The Museum Collection
Cornwell Daguerreotype of Poe
Description:Poe stares out at us from this haunting image taken only four days after a suicide attempt. He was in Providence, Rhode Island in November 1848. His wife Virginia having died the previous year, Poe sought companionship with the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman. When he first proposed marriage to her, she rejected him. In a state of utter despair, he consumed a large amount of laudanum, but he was so inexperienced with the use of opiates that he miscalculated the dosage and survived. Whitman finally agreed to marry Poe ten days after this photograph was taken, but she changed her mind after just one month.
Whitman had at least four copies made of the daguerreotype before the original plate disappeared in 1860. One of these copies was obtained by the New London, Connecticut physician and Poe enthusiast, Dr. Henry Sylvester Cornwell. Since he had exchanged letters with Whitman, he may have acquired the plate directly from her. In 1880, Cornwell allowed the engraver Timothy Cole to copy this image as a wood engraving that would appear in the May 1880 issue of Scribner?s Magazine. After Cornwell?s death in 1886, he left the daguerreotype to the newspaper editor John Clark Turner, who gave the plate to his niece, Mrs. Christine Smith Rawson. She, in turn, sold the plate to a group of collectors who pooled their money in order to purchase the piece for the Poe Museum.
One of the best-known likenesses of Poe, this daguerreotype measures only three inches in height, so visitors to the Poe Museum must come very close to get a good look at the photograph. When viewed from the wrong angle, the plate looks blank because the reflective silver surface must be seen from the correct angle for the image to appear. This is a hallmark of the daguerreotype, an early kind of photograph invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839. Rather than printing the photographs on paper, like a modern photograph, the daguerreotype exposed a silver-plated piece of copper to light, and the image was burned directly onto the plate without the use of a negative. Poe was fascinated with the new invention of photography and sat for at least eight daguerreotypes between 1842 and his death in 1849.