Poe  Portraits
Virginia Clemm Poe: The Myth of Sissy


'Rundell' Virginia Poe, by Thomas Sully
'Rundell' Virginia Poe, by T.Sully
PHILADELPHIA: 1830s-40s

Years before Elizabeth Siddal
began her ascent to fame
through her connection
with the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood
, a young woman
in America preceded Siddal
as the first 'stunner.'
Unlike Siddal, however, this
woman's contributions to the
art of her time have been
entirely unknown, until now.

Virginia Poe, on her deathbed
Virginia Poe, on her deathbed
 
My research into the art of the American Renaissance indicates that Virginia Poe was the beau ideal of her time. Like Siddal, Virginia, was young, beautiful, and slowly dying of consumption. The pathos of Virginia's up and down battle with her health, but her determination to be happy and cheerful, beguiled everyone who knew her.

ARTISTS and FACILITATORS

Things were really percolating, artistically speaking, in the Philadelphia of the late 1830s-40s. Through the efforts of George Rex Graham, John Sartain and Thomas Sully, a very strong 'brotherhood' emerged in Philadelphia, comprised of luminaries of the Renaissance in both American art and literature.

Since this section is primarily about pictorial art of Virginia Poe, I'll confine myself to these artists and their 'facilitators,' like George Rex Graham, Louis Godey and Eliza Leslie. Meaning, that without the support of such writer/ editor/ publishers as Graham, Godey and Leslie, the quality of art in either periodical or book formats may not have reached the level of excellence it did during these years. John Sartain was both an engraver, as well as a 'facilitator,' when he began "Sartain's Union Magazine," which debuted many fine paintings, as well as the highest quality engravings ever made from highly detailed illustrations. Sartain's excellence and precision as an engraver was enhanced by his pioneering work in the art of mezzotint engravings.

Some of the fine artists who formed this American Renaissance 'brotherhood' were: Felix O.C. Darley, "The Father of American Illustration," the renowned Emmanuele Leutze, the fine artist John Neagle, A.L. Dick (engraver), artist Henry Inman, George Bonfield and any number of the Darley, Sully, Sartain and Peale family members. This group of artistic innovators became the forerunners of the British revolutionaries in art known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

By the late 1830s, when engravings in magazines had become works of art that people could actually own themselves, particular faces and types that appeared over and over again became known for 'their look,' much as certain models are today. So, while it would seem that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began this trend in art, in truth, the deification of actors and models had already begun.


VIRGINIA'S OTHERWORLDLY BEAUTY

There were many others besides her husband who were much taken by Virginia's 'otherworldly' beauty. Her grace, her demure prettiness and her sweetness all radiated out to those who knew her. The most precise statement of the kind of impact Virginia's presence had on Poe's friends was made by the dashing, handsome and highly prolific novelist, Captain Mayne Reid, a 'favorite' of the Poe coterie. Reid, in his short-lived magazine "Onward," wrote of his friendship with Poe and Virginia in their 'Spring Garden' days in Philadelphia. This memorial of Poe, "A Dead Man Defended," appeared in the April 1869 issue.

"In this humble domicile I can say that I have spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life - certainly some of the most intellectual. They were passed in the company of the poet himself and his wife - a lady angelically beautiful in person and not less beautiful in spirit. No one who remembers that dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of Virginia - her own name, if I rightly remember - her grace, her facial beauty, her demeanor, so modest as to be remarkable - no one who has ever spent an hour in her company but will endorse what I have said above. I remember how we, the friends of the poet, used to talk of her high qualities. And when we talked of her beauty, I well knew that the rose-tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of Earth. It was consumption's color - that sadly-beautiful light which beckons to an early tomb."

Reid also attested that Virginia had "the eyes of a houri." This is a rather perplexing description of Virginia, and since it was written by one of the great novelists of the time, we must assume that Reid was well aware of the two key definitions for the word 'houri.' On one hand, A houri can refer to "one of the beautiful virgins of the Koranic paradise," which certainly fits the idea of the 'Virginal Virginia.' However, the word 'whore,' as it is now spelled, had its origins before the 11th century in various cultures and was spelled: hore, hure and hora. The words 'houri' and 'whore' have the same antecedents, which is why the word 'whore' was originally pronounced 'Hoor,' which is still considered an acceptable pronunciation.

The other chief meaning of the word 'houri,' which Reid would have known, is "a voluptuous, alluring woman." I am certainly not implying here that Mayne Reid thought of Virginia Poe as a whore! Certainly not, he clearly adored her; but he could have said, "the eyes of an angel," and not, "the eyes of a houri," unless he wanted to emphasize not only the angelic side of Virginia, but also, that she was indeed a voluptuous and alluring woman to himself and to his friends and colleagues.

'Houri' is a word of mystery, however you slice it. Certainly, Reid's choice of words gives us a radically different impression of Virginia than we have from any other source. Virginia was not only angelic, but also mysterious, voluptuous, and, sexy! Virginia Poe, sexy?? This notion flies in the face of the stories about "the perennial child Virginia" we have all read about in standard Poe biographies. Several biographers have offered that, "Virginia was rather plump," which sounds awfully close to 'voluptuous.' Many have even felt it likely that Virginia remained a virgin all her life because of her 'childishness,' and the severity of her consumption.

Mayne Reid clearly did not see Virginia as 'merely virginal,' nor plump. In fact, Reid's statement shows his intense jealousy of Poe, as well as inferring that Virginia satisfied Poe sexually. "It was enough for one man to be beloved by one such woman as he had for his wife."

That Reid was infatuated with Virginia is obvious from these recollections, but more importantly, Reid states flatly that everyone who has spent time with Virginia felt precisely the same way about her. Since in Virginia's case, 'everyone' represented the finest writers and artists of the time, Reid in his statements, is making the same assertion that I am here, that Virginia was 'the darling' of the Philadelphia artistic elite. Virginia's influence, her impact, cannot be underestimated. Consequently, it should be no surprise that her 'look,' her persona, her exquisite features and even 'her story' is contained in many of the finest written and painted/ illustrated works of the time.



Why Hasn't Virginia's Modeling Been Known Before?

Virginia's life has always been shrouded in secrecy. This was a deliberate effort on the part of Poe and Muddy to protect her. This tradition was kept alive by the ever vigilant Poe family for over 150 years.

Why? Poe desired secrecy about his own life, as well as about those important to him. He never wrote about either of his parents, excepting one statement about being proud to be the son of an actress. Nor did he write about his brother, Henry, nor about Virginia in his work, though of course, she must have inspired many of the tubercular, 'life in death' women that fill his stories. Poe had a strong autobiographical impulse at times, but his desire for secrecy and mystery about himself and his family was even more acute.

The key reason why Virginia's modeling was hidden from the public is a topical social one. In Poe's day and indeed, well into the 20th century, an artist's model was regarded as but one step away from prostitution. In fact, many artists' subjects/ sitters were prostitutes.
 
Virginia Poe, by Learned - Click for larger view!
Virginia Poe, by Learned


Fanny Cornforth of the PRB's, was a mistress of Rossetti's. Jane Morris was also Rossetti's mistress, before and after her marriage to William Morris. It was considered inappropriate for a woman to be alone in the room/s of anyone but her husband, and this included portrait painters! These women were considered 'loose,' not only because they were models, but because their sexual relations with the painters in question were all too well known.

Poe had to endure the many slurs on his own mother's reputation from early childhood on, for being an actress, for having a child 'out of wedlock,' or at least under highly suspicious circumstances, etc. A woman like Eliza Poe, who had a child long after her husband was 'out of the picture,' was considered a 'Scarlet Woman.' Poe suffered through many accusations about his mother being 'a fallen woman.' There is ample evidence to support that Poe's foster father: John Allan, his grandparents: David Poe, Sr. and Elizabeth Cairnes Poe, as well as his aunt and future mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, all detested Eliza Poe. Allan makes this point crystal clear in a letter to Poe's brother, Henry, when he writes, "Rosalie is at least half your sister." Meaning, of course, that Allan believed that Rosalie Poe was the product of an 'illicit affair,' most likely with John Howard Payne.

Poe had managed to protect Virginia's reputation up to the point where his affair with Fanny went public. By then, Virginia's reputation as 'the sickly, betrayed wife' made her a subject of widespread pathos. The Poe-Osgood scandal hit every newspaper and periodical in the country in 1845 and was still in full swing at the time of Virginia's death, and even long afterwards. Certainly, Poe had no desire to turn poor Virginia into the 'victim' of his affair; nor did he ever wish to turn poor Fanny into the harlot, as she was often depicted, both during and after their love affair. But it happened anyway.

With this huge scandal raging, Poe and his friends and family became even more protective of Virginia's reputation. They seemed willing to accept Virginia's portrayal as 'the victim' of Poe and Fanny's betrayal. Poe himself contended that Virginia's death was greatly accelerated by the gossip about Fanny's pregnancy. Though her role as 'victim' was unfortunate, it did add great cache to Virginia's reputation and made her a fascinating and pathetic historical character.

Ultimately, this story evolved into 'The Myth of Sissy,' Poe's nickname for Virginia. The 'story' is that 'Sissy' was fragile, angelic, pathetic, and ultimately destroyed, not only by ill health, but by deep betrayal over the Poe-Osgood scandal. In this regard 'The Myth' is true on all counts. However, it is reductive. The Myth has become so deeply engrained that Poe biographers chose to disregard all thoughts of 'the other Virginia,' the one that Mayne Reid and others idealized as their beau ideal.
Virginia Poe's death bed - Click for larger view!
Virginia Poe's death bed
 


That the only 'known portrait' of Virginia has been the 'Deathbed Portrait' has added to the 'Myth of Sissy' considerably. However, just as in the case of Poe's mysterious life and death, the truth is ultimately far more interesting than the myth.

Despite her supposed fragility the truth is that certainly, up until 1845, Virginia's health was not 'constantly precarious.' She had attacks of consumption, yes, but was well enough to attend parties, hikes and outings with Poe, both in Philadelphia and later in New York. She was convivial, a wonderful listener, a lover of art and music, who enjoyed company in the extreme. In short, Virginia was a 'real woman.' She was not made of glass, and when she felt up to it, she 'got out,' whether to the market or to the artist's studio.


DEBUNKING THE 'MYTH OF SISSY' - THE GRAHAM'S FASHION PLATES:

During the time of the Graham's Fashion Plates, Poe made comments about "not liking fashion plates" in general. His comments have been interpreted as Poe refuting that his and Virginia's images appeared in these Fashion Plates. But many top Poe biographers, like Arthur Hobson Quinn and T.O. Mabbott, agreed that both Edgar Poe and Virginia were featured in the Plates. I most certainly agree with both Mabbott and Quinn, that these Plates do feature Virginia Poe and Poe himself, as I describe in the section on the Fashion Plates. After seeing many other works of art depicting Virginia, her 'look,' her style, her attitude, I am even firmer in this conviction.

It must also be remembered that Poe himself was helming Graham's Magazine during the period in which many of the Plates depicting he and Virginia appeared! If he did not want their likenesses to appear in print there is no doubt that he had the power to stop it.

In reality, Poe must have loved the 'tease' involved in his and Virginia's appearances in the Fashion Plates. They got people talking, and talking about Poe, which served to enhance his reputation as a Man of Mystery. Poe's image was just becoming known by this time and was easily recognizable to anyone who cared to see it. Publically, Poe never admitted nor denied that he and Virginia were 'the chief characters' represented in the Fashion Plates. With friends, family and colleagues this point would have been impossible for Poe to deny.

The key to debunking the 'Myth of Sissy' is the Graham's Fashion Plates. During the time the Plates appeared, there was a great deal of speculation over them. Everyone who read Graham's Magazine, particularly those who knew Poe and Virginia personally, were certain that they were depicted in these Plates, and this 'gossip' created a furor. When Poe took over Graham's Magazine, the sales skyrocketed, and one of the reasons was more than likely the highly controversial Fashion Plates!

The fact that they appeared during Poe's editorship set off some furious gossiping that "Poe and Virginia were models for Graham's," validates several very important points. For one, it shows that both Edgar Poe's and Virginia's images were clearly recognizable, so much so that people were convinced that Poe and Virginia had modeled for the Plates. However, there was also an attendant buzz about both Poe and Virginia modeling, and not only for the Graham's Fashion Plates!

By this time Virginia's image had appeared in books and magazines, as well as several oil paintings. Virginia Poe was being recognized, not only in Philadelphia, but in New York, Richmond, Boston and certainly in her home town of Baltimore. What has not been clear, however, was that people were not only recognizing her from the Graham's Plates, but from her other modeling efforts as well.

It is critical to understand that 'the viewing public' was seeing and recognizing Virginia Poe as a model because she was a model, and a prolific one at that. This is the strongest proof that Virginia did model, that there was a huge amount of gossip on this very point.

The depictions of Sissy in the Graham's Fashion Plates are very similar to the way she was seen by other artists. Because the 'Myth of Sissy' was so deeply ingrained, Poe scholars have usually dismissed the concept of Virginia's modeling, because it flies in the face of the 'Myth of Sissy.' This is why Mabbott and Quinn's admissions are so important. Neither desired to debunk the 'Myth of Sissy,' but after close examination of the Fashion Plates, both felt compelled to admit that after all, they did believe that both Poe and Virginia appeared in the Fashion Plates.

As it turns out, both Poe and Virginia did a great deal of modeling. The Fashion Plates were but the tip of the iceberg.

PAINTINGS OF VIRGINIA:

At this point, there is only one 'authentic' portrait of Virginia Poe which Poe biographers and scholars have agreed on. This is the 'Deathbed Portrait,' supposedly taken after her death, when Poe "suddenly realized he had no portrait of Virginia!" This comment was supplied by the highly misleading Marie Louise Shew, more than 25 years after the fact.

For all her silly assertions, this must be the silliest. By stating that the Deathbed Portrait was the "only portrait of Virginia" ever taken, she kept up the tradition of denying that Virginia had ever modeled, except of course, after her death! To be fair to Shew, she always believed she was 'doing the right thing,' however far she misled Poe biographers. Here, Shew simply perpetuated the 'Myth of Sissy.' But inadvertently, her statement slurred both Virginia's and Poe's reputations. How much did Poe care for 'Sissy' if he waited until after her death to have her portrait taken? How utterly unimportant to him was she??


Virginia Poe, on her deathbed - Click for larger view!
Virginia Poe, on her deathbed
It would have been quite an oversight, to say the least, for a devoted husband to fail to procure even one portrait of his beautiful but sickly wife. Yet, this is what we are expected to believe. Shew's statement, of course, was totally inaccurate, but it did the trick, since it kept researchers from looking for any other portraits of Virginia, until now.

"THE DISCOVERY"

Finally, there is concrete evidence that Poe and Maria Clemm were in possession of at least one fine painting of Virginia Poe, which indubitably, Virginia modeled for. After nearly 200 years, a painting of Virginia Poe has finally emerged from within the Poe family, where it has remained since the time of Muddy's death. The discovery of this painting of Virginia Poe is the most important find in Poe portraiture of the century. Many top Poe scholars have seen this 'new painting' of Virginia Poe, and have pronounced it "100% authentic," with "flawless provenance." I myself, also had the pleasure of viewing it, hanging over a piano where it had been given a place of honor for years.

Mrs. A.S. has been kind enough to give me permission to be the first to publish this 'new portrait' of Virginia Poe in my book, which I will, along with comments by Dr. Richard Kopley, Dr. Welford Taylor and other renowned Poe art specialists. It is important though, for our purposes on this site, to mention that the "flawless provenance" of this painting gives us indication that this is a work of Thomas Sully!

In addition to the 'new painting,' I will also present three additional paintings which I believe feature Virginia Poe as their subject, as well as a collection of stunning illustrations/ drawings of Virginia and Edgar Poe. But for this site, it is enough to cite that many fine works of art depicting Virginia Poe will be made available to the public very soon. As these unknown works of art will be analyzed in detail in the book, I cannot present any information about them here.

Rundell Virginia Poe, by Thomas Sully - Click for larger view!
'Rundell' Virginia Poe, in the possession of Sully
collector, Dr. Marion Rundell, Texas, who kindly
supplied this excellent photograph for this site.
 
THE RUNDELL VIRGINIA POE:

There is another portrait of Virginia Poe in existence, which is desperately in need of defense. As this painting has been seen before, though only here for the first time in color, I see no reason not to set the record straight about this particular painting of Virginia. The Rundell Virginia, as I call it, has become the most hotly disputed painting in Poe family portraiture.

This painting has been accepted and printed by several Poe biographers, as an authentic oil painting of Virginia Poe. Since the Rundell Virginia is the work of Thomas Sully, the connections between the Poe family and Thomas Sully were clearly far closer than has been known in Poe scholarship.

These assignations of the artist, Thomas Sully, and the sitter, Virginia Clemm Poe, have long been assigned to the painting by the staff of the Fricke Art Reference Library.


 
The painting was purchased at auction in the mid 1980's, by Thomas Sully collector, Dr. Marion Rundell, at the Hart Gallery, Houston, Texas. Dr. Rundell also owns the Haven Group, Blanche Sully with Feather, Fanny Kemble as Isabella, Sully's painting of Sir Walter Scott, among others. While all these paintings in Rundell's collection appear on Sully's list, the Rundell Virginia does not.

This did not bother Dr. Rundell, who instantly recognized it as the work of Thomas Sully, and who does not believe Sully so fanatical that he entered every painting he executed into his list. However, Michael Deas, the most recent compiler of "Poe Art," has designated the Rundell Virginia as "a spurious portrait of Virginia Poe." It must be noted that Deas did not contact Dr. Rundell about seeing the painting, meaning that his judgments against the painting were not the result of a firsthand viewing. Because Deas claims that the present whereabouts of the painting are unknown, we can assume that Deas did not know that Dr. Rundell was in possession of the painting. This is again rather odd, since the Fricke Art Library has records of Rundell purchasing the painting, which is how I located him.

Deas gives two primary reasons why he feels this a spurious portrait of Virginia Poe. The first is Virginia's health. Deas states that Virginia's 'precarious health' made it very unlikely that she was ever well enough to sit for a portrait. This is hardly a sound argument. This painting depicts Virginia at a very early age, perhaps her early teens, when her consumption was hardly an issue. Just Mayne Reid's recollections of Virginia indicate that she was certainly in good enough health to enjoy herself at parties during her years in Philadelphia. Sitting for portraits is not, after all, running a marathon!

Deas' second 'problem' with the painting, which even he admits is 'in the style of Thomas Sully,' is that this painting is not listed by Sully. He seems to believe Sully incapable of making a mistake or of simply choosing not to enter a painting on his list. To state that an artist was "practically perfect in every way," takes Sully out of mortal manhood and turns him into a didactic, dogmatic, obsessive-compulsive type. Thomas Sully was none of these things, however. He was a gentle, kindly soul and as capable of error, or omission, as anyone else.

Since it is my contention that Sully painted other portraits of Virginia Poe, clearly, she was a woman he found not only a lovely model, someone he found fascinating for herself, but also because she was the niece of his beloved Eliza Poe, and later, the wife of his dear friend, Edgar Poe.

Since it is most likely that all these portraits of Virginia by Thomas Sully were owned by the Poe family, Sully would certainly have respected the family's desire not to document Virginia's modeling in any way. My feeling is that Sully indeed painted Virginia, for his own pleasure, but only for view by the Poe-Sully 'inner circles.' Consequently, his omitting paintings of Virginia from his list would have been an act of respect, something that Thomas Sully was very high on.

Renowned Sully scholar, Dr. Robert Torchia, told me that when an unlisted painting believed to be the work of Thomas Sully is presented for examination, the work is not eliminated automatically. Instead, it is judged on its own merits, as well as by the strength of the provenance of the painting in question, before determining if the ascription of 'a genuine Sully' can be made. Clearly, if one of the world's top Sully scholars believes that there are unlisted Sullys in existence, why would Michael Deas, who is not a Sully scholar, feel confident in dismissing The Rundell Virginia? Neither of his reasons for calling the painting "spurious" holds up to our examination.

Neither can Dr. Hallam's six years of research into the portraiture of Virginia Poe be ignored. She believes that of all the portraits of Virginia she has sifted through over the past six years, the face in the Rundell Virginia is the "closest match" to Virginia's Deathbed Portrait. I agree completely with Dr. Hallam on this critical point, and for this reason, I am here displaying (top of page) the Rundell Virginia side by side with the long accepted Deathbed Portrait of Virginia. As Dr. Hallam states, the faces in these two portraits are very much the same.

The assertions of the Fricke Art Library cannot be ignored either. The Rundell Virginia is an authentic portrait of a very young Virginia Poe, executed by the Poe's lifetime friend, Thomas Sully.

This painting was most likely executed c.1835-36, and may have been a wedding gift from Sully to Poe and Virginia, who were formally married in Richmond, Virginia, in 1836. This would have made Virginia thirteen or fourteen years old at the time of the sitting, which is precisely the age she appears to be, in budding adolescence.

Virginia Poe's face, 'her look,' her style, highly influenced the ideal of female beauty personified through the art of the Philadelphia Renaissance. My book will present many images of Virginia from this time. Virginia Poe deserves a serious re-appraisal, and Poe-tic Justice, as the most influential model of her time.


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