I came across this portrait in some research on Poe, and was excited: there aren’t a wide variety of images of Poe available, and none from this early on in his life, which, given his time at the University of Virginia, was of particular interest for EV. The caption pleasantly informs us that the painting is “from an oil portrait by H. Inman in the possession of Francis Howard, Esq.” Inman was a noted portrait artist working during the time of Poe’s life, so the piece easily passes the most basic of logical examinations.
Yes, it’s a fake, but at least I’m not the first to have fallen for it. This particular portrait first appeared in the British periodical Anglo-Saxon Review in March of 1900. The caption you see here is the caption produced by the periodical. The owner of the portrait, noted collector Francis Howard, contributed an essay that essentially fabricated the portrait’s provenance, claiming that it had been painted in 1828 in London, where Poe supposedly was also living following his tenure at UVa.
In The Portraits and Daguerrotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, historian Michael Deas continues the story:
The portrait was later discredited when it was proved that Poe had not gone to England in 1827 but had, in fact, enlisted in the U.S. Army under an assumed name: in 1828, when the portrait was allegedly painted in Great Britain, Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. Indeed, the portrait’s resemblance to Poe is extremely faint, and as the biographer Hervey Allen pointed out in 1926, ‘all that can be said is that it shows a well-dressed … sensitive featured, and delicately bred young man in his early twenties …’
The motivation, of course, is money: the air of mystery and romance surrounding Poe’s life generated enormous interest in the years following his death, and Howard is not the only figure to profit off of the sleight of hand. Several fraudulent images of Poe sold in the middle of the last century went for as much as $12,000, itself only a fraction of what an authenticated Poe image would sell for in open auction today.
Of course, part of my attraction to the image is also one of the reasons for its widespread traction: because there aren’t other pictures of Poe at that age, there’s nothing with which to compare the image, no baseline from which to judge its plausibility.
In many cases, Deas notes, it’s the supposed scholars who inadvertently lend credibility to fraudulent images:
Poe scholar Thomas O. Mabbott once gave his imprimatur to a fraudulent ‘self-portrait’ that later sold for several thousand dollars, largely on the basis of his authentication. In 1949 Mabbott also promulgated the myth that Poe once posed for a fashion plate in Graham’s Magazine and later described [one Poe image] as the ‘earliest fully authenticated picture’ of Poe, when in fact it was derived from a wood engraving published six years after the poet’s death.
It all reads like a very disappointing episode of Antiques Roadshow. Some days, you find a rare Poe daguerrotype on the cheap, and some days you find out you have a fake.