In the 40 years between his birth in 1809 and death in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left an indelible impression on the literature and art of both America and Europe. As a pioneer of short fiction, Poe practically invented the detective story, the tale of horror and the science-fiction and fantasy genres; as a poet, he crafted some of the most memorably lyrical American verse of the 19th century.
Poe's 1845 poem The Raven made him famous in the United States as well as abroad, especially in France. The writers Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme considered Poe one of the greatest thinkers of their age and translated his stories and poems into French. Painters Edouard Manet and Alphonse Legros created striking printed images to illustrate the French editions of Poe's works, establishing a tradition that was later taken up by Aubrey Beardsley, Gustave Dore, Felix Vallotton and Henri Matisse, among others.
Now Poe's influence on some of the greatest artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries is the subject of a delightful small-scale exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Titled Haunting Visions of Poe: Illustrations by Manet, Matisse & Gauguin, the show presents some two dozen prints and drawings from the BMA's famed Cone Collection of early modern art to explore how French artists translated Poe's dark literary genius into striking visual images.
Manet, for example, was among the first to illustrate Poe's The Raven, a lilting lament by an unnamed narrator on the death of his beloved Lenore. (The poem, translated by Mallarme as Le Corbeau, may have had an autobiographical basis; in 1836, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia, who contracted tuberculosis three years before the poem was written and died in 1847.)
Manet chose to illustrate four scenes from The Raven, including one based on the poem's famous opening line - "Once upon a midnight dreary" - in which the poem's narrator is depicted sitting distractedly at his desk seeking solace in books. Both artist and the translator are represented in the image: Manet's own top hat and cane rest on a chair beside the desk, while the poem's narrator bears a striking resemblance to the poet Mallarme.
In another scene, the narrator is shown leaning back in his chair staring up at the raven that has flown into his room and perched atop a bust over the door frame. The image illustrates the moment the bird gives the narrator his ominous message:
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour ...
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."
Manet's composition for this scene, with the raven and its dark shadow towering above the narrator, suggests the mysterious bird's power over the grief-stricken lover.
Poe's short story "The Black Cat," in which a brutish husband murders his wife and entombs her body in a cellar wall only to be unmasked by his dead spouse's faithful cat, was illustrated by Alphonse Legros, a friend of Baudelaire's who created a series of gruesome etchings for the book.
In one, the corpse that Poe describes as horribly putrefied after weeks in the cellar is discovered by authorities after the cat, which has remained with its mistress, meows when the man boastfully pounds the wall where his wife is entombed.
Legros, in a ghoulish twist, depicts the woman as still beautiful even in death, a psychological fillip that only adds to the horror of the scene.
After Poe's death under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore (he was discovered unconscious on the street and taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later), his portrait, preserved in a few daguerreotype and printed images, became a romantic symbol of the suspenseful and grotesque world of his stories and poems. Matisse made graphite sketches of Poe's face for a 1932 edition of Mallarme's poems, while Gauguin depicted the French poet with Poe's raven perched on his shoulder.
This show was curated by students of BMA director Doreen Bolger, who taught a class last semester at the Johns Hopkins University on exhibition planning. Under Bolger's supervision, the students completed all the historical research for the project, located the objects, designed the exhibition space and planned the marketing and publicity campaigns. The show therefore offers a fascinating insight into Bolger's personal exhibition philosophy, which emphasizes elegant presentation, a clear intellectual framework and, in this case, at least, a strong local connection that helps put the works in context.
This is a lovely exhibition that brings into clearer focus a troubled, enigmatic genius whose morbidly original imagination inspired visual artists in every media. Their images, in turn, have become such staples of popular culture that they appear in everything from movies and television to the logo of the Baltimore Ravens football team.
What: Haunting Visions of Poe
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive (at North Charles Street)
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Jan. 11
Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors