John Nelson Arnold’s Oil Portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman

In 1869, Sarah Helen Whitman comissioned her last known likeness in an oil painting by John Nelson Arnold. This painting was completed using Cephas Giovanni Thompson’s portrait as reference. Helen brought Thompson’s painting to Arnold, wishing to be rendered at that age in a new painting. Helen was present from the preliminary charcoal sketch to the final stroke of paint on the canvas, advising Arnold in the process. When it was finished, Helen paid Arnold and told him that this was the portrait she wished to be remembered by. She had him keep the finished painting with the intention of it going to either The Providence Athenaeum or the Rhode Island Historical Society at the disgretion of her executors, but when Helen passed away in 1878, they accidentally gave it to Brown University where Helen intended Thompson’s portrait to go. The Providence Athenaeum was given Thompson’s portrait. Although the paintings were mistakenly switched, they both have very good homes where they are and can be viewed by simply visiting the libraries. Much like Thompson’s oil portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman at The Providence Athenaeum, this portrait is behind a locked door of a special room on the second floor called the Hermann Friedrich Bruhn room (or the Bruhn room, for short). If the room is unoccupied during your visit, you can simply ask a staff at the front desk and they will let you in to view the portrait. Remember it never hurts to call or email ahead of time!


Below is a photo I took during my viewing of the painting.