PIcture Perfect: A Study of Edgar Allan Poe

In the era of Facebook, we don’t bat an eyelash at displaying photos of ourselves doing the most trivial things. Banana mustache picture? Don’t mind if I do. You want me to throw up an ironic peace sign with my friends? I’ll tag it! But once upon a time, portraits were not taken lightly, and the subject of the picture would take great pains to convey his or her personality through the way that he or she dressed, sat, and peered towards the camera. In fact, through careful study, one can learn a great deal about renowned writer Edgar Allan Poe, by observing one of his only known likenesses, a daguerreotype from 1848 that depicts him, unsmiling, with his brows furrowed, staring gauntly into the camera.


This portrait is very interesting, when juxtaposed with some of the drawings and likenesses of him that are rendered in his books during his life and after his death. As with daguerreotypes, these sketches and drawings are meant to convey specific messages and meanings about Poe, his life, his legacy, and his writings.


Just as one can learn about how Poe wanted to portray himself through his daguerreotype, we can learn how editors wanted him to be perceived by readers throughout his literary career both during his life and after his death.


For example, the book Edgar E. Poe: Poems contains a very interesting sketch of Edgar Allan Poe. It contains lots of shadows, and very few smooth, blended lines. This portrait is most likely indicative of the editor’s desire to portray Poe as being similar to the dark content of his work. His image largely evolved into the caricature of a troubled writer.


Another book, Poe, has a more precise drawing of Poe that seems to be based off of the 1848 daguerreotype, however, the artist seems to have enhanced his dark circles, contributing to the image that he was a sickly man during his life. 


The Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Volume is a more photo-like sketch of his likeness. He doesn’t look sad or distressed necessarily, but he isn’t smiling. He is well dressed, holding a pen, and the editors clearly wanted him to be portrayed as a successful writer. Similarly, he looks healthy and well rested.


The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe is also a more positive portrait,. In this drawing, Poe is younger than he is in some of his other portraits. He is smiling, his eyes aren’t hooded, he is well dressed, and not sad at all


Clearly, many things can be garnered from the way that artists choose to render their subjects. Art history students dedicate their careers to finding out the hidden meaning behind portraits, and it is possible one can interpret the motives of editors by examining the pictures in novels and their interpretation of Poe’s likeness.



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