Engraving in Griswold’s “Female Poets” (1863)

(Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library archive)

First featured in Rufus Griswold’s 1863 third edition of “The Female Poets of America” this engraving of Sarah Helen Whitman renders her as a very refined, elegant marble bust. The engraving was done by John Rogers from an original picture of Whitman. The question is, what original picture was used for the reference? There is a possibility that the artist used a copy of the 1856 daguerreotype by Joseph White, as the profiles are similar in the daguerreotype and the engraving. However, that would mean Rogers used a great deal of artistic license for the rest of the engraving since Whitman’s hair, face, and neck are all covered by an elaborate bonnet in the photo and not in the engraving. It could also mean that there is an undiscovered, stripped-down photo of Sarah Helen Whitman out there in profile view with nothing on her head.

In a July 1861 letter to her friend Julia Deane Freeman, Whitman talks about sending her a few photos of herself in profile-view: “I write to ask where you are & to send specimens of some photographs. Tell me which you like best and you shall have better ones in the style you prefer bye & bye. You can keep two of these…There is something curious about these pictures—two represent the left side of the face & two the right side. Those of the left side are both decidedly masculine—the other two as decidedly feminine.” Is it possible that it was one of these photos mentioned that was used as reference for John Rogers’ engraving? Until those photos surface, we just won’t know. But there is no question that there are at least a few photos of Whitman out there that we have never seen before.

Another interesting fact to add (in the subject of Sarah Helen Whitman as a bust) is that there were prospects of erecting a bust of her in Roger Williams Park in Providence after her death. I discovered this in a small article clipped by Louise Chace (daughter of Maude Dailey Chace) that was pasted in her scrapbook. That scrapbook is among many materials relating to Whitman in Brown University’s collection at the John Hay Library.

Of course the clipping gives no further details and we know that there is no bust of Whitman in the park, but it’s interesting that someone intended to memorialize Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence shortly after her death, and that there are yet to be any public tributes to her in the city today.