Welcome to the first installment of the Poe Museum blog’s new monthly feature entitled Weird Richmond. Every month you will find here a new and bizarre tale to satisfy your craving for all things weird. This is history off of the beaten path, full of strange tales of Poe, the times he lived in, and this city that he called home.
We open Weird Richmond with deathbed portraiture. A deathbed portrait is exactly what it sounds like: a post-mortem image of a deceased person. What we see today as morbid was actually practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means of capturing a final image of the dead for memorial purposes. In fact, many famous individuals have had deathbed portraits made of them, including Martin Luther, Goethe, and Victor Hugo, just to name a few.
Prior to the invention of the daguerreotype method of photography in 1839, deathbed portraits were either sketched or painted by artists. When photography became readily available in the mid-1800s, the deathbed portrait experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the camera’s ability to capture the departed exactly as they would have been upon their deathbed. During this time tuberculosis was running rampant across Europe and the United States, and many deathbed portraits from this time depict victims of what they termed “consumption.”
Here at the Poe Museum we have a print of the deathbed portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe, wife and cousin of Edgar Allan Poe. Her portrait was completed mere hours after her death at the age of 24 from tuberculosis, and for many years this was regarded as the only indisputable image of Virginia in existence (since then, another portrait has been validated). Virginia’s portrait is rendered in watercolor, and except for the odd angle that her head rests at, she could pass for still being amongst the living. While it was more common to have the deceased to be shown on their deathbed, some families posed their loved ones in chairs to make it look as if they still lived.
There are a few more modern cases of deathbed portraiture from the past century, most notably images of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie after being assassinated by Serbian nationalists in 1914. Even more recently, British artist Daphne Todd won the BP Portrait Award in 2010 for her deathbed portrait of her mother.