his own watercolor replica of it. It is even more likely that Sully copied it from Poe’s friend John Sartain’s (1808-1897) mezzotint copy which appeared in Volume 9 (1846) of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art as well as in the October 16, 1847 issue of The Literary World.
Poe might also have seen the mezzotint, and he could even have painted his copy of it. But, if he made this watercolor, he must have painted others, but there is no record of their existence. He does not mention his watercolors in any of his letters, and there is no contemporary description of him painting.
The mysterious origins of the painting stem from the inscription on the back: “The Raven/From Edgar A Poe.” Written over the second line, in what appears to be a different handwriting is the signature “Edgar A Poe.” On the lower left of the back is an indistinct pencil word which appears to be “Raven.” This is probably the handwriting of Robert Sully. When Julia Sully donated the piece to the Poe Museum in 1922, the accession book recorded it as Poe’s autograph.
That is the extent of our knowledge concerning this picture. We are left to speculate about the meaning of the inscription. It could indicate that Poe gave Sully the painting and signed the back. If this were the case, someone other than Sully painted it. Poe knew several artists, including Sartain, Marie Louise Shew, and Felix O.C. Darley, who could have painted it if Sully did not. Given the poor quality of the drawing and the bad proportions, Marie Louise Shew, Poe’s nurse and an amateur artist, is the most likely of these three, but there is no way to verify this.
Alternatively, the inscription could mean that the inscriber (probably Robert Sully) thought the painting illustrated or should be used as an illustration for “The Raven” by (or “from”) Edgar A. Poe. This explanation does not take into account the fact that no scene similar to that of a woman weeping over a letter appears in “The Raven.” Robert Sully’s paintings are sometimes somewhat crude in their drawings and demonstrate a poor sense of proportion, particularly when it comes to the elongation of his subjects’ necks. His portrait of Frances Allan (itself a copy of his uncle Thomas Sully’s lovely portrait of the same subject) suffers from these deficiencies.
None of the theories concerning the origin of this picture is verifiable. In the end, we do not know if Poe ever owned it, if it could have been the “Lost Lenore” picture Frances Osgood saw hanging over Poe’s writing desk, or even who painted it. We know neither if the subject of the painting is Gilbert Stuart Newton’s mysterious “Sloane Street Goddess” nor what is written on the letter resting at her feet. There is not even a consensus on the meaning of the writing on the back of the painting or who wrote it.
Even though we have little solid information about the artifact, it still has tremendous value as a document of the relationship between Edgar Poe and Robert Sully. Since the portraits Robert Sully painted of Poe have been either lost or destroyed, this tiny watercolor may be one of the few surviving artifacts documenting the connection between the poet and the painter. Admittedly, it does not provide anything more than a suggestion that the painter was aware enough of the poet to own a watercolor with Poe’s name (or maybe his autograph) on the back. For more information on Edgar Allan Poe’s interest in the visual arts, be sure to find a copy of Barbara Cantalupo’s new book Poe and the Visual Arts.
The Fatal Letter/The Farewell Letter/The Forsaken/The Disconsolate is also a document of the evolution of Poe scholarship and the ways Poe’s biographers project their own creatively convoluted theories onto Poe and the artifacts associated with him. That is why it is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month. You can find it on display all this month in the Museum’s Model Building.