Looking at Edgar Allan Poe's influence on artists ranging from Matisse to Motherwell
In a chilling blue-and-gray watercolor by Edmund Dulac, the ominous journey described in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 poem Dreamland takes form. The painting features an enormous phantom with a vacant stare and stoic expression sitting on a throne. Eye-level with the clouds, the spirit appears to preside over the dark, mountainous land beneath him.
This striking image was originally printed in a 1912 anthology of Poe’s poems and is one of more than 100 pieces featured in a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum. Titled “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul,” the show opens October 4 and presents works ranging from drawings and portraits to original manuscripts and letters—it even includes a piece of Poe’s coffin. The objects come from three of the most prominent Poe collections in the United States—the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, and the private holdings of collector Susan Jaffe Tane.
The artworks on view demonstrate that Poe’s texts have not only influenced writers, but visual artists as well. Matisse, for example, created a sketchy, caricature-like portrait of Poe to accompany Stéphane Mallarmé’s elegiac poem The Tomb of Edgar Allan Poe. The image is one of Matisse’s first book illustrations. And in 1875, Manet produced drawings to accompany Mallarmé’s French translation of The Raven. The edition features rough images of dark, shadowy figures that intensify the suspense of Poe’s text.
Also present is an arresting 2008 oil-on-canvas portrait of the author by painter Michael J. Deas. The likeness is eerie, yet dignified. It depicts Poe with dark, curly hair and his signature moustache, wearing a black ascot and dark jacket. The painting was commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service and was featured on a 2009 stamp to celebrate the bicentennial of Poe’s birthday.
This is only a small sampling of the artists who have created works inspired by Poe. Last year, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, mounted the exhibition “Picturing Poe,” which featured many other visual interpretations. Among them were stark, graphic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; Gauguin’s haunting depiction of A Descent into the Maelström; and a solemn lithograph by Robert Motherwell, titled Poe’s Abyss.
Contemporary artists, too, have responded to Poe’s writing. For the 2008 exhibition “You Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil” at London’s White Cube, Hoxton Square, artist and writer Harland Miller sent Poe’s stories to a wide range of artists and asked them to create pieces influenced by the texts. The show featured 34 submissions such as a disturbing Masque of the Red Death–inspired photograph by Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst’s kaleidoscopic canvas and painted bed based on The Startling Effects of Mesmerism on a Dying Man. Other participating artists included Anselm Kiefer, Tracey Emin, and Fred Tomaselli. Miller’s project affirms that Poe’s work still casts a long, albeit dark, shadow over literary and visual culture.
Click through the slideshow below for more Poe-inspired artworks: