CM: Thomas George Johnson's engraved Portrait of Walt Whitman is based on photograph of the poet taken in 1887 by George C. Cox (USA 1851-1903). On the morning of 15 April 1887 Cox took several photographs of Whitman, who was celebrating the success of his New York lecture on Lincoln , delivered the day before. Whitman recalls that "six or seven" photos were made during the session, but Whitman's friend Jeannette Gilder, an observer of the session, said there were many more than that: "He must have had twenty pictures taken, yet he never posed for a moment. He simply sat in the big revolving chair and swung himself to the right or to the left, as Mr. Cox directed, or took his hat off or put it on again, his expression and attitude remaining so natural that no one would have supposed he was sitting for a photograph." A few months later, Whitman was angry that Cox apparently was selling copies of the photos with forged signatures and was refusing to send Whitman copies of the proofs to allow Whitman to decide which ones should be printed, but the problem was straightened out and Cox began sending Whitman modest payments for the sale of photos. By October 1888, Whitman was calling Cox "the premier exception" among photographers and claimed to have received around one hundred dollars in royalties. Cox copyrighted two of the photos from this sitting, the only time he ever did so, apparently to protect Whitman's financial interest in them, and he sold the photos only to aid Whitman. Until now, only twelve photos from this session have been known to exist.
Walt Whitman was born in Westhills, Long Island, 31 May 1819, in a farm-house overlooking the sea. While yet a child his parents moved to Brooklyn , where he acquired his education. He learned type-setting at thirteen years of age. Two years later he taught a country school. He contributed to the 'Democratic Review' before he was twenty-one years old. At thirty he traveled through the Western States, and spent one year in New Orleans editing a newspaper. Returning home he took up his father's occupation of carpenter and builder, which he followed for a while. During the War of the Rebellion he spent most of his time in the hospitals and camps, in the relief of the sick and disabled soldiers. For a time he was a department clerk in Washington. In 1856 he published a volume entitled Leaves of Grass. This volume shows unquestionable power, and great originality. His labors among the sick and wounded necessarily made great impressions; these took form in his mind and were published under the title of Drum Taps. Whitman's poems lack much of the standard of recognized poetic measure. He has a style peculiar to himself, and his writings are full of meaning, beauty and interest. Arguably, this poet possessed the incommunicable power to touch the heart. Walt Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey, 20 March 1892.
Upon beholding this Portrait of Walt Whitman it is not obvious the sitter is both a major poet and an outstanding personality in the history of American literature. Whitman's significance is somehow concealed in his eccentrically shaggy appearance. It ought to be reminded this is a portrait of a man, whose visionary views on love, sex, and death are controversial even today. A slightly larger (30x22) version of this etching is kept at the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts [1963.30.25403].
[Megakles Rogakos 08/2006]
ROGAKOS, MEGAKLES Silent Dialogues: Multimedia Portraits Throughout Time 2008 The American College of Greece - ACG Art, Athens