Elizabeth J. Eames (1813-1856) began her poem “On the Picture of a Departed Poetess” with the following lines:
In 1848, when the poem appeared in Caroline May’s American Female Poets, many woman writers’ portraits only appeared posthumously, as the frontispieces in volumes paying homage to their lives and writings. Perhaps Elizabeth Eames’s poem refers to one such frontispiece.
For 19th-century women, writing for publication was intruding into the masculine world of letters. Many women writers remained outside or on the margins of the literary marketplace, especially during their lifetimes. Many wrote under pseudonyms or anonymously. But others became prominent writers in mid-19th-century America. Frequently, the portraits of living women writers that did appear were in anthologies or periodicals that featured them as celebrities. In general, these published portraits have received little scholarly attention, and the women – even the ones who were prominent in the 19th century – largely have been ignored in retrospective surveys. Therefore, we present a gallery of portraits of antebellum American women writers, plus short sketches of their lives, to encourage use by students of literature, as well as by cultural and art historians. All works cited are in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Please note that the graphic images can only be reproduced with permission from the Library Company.
The project initially emerged as part of the “Picturing Women” exhibition, a multi-institution exhibition that was the culmination of many years work by art historian Dr. Susan Shifrin. Curator of Women’s History Cornelia S. King developed the original checklist of portraits. As an intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, Emily Kline created this online resource. Special thanks go to Emily. As an intern from Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology, Cheryl Klimaszewski added to the file, and created records in ImPAC, the Library Company’s catalog of digital materials. Many others helped with aspects of the project, especially IT Manager Nicole Scalessa, the staff of the Print Department, Curator of Printed Books Wendy Woloson, and Peter Stallybrass, Max Cavitch, and Stuart Curran of the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania; the project is much better thanks to their assistance and encouragement.