In 1835, two years after the death of her husband John Winslow Whitman, Sarah Helen Whitman sat for portrait artist Cephas Giovanni Thompson to render this likeness featuring her pink widow’s bonnet. Helen had stated that this painting was “unfinished” and more of a “sketch in oil.” Regardless, the painting is a beautiful rendering of our Providence Poetess and has been utilized as a proper representation of her for centuries. When Edgar Allan Poe was courting Helen at her home, he would glare at this painting for hours as it hung in her parlor, remarking on her eloquent beauty.
When Sarah Helen Whitman died in 1878, she willed this painting to Brown University, but her executors mistakenly gave it to The Providence Athenaeum. The painting meant for the Athenaeum was given to Brown University. That painting was a copy rendered by John Nelson Arnold from this one in 1869.
Thompson’s painting is currently on display in the Art Room on the second floor above the main entrance of the Athenaeum. You can reserve this room for studying or special meetings, but if you’d like to just view the portrait, simply ask a staff member during your visit and they will gladly let you in the room to view the portrait up close. It’s also worth mentioning that among the Athenaeum’s pantheon of busts you’ll see the sculpted face of Edgar Allan Poe, perched right above the entryway below the windows to the Art Room which features this portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman. The bust of Poe was duplicated from one in my personal collection. Helen’s face can be seen above Poe’s right shoulder through the windows above him, which is very poignant and symbolic.