What in the world happened to Caroline Griswold’s face? Rest assured, she still looks the same as she did last week. We just photographed her under different lighting conditions. By lighting the portrait from an angle, the conservator is better able to see the surface cracks that need to be repaired. Below is the portrait under normal illumination. The cracks are not quite as easy to see this time.
Now look at this photograph taken under ultraviolet illumination.
This lighting causes organic substances to fluoresce while inorganic substances absorb the light and look black. The organic resin varnish added as a protective layer over the finished painting is fluorescing, but there are also dark splotches that show the presence of paint applied on top of the varnish. This is the result of restorers covering up areas of missing or damaged paint with matching paint. The only problem is that, because they didn’t clean the painting before adding the patches, the patches match the color of the dirty paint. These means that, when the painting is cleaned, the patches will no longer match the painting. Figuring out which parts of the painting are original and which are not helps our conservator get a better understanding of how the painting originally appeared. This provides him a kind of road map to follow during the conservation process.
Notice that some of the patches are lighter than others. These are likely older patches painted by a previous restorer. The light spots on the painting appear to be another organic residue, maybe splattered food or mold.
This detail of the lower edge of the portrait shows the presence of organic residue that dripped down the paint surface.
Now let’s take a look at some of the conservator’s photos of the Rufus Griswold portrait. This is a photograph under normal illumination. Under this light, one can already see how dirty the painting is, but looking at it with different lighting will show us even more.
Here is one taken with raking light to show the cracks. Especially evident is a bulge on the lower edge of the canvas caused by the accumulation of dust and debris between the back of the canvas and the stretcher. This will have to be repaired by removing the canvas from the stretcher and flattening it before restretching it.
Here is one taken under ultraviolet illumination. (Notice the varnish on the easel is also fluorescing.) You can see some large areas where missing paint was restored.
A detail of the lower left corner of the portrait taken under raking light shows the bulge, a vertical crack with missing paint, and a major hole in the canvas.
The same area shown under ultraviolet illumination reveals extensive repairs made by a past restorer.
By taking multiple photographs using different kinds of light, our conservator will determine which parts of the painting are original and which are not as well as which parts should be cleaned and which should be removed. This guided him when he performed a test cleaning on Rufus Griswold’s face.
These kinds of tests will help the conservator get a better idea of how the portraits underneath 176 years of grime and dirty varnish should look after a successful cleaning. Only after careful study, planning, and testing, will the conservator be able to begin the treatment process, which may take months to complete.
Since the portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold arrived at the Poe Museum a couple months ago, we have had several visitors ask about them. If you would like to see the portrait of Rufus Griswold in its current state, please visit the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building where it is hanging above Edgar Allan Poe’s trunk.
If you are interested in helping out with the conservation process, please vote for the Rufus Griswold portrait to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. Just click here to vote.
HP Lovecraft by Semtner
Last Saturday, August 20, would have been the 126th birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), author of such influential horror, science fiction, and fantasy tales as The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness (which was inspired by Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). Lovecraft’s influence on both horror fiction and popular culture has been vast. Several of his works have been adapted to film, music, and even games. In his tales of cosmic horror he created a shared fictional universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos, which continues to live on in the works of legions of later authors.
Lovecraft was also a great admirer of Poe’s works and devoted an entire chapter of his 1935 book Supernatural Horror in Literature to him. In that chapter, Lovecraft writes,
Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority’s artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove — good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.
Never a terribly famous writer during his lifetime, Lovecraft would likely not have been recognized by the staff when he visited the Poe Museum in Richmond in May 1929. On May 4, he wrote Elizabeth Toldridge, “In Richmond the chief object of interest for me is the Poe Shrine—an old stone house with two adjoining houses connected as wings & used as a storehouse of Poe reliques. Here I have spent much time examining the objects associated with my supreme literary favourite—to say nothing of the marvelous model of Richmond in 1820, housed in one of the wings.”
The Poe Museum’s Old Stone House, Enchanted Garden, and model of Richmond remain much as they were in 1929, so today’s guests can still feel much of the atmosphere that must have inspired Lovecraft during his visit. The following photographs date to about that time.
The Poe Museum in June 1929.
The Enchanted Garden in early spring of 1929.
Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building in about 1928
Lovecraft was not the only famous cultural figure to make a trip to the Poe Museum. Vincent Price, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein also visited. Click their names to read about their Poe Museum experiences.
[The Poe Museum is always glad to learn of poets Poe has inspired. We recently received an email from Vik Shirley, a poet based in Bristol in the UK. Vik writes, “I recently completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Literature (with Creative Writing) and was awarded First-class honours. For my final project I wrote a poetry sequence called Death: The Human Experience, based on an exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which featured various artefacts and symbols of death from around the world and throughout history. I based each poem in the sequence on a different exhibit and one of those was the death mask of Edgar Allan Poe…When I was carrying out research for my poem, I came across the museum website, in addition to an online 2014 article of yours in Biography.com, which I found fascinating and very useful. My poem is in the voice of Edgar’s cat Catterina. I was inspired to learn that she died shortly after the death of Edgar.” Here is the poem for your enjoyment.]
I always clawed the walls when he left,
sank into a fantastic gloom. Fetched
presents to his empty room, licked
my paws, preened myself, waiting, waiting.
But this time, there was something more;
one develops a feeling for these things,
a hunch, a penchant for the peculiar
in this house. My tortoiseshell pelt prickled
from that very first day, from the moment
he departed. I remember it well. I slunk
around his trunks – circling his doomed
luggage, brushing up, pressing against
his legs, weaving eights, provoking,
coaxing for one final caress. To explain:
we were close. I would sit on his shoulder
while he wrote, everybody knew I adored
him. I learned from the master; was wise
to the clues, the omens, symbols. The days
went by. I was wondering, wondering,
fearing the worst. My stomach churned,
I yearned to nibble his finger, flip the tip
of my tail in his presence, issue him with
a slow blink, a purr, but no, still, nothing,
nothing. Then yesterday the news bludgeoned
us without mercy or warning and confirmed
the unthinkable. It was an enigma, a conundrum,
and not, as I was hoping, a hoax. So, now it’s time
for me to go. My tell-tale heart is tired of talking.
I will follow my soulmate into the shadows, trace
his footsteps with paws, all the way to Nevermore.
(c) Vik Shirley 2016
Each year, the Virginia Association of Museum’s accepts nominations for Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts, and this time the Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst enemy Rufus W. Griswold and his wife Caroline made the list of nominees. This honor means that people realize the significance of these historical artifacts and how important it is to preserve them. As we have seen in a previous blog post, these portrait have not been cleaned since they were painted back in 1840. The 176 years of accumulated dust and tobacco smoke have almost completely obscured the surfaces to the point that it is difficult to tell there are even portraits under there. The paintings also suffered from severe cracks and paint loss resulting from being removed from their frames and stored rolled up for years.
The good news is that much of the original paint is still intact underneath all the grime. A conservator recently tested the paintings to determine just how bright the colors once were and how easily they can be returned their original appearance. Once the process is complete, we can be among the first see the paintings as Griswold himself would have seen them.
You can help bring these treasures out of the shadows and allow the public to see them for the first time. Just click here to cast your vote for the paintings of Rufus and Caroline Griswold to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. For more information about the program, click here. To donate to the conservation effort, please click here.
Poe’s Bride in ” The Oval Portrait” (www.Goodreads.com)
After reading Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), I was struck by how much his theme about the value of art resembled the one found in Poe’s 1842 short fictional work, “The Oval Portrait.” Both stories focus on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the viewer, or, in the case of literature, the reader. In Poe’s story, the young artist is driven to paint the ultimate portrait of his beautiful new wife. His goal was to produce a masterpiece that would portray a symbol of youth and vitality that would last an eternity. Poe writes, “As a thing of art, nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself.” The artist writes about the bride (the subject of his art): “She’s a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” However, she wanted to satisfy her husband and sat idly for days, while the artist was engrossed in his creation. He “turned his eyes from the canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.” After his last brush stroke, “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought.” Instead of joy, “he grew tremulous, very pallid, and aghast crying with a loud voice, ‘This is Life itself!’ [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved—She was dead!” Poe’s story shocks readers and forces them to make a judgment on the artist’s values, as well as their own values. Some might conclude that the story demonstrates that the value of even the most beautiful art is diminished when an artist lives without compassion and positive connection with humanity. Others might conclude that the value of art exceeds the human sacrifice it took to produce it. “The Oval Portrait” also foreshadows the idealistic relationship that modern artists have with their work, as they splash images of their creations across social media and urge people to “Like” them. In many cases, they value their work more than they try to establish and maintain positive human interactions.
Wilde writes, in his Preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” Wilde, like Poe, focuses on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the reader: In the opening pages, he writes, “As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face.” The artist was deeply satisfied and even “riveted” by the profundity and beauty shown in his painting. The viewer of the painting, Lord Henry, who also symbolizes the reader, or the critic of art, remarks, “It is your best work, Basil, you must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor.” The painter remarks that he cannot send it the exhibition, because “I have put too much of myself into it.” Lord Henry, acting as the art critic remarks, “What odd chaps you painters are. You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away.” Although Basil is still interested in having his art recognized, he cannot risk showing Dorian’s portrait because he fears that it will expose the darkness of his soul. The artist believes that he has become too emotionally connected to his subject to allow the purveyors of art to view his creation. Basil was once as scornful of his painting as Poe’s young bride was. However, he becomes enthralled with it after it is finished, and wants to keep it as a symbol of his youth. He makes a Faustian-like request: He wishes to remain eternally young and beautiful, and in his steed, his portrait would age with time. As this a Wilde novel, he is granted his wish. As he ages, he decides that he must hide his painting in the attic for fear that someone might discover that he has found the secret formula to eternal youth. Poe was also consumed with writing about the secret of longevity and eternal life and developed this theme throughout his career in several fictional works, including “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” and in his final science treatise, Eureka: A Prose Poem.
Since he is granted long-lasting youth, Basil’s youthful appearance does not change after several decades. However, his life becomes increasingly decadent and even more violent than any character in a Poe story! He heartlessly scorns his lover, Sybil Vane, because she proposes to love Dorian rather than to continue as being a famous Shakespearean actress. In her final stage role, she portrays Juliet, who died an unnecessary death in Shakespeare’s tragedy. When she ceases to be an idealistic object of worship for Dorian Gray, she becomes totally undesirable to him. Dorian’s heartless rejection of her also causes her to commit suicide in real life. Afterward, Dorian and his mentor, Lord Henry, coldly justify that her dramatic death was even more profound than her life would have been as a faded actress and wife of an artist. The scenario with Sybil reminds readers of the wife, in Poe’s story, who was more dedicated to her husband than to his art, and of her the husband, who was more dedicated to his art than to his loving wife. The tragic suicide of Sybil, a word meaning an auspicious omen, foreshadows the tragic downfall of Dorian and, by psychic connection, of Basil, the artist who painted him. Due to Dorian’s decadent human activities, his portrait increasingly begins to mirror his corrupted soul. In the final scenes of the book, he must decide what he is going to do to relieve the guilt he feels when he looks at his hideous portrait. He tries to resolve his tormented soul by killing the artist who painted the work and by destroying the picture. But, does he succeed? Not all that we see in Gray is certain. Readers are as shocked about the conclusion of Wilde’s book as they were about The Oval Portrait. But, they are not certain if Dorian Gray was conveyed realistically or whether it was entirely imagined in the mind of both the artist and his subject. The creator of the novel, Oscar Wilde, provides little to no clues to help unravel the mysteries of his well-constructed story. Instead, he challenges us to draw our own conclusions. There are several unanswered questions. For example, Did Dorian’s immoral behavior cause the painting to deteriorate? Was there a psychic connection established between the artist and the subject which caused both of them to see the painting in the same way?
Oscar Wilde’s book, Dorian Gray, was also continuing a trend that was pioneered by Poe, which introduced indeterminate endings. In this type of literature, readers had to use their own resources to unravel the loose ends of a story. For example, we do not anything about the relationship between Poe’s artist and his wife before he created his painting. We also don’t know if or how the artist changed after his wife’s death. Readers and literary critics are uncertain whether Gray’s actions caused the portrait to revert back to its former youthful vibrancy, or whether the changes seen in the portrait were only in the minds of Dorian and the artist who created the painting. Wilde wrote that art imitated life and that life imitated art, concluding that readers could understand much about themselves by the ways that they interpreted literature and art. If they thought that the lack of morals caused the tragic destruction of Dorian Gray,then that would be one conclusion about the over-arching theme of the story. However, if they concluded that Dorian lived a full and productive life of hedonistic pursuits, then they might consider that his death could be considered as noble. After all, he did try to reach for eternity. I have stopped a bit short of fully describing the final ending so that readers might explore it and draw their own conclusions about The Portrait of Dorian Gray! However, if you do like that book, I suggest that you also read any of Poe’s stories—many of which had a strong influence on Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece!
*This article was originally posted on Murray Ellison’s, www.Litchatte.com Website.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]
Murray at the Poe Museum
From September 22-24, the Poe Museum, in partnership with the Byrd Theater, will host the Poe Film Festival to showcase the best in Edgar Allan Poe movies of the past ninety years from around the world.
There have been hundreds of cinematic adaptations of Poe’s works and biopics of his life. These films, featuring Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, Jack Nicholson, and Sir Christopher Lee, have become part of our cultural heritage. Yet, so far, there has never been a film festival devoted entirely to Poe movies. By bringing the first Poe Film Festival to Richmond, the Poe Museum, along with special guests such as Victoria Price and Raul Garcia, invites fans to explore Poe’s legacy and influence through iconic American cinema.
The three-day event will begin at the Poe Museum on Thursday, September 22 from 6-9 p.m. with a special “Poe Goes to the Movies” Unhappy Hour, with special guest Victoria Price, daughter of screen legend Vincent Price. The Unhappy Hour will also showcase a new exhibit of Poe-inspired art in partnership with Ohio’s Good Goat Gallery.
On Friday the 23rd, from 7:00-10:30 p.m. the Byrd Theatre will show two feature-length adaptations of Poe’s most beloved works, Stonehearst Asylum (2014) and House of Usher (1960) hosted by Victoria Price. On Saturday from 10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m., the Byrd will screen a series of short films, followed by panel discussions with film experts such as Raul Garcia, director of Extraordinary Tales; Scott Peeples of the College of Charleston; John LaTier, director of The Tell-Tale Heart; Sean Kotz of Radford University; and many more.
On Saturday evening from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m the Poe Museum will host a special “Evening with Victoria Price.” This ticketed event will allow attendees to meet and mingle with Victoria Price and to celebrate the artistic legacy of Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe.
Richmond’s landmark movie palace the Byrd Theatre will host the Poe Film Festival.
Admission for each film or panel is $8. Admission to the Saturday evening reception is $75. Unhappy Hour admission on Thursday night is $5. Tickets will go on sale at the Poe Museum very soon. Here is the tentative schedule:
I. Thursday, September 22 (Poe Museum)
A. Unhappy Hour at the Poe Museum
B. Opening of Good Goat Gallery Exhibit “A Poe-tic Tribute”
C. Screening of 1928 silent film “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Jean Epstein in the Poe Museum Garden with live music
II. Friday, September 23 (Byrd Theatre)
A. 7 p.m. Screening of “House of Usher” (1960) introduced by Victoria Price
B. 9 p.m. Screening of “Stonehearst Asylum” (2014)
III. Saturday, September 24 (Byrd Theatre)
A. 10:00-12:00 Poe in Black-and-White Panel
1. Panelists Scott Peeples and Sean Kotz
2. Moderator Chris Semtner
3. Screening of “The Black Cat” (1934) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Watson, 1928)
B. 1:00-2:45 Animated Poe Panel
1. Panelists Raul Garcia and TBA
2. Moderator Chris Semtner
3. Screening of “Extraordinary Tales” (2014)
C. Adapting Poe Panel
1. Panelists John LaTier and Poe Movies
2. Moderator Scott Peeples, University of Charleston
3. Films: “The Cask of Amontillado” (2015) by Poe Movies and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (2016) by John LaTier
IV. Saturday Evening, September 24 (Poe Museum)
A. 7-9 p.m. Reception at the Poe Museum with talk by Victoria Price, screening of “Tales of Terror,” and meet and greet with panelists
More details will be coming soon. For more information, please contact the Poe Museum at [email protected] or 804-648-5523.
The other day someone brought me a top hat supposed to have once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. I had never doubted that Poe would have worn a hat. Fashion plates from Graham’s Magazine (which Poe edited) and other popular magazines of the day showed men in top hats, and, as seen in the below illustration from an 1842 almanac, even a lawless gang wore top hats while murdering people.
In fact, the surviving photographs of Poe often show the tell-tale signs of “hat head” in which the hair is flattened down on top and sticks out, mullet-like, in the back. Of course, he took his hat off for his photos and portraits, and only one photo even shows what appears to be the edge of a hat. That does not provide a very clear picture of the kind of hat he would have worn, but we can probably make some educated guesses based on the fashions of Poe’s day.
Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841
Another Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841
A gentleman’s hat at the time might have been made of beaver fur or silk, which was gradually growing in popularity by the 1840s. During the 1840s and 1850s, hats were getting especially tall, as can be seen in the photo below.
Men in hats from 1857 photo via Wikipedia
Using a reproduction of one of William Abbott Pratt’s daguerreotypes, taken in Richmond in September 1849, I have envisioned how Poe may have looked in his top hat.
Top hats were not the only gentlemen’s hats available at the time. This illustration from the first printing of Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug” (1842) shows a man on the left wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
Some people who saw Poe on his summer 1849 visit to Richmond describe him wearing just such a hat to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. A Richmonder at the time later wrote, “I was in Richmond in 1849, and remember Mr. Poe, with his white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest, and broad Panama hat.” Here is a photograph showing how he would have looked wearing it.
I regret I cannot tell if Poe ever used the hat shown to me. The owner could tell me nothing of its provenance, so I had no evidence tying it to Poe. Although someone had written the name “Poe” on the inside of the hat, there are several people with than name. To make matters worse, someone wrote the date “1850” in the hat, and, if the date is correct, the piece dates to a year after Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Of course, we do not know who wrote that in the hat or why they wrote it. Maybe more evidence will become available to help us determine just whose hat this was.
There is no telling what ever happened to Poe’s hat. When he was found at a Baltimore polling place four days before his death, someone had already stolen it and replaced it with a cheaper one. As a witness, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, later wrote, Poe’s “hat, or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange, was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled.” It appears someone may have purloined Poe’s hat and likely disposed of it at some point without ever realizing (or caring) that it had once belonged to a famous poet.
Griswold portraits at the conservation studio
The Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold have just returned from a visit to a conservator who examined them so that he can put together a proposal for treating them. We will post that information when it becomes available. To find out more about these portraits, click here.
The good news is that the paintings are in great shape. The bad news is that those great paintings are covered under layers of dirt, grime, and varnish. A quick examination revealed a little of what these paintings have endured over the past 176 years.
Rufus and Caroline Griswold meet George III at the conservation studio
The portraits were painted in 1840 when Rufus Griswold was twenty-five years old. Rufus and Caroline had married three years earlier, but he would leave her in New York in November 1840 in order to take a job in Philadelphia. She remained in New York, where she died just two years later. Griswold was devastated by her sudden death. He refused to leave her side until he was forced to do so by a relative thirty hours later. Then he returned to her crypt forty days later and spent the night with her corpse.
The loss of Caroline inspired Griswold to write poetry in her memory. Among these were “Five Days” and “To Elizabeth Waring—A Christmas Epistle.” The manuscript for the latter is in the collection of Griswold’s letters and manuscripts included with the above portraits. The poem begins,
A day of joy to all the world is this,
But unto me, alas! A day of gloom;
For she who was the fountain of my bliss
Is hid from me forever in the tomb.
“A happy Christmas!” comes from many a voice,–
‘Tis kindly meant,–it brings me only pain,–
She who alone could bid my soul rejoice,
Oh, wo is me! I ne’er shall see again!”
But fifty days ago,–she by my side,–
I knew no pleasure which was not mine own,–
Ah, cruel Death!—to take from me my bride!—
Thou hast the temple of my hopes o’erthrown.
With broken heart, my weary way I wend,
No stars henceforth upon my pathway shine,–
Alas, what stars like eyes of such a friend,
As thou to me, oh, sainted Caroline!
These portraits serve as a record of the young couple in the early years of their marriage. A year after this portrait was painted, Griswold met Edgar Allan Poe. Another year later, Griswold rose to literary fame with the publication of his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe faintly praised the book at first but later ridiculed it for placing too much emphasis on northern writers while overlooking southern poets. This was only the beginning of the literary feud that ended after Poe’s death with Griswold attacking him in print with a largely fabricated biography.
The painting has been attributed to the artist Charles Loring Elliott in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s Literary Executor by Joy Bayless. Griswold is known to have commissioned more portraits from him, so it is possible the Poe Museum’s portraits could be Elliott’s work. These paintings are, however, so dirty that it is difficult to tell what they really look like or who might have painted them.
When Griswold died at the age of forty-two in 1857, his daughter Emily Griswold took ownership of the paintings. From her, they descended through her family until they arrived at the antique dealer who sold them to the Poe Museum. A quick look at the surface of the paintings tells us a little of what happened to them over the years.
The paintings were done with oil paint on canvas. The canvas was then nailed to a wooden frame called a stretcher. Then they were installed in frames to protect them. At some point, both canvases were removed from their stretchers and frames and rolled up to make them easier to transport. This left a series of horizontal cracks in the paint surface. You can see some of those cracks in this picture. Some of the cracks are difficult to see because a restorer painted them the same color as the surrounding paint.
Horizontal cracks in Rufus Griswold painting
When the paintings were attached to new stretchers, somebody decided to make them narrower, so he or she attached them to smaller stretchers and rolled the excess canvas around the side of the stretcher bar. Bare canvas along the bottom of Caroline’s portrait shows that the person who performed this procedure had trouble lining up the canvas on the new stretcher. Since they could not stretch Rufus’s canvas around the bottom edge of his stretcher, they just nailed the canvas through the front. That’s right. There is a nail sticking out of the picture. You can almost see it in this picture.
Lower edge of Rufus Griswold portrait
You might also notice a slight bulge in the lower edge of the canvas in that picture. The bulge was caused by the accumulation of junk between the back of the canvas and the front of the stretcher. The conservator found leaves, dust, and dead insects back there.
Then people smoked in front of the pictures, and the smoke gradually deposited on the surface of the paintings. Fortunately, the paintings had been varnished shortly after they were painted, so the smoke particles stuck to the varnish instead of adhering to the paint. Eventually, the varnish looked dull and brown from all the smoke and dust stuck to it, so somebody applied another layer of varnish on top of the first varnish. Naturally, more tobacco smoke and dust stuck to that layer.
By this time, the painting was so dark it was difficult to see, but it is still down there underneath all that dirty varnish. The conservator wanted to find out what the paint looks like under the varnish, so he used solvents to remove the tobacco smoke, dust, what appears to be some kind of liquid spilled on the surface, and both layers of varnish. The photos below show what he found.
Next time, we will post the conservator’s analysis of the paintings and what he thinks he can do for them.
Virginia Clemm Poe
One hundred and eighty years ago Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in a small ceremony in Richmond.
For a very awkward moment, try explaining to a group of thirteen-year-old middle school students that they are the same age Edgar Allan Poe’s wife was when he married her—and that her husband was twenty-seven at the time. (To learn more about the wedding ceremony, click here.) Even though Virginia Clemm Poe lived until the age of twenty-four, she is still frequently referred to as Poe’s “child-wife,” as if she were forever thirteen.
The nature of the relationship between Poe and his bride has long been a matter of speculation. To make matters more confusing, in the same August 1835 letter, he called her a sister, a cousin, and a “darling little wifey.” His nickname for her was Sissy (sister), and he called her mother, Maria Poe Clemm, Muddy (mother). Virginia sometimes referred to Edgar as Buddy (brother).
In letters to his mother-in-law, Poe speaks of Virginia in affectionate terms. During an 1844 trip to New York with Virginia, Edgar wrote Maria, “Sis is delighted, and we are both in excellent spirits. She has coughed hardly any and had no night sweat. She is now busy mending my pants which I tore against a nail…You can’t imagine how much we both to miss you. Sissy had a hearty cry last night, because you and Catterina [their cat] weren‘t here.”
Unfortunately, when she was nineteen, Virginia displayed symptoms of tuberculosis, a wasting disease that robbed her of her strength, her energy, and eventually her life. In a January 4, 1848 letter to G. W. Eveleth, Poe describes the agony of seeing her suffer and die from the disease.
Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever laved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever, and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially, and I again hoped. At the end of a year, the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene. . . . Then again — again — and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could not longer have endured, without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new, but — Oh God! — how melancholy an existence.
Aside from his mentions of her in letters like these, scholars have also tried to find traces of Virginia in Poe’s literary productions. While it is tempting to learn about Poe’s feeling for Virginia in his poems like “Eulalie” and “Annabel Lee,” the poem in which he mentions her by name is “To My Mother,” which is addressed not to his mother but to his mother-in-law, Virginia’s mother. Written after Virginia’s death, the poem describes how much she meant to him in the lines,
You who are more than mother unto me,
Filling my heart of hearts, where God installed you,
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother — my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,
Are thus more precious than the one I knew,
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
Of the relationship between Edgar and Virginia, one of their mutual acquaintances Frances Osgood wrote, “Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman whom he ever truly loved.”
Another of their friends, Lambert A. Wilmer, recalled,
I could mention several striking examples of Poe’s sensibility if my limits would permit. He was unquestionably of an affectionate disposition; of which he gave the best kind of proof when he labored cheerfully for the maintenance of his aunt and cousin, before his marriage with the latter. While he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger he devoted a large part of his salary to Virginia’s education, and she was instructed in every elegant accomplishment at his expense. He himself became her tutor at another time, when his income was not sufficient to provide for a more regular course of instruction. I remember once finding him engaged, on a certain Sunday, in giving Virginia lessons in Algebra.
One of his severe chroniclers says: “It is believed by some that he really loved his wife; if he did, he had a strange way of showing his affection.” Now it appears to me that he showed his affection in the right way, by endeavoring to make his companion happy. According to the opportunities he possessed, he supplied her with the comforts and luxuries of life. He kept a piano to gratify her taste for music, at a time when his income could scarcely afford such an indulgence. I never knew him to give her an unkind word, and doubt if they ever had any disagreement. That Virginia loved him, I am quite certain, for she was by far too artless to assume the appearance of an affection which she did not feel.
Casting aside nineteenth century propriety, Virginia is said to have run to the sidewalk to embrace her husband when she saw him returning home from work. Other accounts tell of them playing music together or playing games in their yard. Witnesses describe their marriage as a cheerful one. Describing her love for her husband, the twenty-three year old Virginia wrote in 1846,
Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.
In her short life, Virginia grew into a lovely young woman described by one of her houseguests Mary Gove Nichols as looking “very young” with “large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look.” Nichols believed she looked “almost [like] a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.” By this time, Virginia had been suffering for the past few years from tuberculosis, which would have caused her to be very thin and pale—a look considered very attractive at the time. In the words of Poe’s friend Mayne Reid, “I well knew the rose tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of the earth. It was consumption’s color—that sadly beautiful light which beckons to an earth tomb.”
While most who knew her described Virginia, as Reid did, as “angelically beautiful in person and not less in spirit,” Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a Poe groupie who never actually met Virginia, thought she was “small for her age, but very plump; pretty, but not especially so…[with a] round, ever smiling face.”
There are no known photographs of Virginia to help us determine whether Reid or Weiss was closer to the truth, and the popular post mortem portrait of Virginia hardly gives us a sense of how this cheerful, loving woman must have looked in life.
Post Mortem Portrait of Virginia Poe
After Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, her mother saved some of her cherished possessions. Among those items she felt worthy of saving, for their sentimental value or for some other reason, was a simple red trinket box covered in red leatherette with little brass flowers on top. Two years later, Edgar Poe also died, and Maria Clemm became dependent on the support of friends and relatives in New York, Alexandria, and Baltimore. In Baltimore, she found Poe relatives who offered some assistance before she ended up in one of the city’s charity homes.
Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
One of the friendly relatives was Virginia’s half-sister, Josephine Clemm Poe. To her, Maria Clemm bequeathed some of Virginia’s possessions, including her little red trinket box. Josephine, in turn, left the items to her daughter, who gave some of them to her niece Josephine Poe January.
Virginia’s Half-Sister Josephine Clemm Poe
Josephine Poe January had grown up revering the memory of her great aunt Virginia Poe and, in 1909, wrote the article “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Child Wife’” about her for the October 1909 issue of The Century. In the account, January describes Virginia’s “unchanging love” for Edgar. The article concludes with the lines, “One sees it now, and thinks of the poverty, the sorrow, the renunciation, of those two, and at first it seems so pitifully little that life gave to them. But is it little? To him the gift of song, to her the gift of love.”
Bottom of Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
At some point, January met the Richmond-born diplomat Alexander W. Weddell whose wife was from Saint Louis, where January was living. Mr. Weddell had been born in St. John’s Church, a short distance from Poe’s mother’s grave in the adjoining cemetery. After passing his Foreign Service exam in 1909, he traveled on diplomatic assignments to Zanzibar, Catania, Sicily, Athens, Beirut, Cairo, Calcutta, Mexico City, and Montreal before returning to Richmond, where he used materials salvaged from an eleventh century English priory to build a grand mansion called Virginia House.
During a meeting with the Weddells, January must have told them about her relation to Edgar Allan Poe, and the Weddells informed her that they were supporters of the newly formed Edgar Allan Poe Shrine (now the Poe Museum) in Richmond. As a result of the conversation, January wrote Pultizer Prize-winning editor, historian, and Poe Shrine president Douglas Southall Freeman on September 5, 1927,
My Dear Dr. Freeman,
My friend and yours Alexander W. Weddell told me he thought you would be interested to have for the Poe Shrine in Richmond a little possession that was once Virginia Clemm Poe’s. My grandmother Josephine Clemm Poe was her sister and this little red box came with the other little relics of Virginia’s bitter-sweet life.
It is in the form of a little chest of red wood or hard card board perhaps with a brass ring on the lid and may well have held some of her own little trinkets in the Fordham days. At least it is completely authentic and has never been in any other than her family’s hands. We were brought up as children to share my grandmother’s sense of loyalty and to know the inside truth of their wishing to have Virginia go to school and live with them a little longer before marrying Edgar. So we loved everything about her and my aunt who became custodian after her parents’ death loved everything about E.A.P.
I hope very much to come to Richmond when the dear Weddells are in “Virginia House” and to see the Shrine. Meanwhile I feel that it is the place Virginia’s little box should go to as nobody after me would value it as much as I have. If you care to have it and will let me know here where I shall be until October I will post it to you when I return to St. Louis.
Josephine Poe January
Josephine Poe January’s Letter to the Poe Museum
The Poe Shrine jumped at the chance to accept the donation of this priceless relic of Poe’s wife. The chairman of the executive committee, museum co-founder Annie Boyd Jones wrote her, “As the children say, we just can’t wait to see the little red box.”
Decoration on Top of Trinket Box
Since 1927, Virginia Poe’s trinket box, one of her very few surviving possessions, has been on display at the museum for the public to study and appreciate, imagining how Virginia must have kept her few, modest trinkets in it and how she, Edgar, and Maria survived in genteel poverty while Edgar wrote for a succession of magazines in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. One wonders what miniature treasures Virginia kept in the box and what became of them. Maybe the box held the portrait of her husband she supposedly kissed and gave to her nurse Marie Louise Shew shortly before dying. Maybe it held a ring or a letter from Edgar. We may never know. Another question we may never answer is precisely why, out of all Virginia’s possessions, Maria Clemm chose to save this box. Maybe it had been a favorite of Virginia’s, a gift from a good friend, or just a reminder of happier times. Like most great artifacts, it makes us ask far more questions than it answers.
The Trinket Box Getting Scanned
Earlier this year, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory visited the Poe Museum to make a 3D scan of the trinket box so that a three dimensional replica could be printed. Such a replica would allow museum visitors to see the actual trinket box locked safely in its case while handling the nearly identical replica. This new printing technology will offer new ways for the public to experience the museum’s collection, bringing us just a little closer to understanding what this box meant to the most important woman in Poe’s life.
Digital Image of the Trinket Box During Scanning
Now displayed alongside Virginia’s mirror in the Poe Museum’s Model Building, the box is a favorite among the museum’s many guests. Museum visitors this summer also have the rare opportunity to see two fragments of Virginia Poe’s trousseau (on loan from Dr. Richard Kopley) in the same exhibit case.
In honor of Poe’s 180th wedding anniversary, Virginia Poe’s trinket box is the Poe Museum Object of the Month. Click here to find out more about some of the other Objects of the Month.
How would you like to have your worst enemy’s portrait hanging in your living room? Although a few people half-jokingly advised us that Edgar Allan Poe would not approve of having a portrait of Rufus Griswold in the Poe Museum, we decided there was no better place for such an artifact than here in the center of the Poe-verse. Griswold, after all, is the one responsible for defaming Poe and creating the dark myth which far too many people have mistaken for fact. If it hadn’t been for Griswold, people wouldn’t still believe Poe was a drug addicted madman whose horror stories were merely based on his disturbed life.
Photograph of the Rufus Griswold portrait printed in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold by Joy Bayless
Here is just a sample from Griswold’s obituary of Poe:
He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.
If that description sounds about right to you, it’s because of Griswold. This is the caricature of Poe he created, and, although it has long since been reputed, it is still the myth some of us learn in English class and from popular culture. It’s also the hopelessly drunk and depressed Poe portrayed by John Cusack in the 2012 film The Raven. When reading such a description it’s easy to see why most people think Poe only wrote horror stories when he actually wrote more comedies and science fiction tales.
This distorted view of Poe is so popular that a few people think we are either mistaken or lying when we at the Poe Museum tell them the true story of Poe’s life. That is when we have to inform them about Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the rival editor, anthologist, and failed poet who, to avenge some wrong Poe had done him, wrote such a libelous obituary of the author that, at first, he chose to sign it with a pseudonym. Published two days after Poe’s death, it begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”
As if that were not enough, Griswold continued his smear campaign with a biography of Poe that portrayed the dead man as a vile, despicable human being, a liar, a blackmailer, a madman and a womanizer. Griswold even implied Poe had made a pass at his foster father’s mother and forged some of Poe’s letters to quote in the memoir. While some of Poe’s friends came forward with articles defending Poe’s good name, many were afraid to speak out until after the influential anthologist Griswold was dead. Three years after Griswold’s death, Poe’s former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman published her own biography of Poe, and several others followed. With a few notable exceptions, most of them portrayed Poe in a much better light. Now any objective biographer can safely dismiss the popular view of Poe as an insane opium addict.
When the Poe Museum tries to provide its visitors a fair and objective view of Poe’s life and work it is helpful to distinguish the facts from the fictions associated with his biography. A big part of this involves examining the man who started these myths and the reasons he did it. That’s why most Poe Museum tours end with at least some mention of Rufus Griswold’s infamous biography of Poe.
Rufus Griswold’s Wife Caroline
A few months ago, an antique dealer contacted the Poe Museum with an offer to sell a collection of Rufus Griswold artifacts including oil paintings of Rufus Griswold and his wife Caroline as well as about forty-five letters to and from Griswold, members of his family, and the poet (and enemy of both Poe and Griswold) Elizabeth Ellet. As soon as the collections committee heard about the opportunity, it voted to acquire the items. To raise the money, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.
Now, after years in the possession of descendants of Rufus Griswold’s daughter Emily, this collection is finally in a public collection where anyone can see and study it. Although the portraits were printed once in a 1943 biography of Rufus Griswold, the small black-and-white reproductions in that book only provided the slightest hint of the face of Griswold we will see when we have finished conserving the original paintings. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see Rufus and Caroline Griswold as they appeared when Griswold himself owned the paintings.
Portrait of Griswold printed in 1943 book by Joy Bayless
While seeing the portraits will be like traveling back in time to meet the man, reading his private letters in this collection will be like having a conversation with him. This will be our chance to learn about Griswold’s private struggles, his aspirations, and his motivations.
Griswold descendant Benjamin Wakeman Hartley with the portrait in background ca. 1960
The paintings’ trip to the Poe Museum is just one step on their decades-long journey. Painted in 1840, they went from Griswold (1815-1857) to his daughter Emily Griswold Hartley (1838-1906, a missionary) to her son Randolph Hartley (1870-1931, a librettist and theatrical agent) to Wakeman Hartley to a Massachusetts antique dealer. The next step is a visit to the conservator to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect. Now obscured by dark varnish, dust, smoke, and grime and covered with cracks, holes, and restorers’ over-painting, these 176 year old artifacts need to be cleaned and repaired in order for us to finally see them as they would have appeared in Griswold’s time. You will learn more about that in next week’s installment.
If you would like to help take care of the Poe Museum’s artifacts, please make a contribution here.