How Brooklyn College Came to
Own the First Portrait of Brooklyn Poet Walt Whitman
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."
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."
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.
1879 photo by William Kurtz of Walt Whitman with
Kitty and Harry Johnston, older siblings of Park Slope resident
Bertha Johnson, who sold the 1860 and 1877 Whitman paintings to
Brooklyn College. Courtesy of the Walt
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
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. 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
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.