He had just made the greatest discovery in his long career of Poe collecting. This was the kind of find that could change the face of Poe studies and instantly transform the popular image of Edgar Allan Poe. By the end of the nineteenth century, Richmond historian Robert Lee Traylor (1864-1907) had been fortunate enough to acquire some truly important artifacts for his collection. Among these was the very last photograph ever taken of the author, a priceless daguerreotype once owned by none other than Poe’s last fiancée Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. But Traylor’s latest discovery topped even that. In 1905, he announced to George E. Woodberry that he was now the owner of “the earliest known portrait of Poe,” a long-lost miniature on ivory mentioned as a “lost portrait” of a young Poe in Woodberry’s recent edition of Poe’s works.
Even more than a century ago, Poe’s face was best known through the few daguerreotypes taken in the last two years of his life when he was frequently in ill-health, struggling against poverty, and close to despair. The most popular of these photographs shows the haggard poet just four days after a suicide attempt. Such portraits seemed to support the public’s caricatured image of Poe as a melancholy, haunted artist. But those who met him describe Poe as a handsome, elegant gentleman who was both a gifted athlete and a witty, amusing companion. Surely, scholars hoped, the author must have sat for his portrait before his final illness and the death of his beloved wife. Such a picture would show the young, healthy Poe—the promising young editor in the prime of his life. Locating this missing artifact would represent a major addition to Poe studies. Biographers would include it in their books. Students would analyze it. The public would finally have a chance to see Poe as his friends knew him.
That is exactly what happened with Traylor’s new portrait. Within a few years, it appeared in Benjamin Blake Minor’s book History of the Southern Literary Messenger, and James Harrison reproduced it in Last Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman. Harrison declared the miniature “the earliest known portrait of [Poe].” The Valentine Museum included the portrait in it 1949 exhibit and catalog Richmond Portraits in an Exhibition of Makers of Richmond 1737-1860. In the 1926 booklet Facts About Poe: Portraits & Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe with a Sketch of the Life of Poe, Amanda Pogue Schulte writes that the miniature “represents the poet at twenty-six years of age and is evidently the earliest known portrait of him.”
The tiny painting on an ivory oval shows a youthful, clean-shaven Poe with the faintest hint of a smile. He is dressed in a grey coat with a black vest and cravat. Although the portrait is finely detailed, the expression appears slightly vacant. The piece is unsigned, and there is no indication of when or where it was painted. What is obvious from the portrait’s resemblance to authentic portraits of the author is that the subject was intended to be Poe, but it is not known whether this is truly a portrait painted of the author while he sat in a room with the artist or later copy or forgery.
It did not take long for doubts to arise about the portrait’s authenticity. In 1914, Poe collector James H. Whitty wrote Poe biographer Mary Phillips, “I was well acquainted with Mr. Traylor, and often met him during his lifetime. One day he showed me a miniature of Poe enclosed in an old time case. He told me that he had obtained it from a lady in Baltimore . . . that she was a friend of the Poe family and that the miniature had been owned by Poe himself. It was unsigned, had an unusual new appearance to me and looked like it might have been made up from two portraits of Poe I knew.”
Whitty thought Traylor’s account of the piece’s history sounded a little too good to be true, so he conducted his own investigation. One of his first discoveries was that Traylor had bought an antique case after purchasing the picture, suggesting the piece could have been installed in an old case to make it look older than it really was. Whitty later told Phillips, “I first wrote and asked Mr. Traylor for the history of the miniature in writing and have his response declining to do so.”
Traylor died just two years after announcing the discovery, so Whitty would have to continue his investigation with his help. Whitty’s account continues,
I discovered that the bare miniature was offered for sale here by an art salesman from Baltimore to Mr. English of Bell Book & Staty. Co. Mr. English told me that he knew Traylor was interested in Poe and showed him the painting and afterwards purchased it for him for $50. The art establishment wrote me that they sold the miniature but knew nothing of its history. The salesman was not then with them, but in Europe. I have a letter from the salesman in which he states that the painting came from Annapolis, Md., but that was all he knew.
The same J. T. English of the Bell Book and Stationery Company wrote, in a slightly different account, that “a Mr. W.E. Jones, representing Bendan Brothers of Baltimore, Md. Came to Bell Book and Stationery Company…making his annual visit…Mr. Jones showed the writer a medallion portrait of Poe that he wished to sell, stating that the Bendan Brothers bought it of a person said to be a representative or connection of the Poe family.”
It is unknown which Poe relative (or friend of the Poe family) in either Baltimore or Annapolis might have once owned this portrait, and there is no evidence that Edgar Allan Poe ever did. In fact, there is a good possibility that it did not even exist during Poe’s lifetime since the portrait bears a striking resemblance to a mezzotint engraving of Poe published a year after his death. This print, produced by Poe’s friend John Sartain, is based on an 1846 oil painting of Poe by Samuel Osgood. As early as the 1920s, James Southall Wilson deemed the Traylor miniature a “synthetic” portrait rather than an authentic one made from a live sitter. In The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Deas points out that, although the facial hair has been removed and the clothing has been changed in the Traylor miniature, the shadow under the nose and the curl of hair on the forehead are identical to those in the Sartain print. Having been dismissed as a forgery, the Traylor miniature gradually declined in popularity.
Meanwhile, James Whitty, who had been one of the first and most vocal critics of the Traylor portrait’s authenticity, announced in 1909 his own discovery of “the earliest authentic portrait” of Poe, which he believed had once belonged to Poe’s sister Rosalie Mackenzie Poe. Anticipating the high demand for reproductions of the piece, Whitty quickly copyrighted the image that same year. He then published it in an edition of Poe’s poems that he edited. When the Poe Museum opened, he made a copy of his important image for the new institution to display with the caption, “This crayon portrait of Poe is from a miniature in oil painted by the Virginia artist Hubard, about 1836. It was in the possession of Rosalie Poe, the poet’s sister and copied by Davies, the old-time Richmond photographer. This picture was reproduced from Davies original negative, owned by J. H. Whitty of Richmond.”
Whitty’s portrait, however, turned out to be an even more blatant forgery than Traylor’s had been. The Whitty portrait, it seems, is merely a copy of a wood engraving of Poe made about six years after the author’s death. Once of Whitty’s acquaintances, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, later wrote that he was not certain Whitty had had ever seen anything more than a photographic negative of the portrait before (or after) authenticating it.
This would not be the last forged Poe portrait to appear over the past century. Scores of silhouettes, watercolors, pencil sketches, and daguerreotypes have fooled some of the best Poe scholars. Today only two watercolors, one oil painting, and eight photographs of Poe are widely accepted as genuine; and the original plates of five of those daguerreotypes are missing. While it is possible there are more portraits of Poe in existence, we never when one of them might resurface. Collectors occasionally show the Poe Museum portraits and daguerreotypes they have inherited and wish to have examined, and a few of these long lost images prove very interesting. About a year ago, a lady appeared at the museum with a hand-painted photograph of Poe that had been missing for decades. Believing such an important piece should be shared with the public for the benefit of this and future generations, she said she might consider donating it to the museum but would need to consult her children on the matter. Later this week it will sell at a major auction house for far more than the museum can hope to pay.
Luckily, the Traylor miniature did not suffer the same fate. After Robert Traylor’s death in 1907, his daguerreotype of Poe (long-since ruined during a cleaning attempt) disappeared, and ownership of his miniature of Poe passed to his daughter Anne Traylor Larus, wife of Lewis G. Larus, vice-president of a tobacco manufacturing company that also founded WRVA, a radio station still serving Richmond to this day. The Laruses lived in beautiful estate called Stony Point, situated outside Richmond on a bluff so high they could supposedly see the Blue Ridge Mountains from their bedroom window.
Anne Larus’s sister Mary Gavin Traylor was a Richmond newspaper columnist as well as the secretary, curator, librarian, hostess, and tour guide at the Poe Museum during the 1930s. Mary G. Traylor devoted her time and energy to keeping the museum in business during the darkest days of the Great Depression while still making major acquisitions for the institution including a rare daguerreotype of Poe and a complete set of original illustrations for Poe’s poem “The Raven” drawn by James Carling. She must have had little difficulty convincing her sister to donate the Traylor miniature (authentic or not) to the Poe Museum, where it remains today. By the time of its acquisition, the portrait was no longer considered a life portrait of the author, but it has never been determined whether it was a forgery intended to deceive a potential buyer or if it was simply painted as a later tribute to Poe to be sold to someone who knew it had been produced after the subject’s death. It was not uncommon for portraitists well into the twentieth century to produce hand-painted replicas of earlier portraits to sell to those who cannot acquire the originals. Through no fault of the artist, such a portrait might later be mistaken for an original long after the artist and the person who commissioned the artwork have died. It is also fairly common for artists to paint pictures of Poe–like ones available today in the Poe Museum’s gift shop.
Although the museum cannot claim the Traylor miniature is an authentic life portrait, it is still on display in the Model Building—not as a historical artifact from Poe’s lifetime but as an approximate illustration of Poe’s appearance as a young man. It is also an artifact related to the turn-of-the-century surge in Poe collecting and the competition to make the next great discovery at a time when the supposed missing portrait of a young Poe was the Poe researcher’s “Holy Grail.”
Since Poe is most often remembered as the caricature of the melancholy poet depicted in the museum’s late daguerreotype (above), it is important to show a more complete view of Poe’s personality by also showing the Traylor miniature as a representation of how Poe many have looked for most of his life—before that final, difficult year leading up to his early death. One might wonder if the people who knew Poe best would choose the Traylor miniature or the below daguerreotype as the best representation of how they remember the poet.
Thanks to Traylor’s devotion to collecting and researching Poe, to Mary Gavin Traylor’s dedication to building the Poe Museum’s collection, and to Anne Traylor Larus’s generosity, this stunning Poe portrait will be preserved and displayed for all to see. That is why it is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month. Click here to read about more Objects of the Month.