John Nelson Arnold’s Oil Portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman

In 1869, Sarah Helen Whitman had an oil painting completed by John Nelson Arnold after an already completed oil painting done from life by Cephas Giovanni Thompson in 1835 when Helen was recently widowed. Why she had a duplicate painting completed so many years later is unclear, and although Arnold’s painting was a copy of Thompson’s, the two differ in many aspects. It’s possible that she had this painting completed by a different artist because she claimed that Thompson’s painting was “unfinished” but we don’t know that for certain.

When Helen passed away in 1878, she willed Arnold’s painting to go to either The Providence Athenaeum or the Rhode Island Historical Society at her executor’s choice, but they accidentally gave it to Brown University where Helen intended Thompson’s portrait to go. The Providence Athenaeum was of course given Thompson’s portrait. Although the paintings were mistakenly switched, they both have very good homes where they are.

Photoed below is John Nelson Arnold’s portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman on display at the John Hay Library.





Much like Thompson’s portrait of Helen 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. Call or email ahead of time if you’re traveling a long way! Below is a photo I took during my viewing of the painting.