How Brooklyn College Came to Own the First Portrait of Brooklyn Poet Walt Whitman

December 9, 2005 | Brooklyn College

Brooklyn, NY — Walt Whitman looks out over Archives and Special Collections in the Brooklyn College library with soft green eyes, arched eyebrows, and an open face–a forty-two-year-old iconoclast. This was Walt Whitman the Brooklynite, painted in 1860, five years after he wrote Leaves of Grass and before he left Brooklyn for a job as a clerk in Washington. To stand in front of this painting, which has been owned by Brooklyn College since 1955, is to encounter the poet in his Brooklyn heyday, long before he achieved international celebrity as the “good gray poet.”

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Charles Hine, 1860. “I was in full bloom then: weighed two hundred and ten pounds,” the poet said about this likeness. “In those years I was in the best health: not a thing amiss.” Click here for a larger image.

According to Ruth Bohan, author of Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art 1850-1920 (Pennsylvania State Press, forthcoming), the artist, Charles Hine (1827 1871), was trained in Connecticut and probably met Whitman at Pfaff’s, a tavern on Broadway that was the center of bohemian culture. Whitman loved the painting and had it made into an engraving for the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The portrait–the first ever painted of Whitman–was the poet’s favorite, but in 1873, after suffering a stroke and shortly after the death of his mother, Whitman needed money to move to Camden, New Jersey. Reluctantly, he sold the portrait to his friend and benefactor John H. Johnston, a Manhattan jewelry store owner. In the years to come, when Whitman visited New York City, he would stay at the Johnston home on East Tenth Street, and during one extended sojourn in March 1877, Johnston hired the noted landscape painter G. W. Waters (1832-1912) to paint the portrait of the white-haired bard, who was by then one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Whitman died in 1892, and John H. Johnston died in 1919. In 1947, Brooklyn College started the Walt Whitman Project with the aim of making the College a center for Whitman research. An article about the project by Professor John Valente of the Department of English appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

There was never enough money and the project was eventually abandoned, but several days after the article appeared a letter arrived for Valente from Bertha Johnston of Park Slope, daughter of the New York jeweler. She had several portraits of Whitman, she wrote, as well as a collection of pamphlets and magazine articles, and she hinted that she would like to sell them. For the next eight years Professor Valente and Bertha Johnston exchanged pleasant notes–about the weather, a flare-up of Professor Valente’s old war wound, and, of course, the paintings.

Finally, in 1955, just before Professor Valente retired, he was able to scrape together the money from colleagues in the English Department to buy the two portraits: $400 for the 1860 painting and $1,000 for the 1877 likeness.

The Archives and Special Collections Division of the Brooklyn College Library was established in 1950 and is committed to acquiring, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value that document the Brooklyn College community. The department collects both published and unpublished works relating to the unique cultural, social, and historical development of the Borough of Brooklyn and its many and varied neighborhoods. For more information about the two Whitman paintings, and other treasures in the Brooklyn College Library, visit the Archives Web page at http://library.brooklyn.cuny.edu/archives.