Poe  Portraits
The Art of John Sartain

 
 
'Contemplation' by John Sartain
'Contemplation'
by John Sartain

'Contemplation' By John Sartain resembles Virginia Poe, but I think a far more likely candidate for the model was Blanch Sully, Thomas Sully's beautiful, Philadelphia based daughter. (See "Blanch and Rosalie," in the Thomas Sully section for comparison)


'Babe and Mother,' by John Sartain

The subject of this exquisite engraving by John Sartain is a 'dead ringer' for Virginia Poe. The huge eyes, the aquiline nose, the pouty lips and the total innocence of the sitter, indicate that Virginia Poe did sit for John Sartain. Compare this lovely portrait against the 'Virginia Poe Comparison' art in the section on Thomas Sully. Indeed, these subjects look very much the same - like Virginia Poe. It should be noted that the image of baby was used time and time again in other contemporaneous art, most likely so they didn't have the annoyance of having a 'baby sitter' on their hands. But the image of this young Philadelphia woman is completely original.
 

John Sartain was perhaps the most prolific engraver in Philadelpia during the period of the American Renaissance, which was at its apex in the 1840s and `50s, during the time when Philadelphia, not New York, was the 'Art Capital' of the nation. The crowd in which Edgar Allan Poe moved contained such famous artists as John Sartain, Felix O.C. Darley, Thomas Sully, the Peale family, Emmanuel Leutze, Henry Inman and a plethora of other artistic talents. Literary, musical, and theatrical talents merged in this Renaissance period where magazine publishers, theater owners and producers, actors, writers and fine artists were all part of the same close-knit group. Since Philadelphia was also the capital for magazine publishing at this time, the group included publishers like Poe's close friend George Rex Graham, Louis Godey, Jesse Soule, editor of "The Spirit of the Times," a radical magazine for which Poe and his best friends, the writers George Lippard, Henry Hirst and Lambert Wilmer, wrote quite frequently, who were also part of this amazing circle of genius. The notorious Rufus Griswold and Thomas Dunn English, who played critical parts in the development of Poe biography, remained very friendly with John Sartain. Later in Poe's life and after Poe's death these three men did more to ruin Poe's reputation than anyone else.

Poe's early relationship with Sartain was quite excellent. Poe is even thought to have been so taken with Sartain's pioneering efforts in mezzotint engraving that he studied the process himself with great enthusiasm. Sartain, Poe, Hirst, Lippard, Felix Darley, Wilmer, T.D.English and Mayne Reid were all part of a distinct clique in the late 1830s into the 1840s. There is substantial evidence that Sartain and likely some of the others were very much partaking of absinthe during this period. There were fallings out among a few of these friends, but none as radical as the breaks between Poe and John Sartain. John Sartain and T.D. English were trying their best to make fools out of both Poe and Felix Darley in the late 1840's, when Sartain finally had control of his own magazine. There will be a great deal more about these literary/ artistic/ personal battles in my book. But it is perfectly reasonable to state that by the late 1840s John Sartain, Rufus Griswold and T.D. English were in many ways working together to destroy Poe's reputation. As for Felix Darley, I suspect that the attack on him which appeared in Sartain's Magazine, authored by T.D. English, was more a case of Felix Darley being used as a pawn by Sartain and English to further tarnish Poe's reputation. But certainly, the article would have made lifetime enemies of Sartain and T.D. English from Felix Darley. It is of little wonder that both Poe and Darley chose to leave Philadelphia for New York.

John Sartain's Fascination with Virginia Poe

After a careful examination of hundreds of Sartain's engravings, the greatest collection being held at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, one face reappears over and over. This is the face of Virginia Poe. Virginia was the darling of Philadelphia, a lovely woman inside and out. She certainly spent much of her time with Poe at the various Philadelphia soirées; also frequented by John Sartain. Also, Poe and Sartain were very close friends during Poe's early years in Philadelphia, where he must have spent time in Virginia Poe's company. It would seem that John Sartain felt that Virginia Poe was the icon of female beauty and that he indeed immortalized her in many of his finest engravings, many of which were actually original pieces of art by Sartain and others that had been somewhat doctored, from the hands of the finest artists of his time. But Sartain was a fine artist in his own right, and his own tastes and preferences often altered the look and feel of otherwise 'original' pieces of art.

'Babe and Mother' is just one example of an engraving by Sartain that seems to feature Virginia Poe. Other startling images of Virginia, by John Sartain, will be presented in the "Poe Mysteries" book. Comparisons to other known portraits of Virginia, by art expert, Dr. Jennifer Hallam, validate that the similarity of features in these works of art is uncanny; meaning, that it is very likely that Virginia Poe was indeed the subject of some of Sartain's finest engravings.

Discovering the Body ('Little Poe?'), engraved by John Sartain
'Discovering the Body' ('Little Poe?'), engraved by John Sartain


This bizarre engraving was executed by John Sartain, and published by him in "Sartain's Magazine." The figure that looks like 'a little boy with a mustache' clearly represents Poe. There was much jesting about Poe's height, with nasty rumors about "Mr. Poe being about 5 feet tall." Poe was approximately 5'8" tall. Clearly, this is a piece of art that begs for interpretation! But depicting a 'boy' with a head of dark curly hair, Poe's features and mustache and even Poe's trademark tightly fitting dark jacket, must have been intended as some kind of joke at Poe's expense. This engraving was printed several years after Poe's 'falling out' with John Sartain.



Felix O.C. Darley, engraved by John Sartain
Felix O.C. Darley, engraved by John Sartain

 
This is the first portrait ever printed of Felix O.C. Darley. It shows us a dashing, intense young man. But other than the intensity, there is little resemblance between this engraving and other portraits of Darley.
(See Felix O.C. Darley section)

 

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