Mary Devlin Booth
August 27, 2008
One great advantage of working in a museum library is the likelihood of being surrounded by interesting artifacts or works of art. One of our favorites, a haunting painting of a young woman, watches over us in our staff work area.
Mary Devlin Booth, 1883, (shown at left) was painted by an important 19th-century artist, Eastman Johnson (1824-1906). Johnson was born in Maine, worked in Boston as a lithographer early in his career, but eventually turned to illustrations, genre painting and later, portraits. Many of his best known works, A Ride for Liberty and Negro Life at the South were painted around the time of the Civil War.
The subject of the portrait is the first wife of Edwin Booth, actor, and sister-in-law of the more infamous Booth brother, Abraham Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mary Devlin Booth (1840-1863) was an actress in her own right, and in The Letters and Notebooks of Mary Devlin Booth (PN 2287 .B5 A4 1987) she details her passion for her own career as well as her early relationship, courtship and marriage to Booth. The letters and notebooks provide an interesting glimpse of theater life in the 1850’s and 60’s, with comments on Edwin Booth’s roles and reviews and thus make it all the more tragic that she died so young. One can only imagine the value of this kind of commentary after her brother-in-law’s actions in 1865.
This oil portrait, painted from a photograph 20 years after her death, is one of several Booth family portraits done in the early 1880's by Johnson. He painted Edwin's father from a miniature, a portrait of Edwina, Mary and Edwin's only child born in 1861, and Edwin. Our records don't indicate whether the portrait of Mary was a paid commission or not, but it is signed 'E.J. Xmas 1883' so there is the possibility it was a present from the artist. It is clear from several of the sources noted below, and Edwina Booth Grossman's Edwin Booth; Recollections by his Daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, and Letters to Her and His Friends, (New York: Century, 1894) that the artist and actor were good friends. And when Edwin Booth died, according to this article in the New York Times, Johnson was a pallbearer at the funeral.
Mary Devlin Booth died in Boston and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. Edwin Booth, who died in 1893, is buried beside her and their daughter and her family share the plot. (A recent photograph I took of their tombstones is shown at left.)
Quite a bit of documentation exists for the entire Booth family. McFarline Library at the University of Tulsa, the New York Public Library and the University of Rochester all hold materials in their special collections. Many of Eastman Johnson's letters are available online at the Smithsonian. We also hold titles about the Booth family and artist Eastman Johnson. A few are listed below; additional titles may be found in our online catalog.
Carbone, Teresa A. Eastman Johnson: Painting America. N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1999. Call number: ND 237 .J7 A4 1999
Kimmel, Stanley. The Mad Booths of Maryland. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1940. Call number: PN 2287 .B49 K5 1940
Oggel, L. Terry, ed. The Letters and Notebooks of Mary Devlin Booth. N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Call number: PN 2287 .B5 A4 1987
Ruggles, Eleanor. Prince of Players: Edwin Booth. N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1953. Call number: PN 2287 .B5 R9 1953
Stainton, Leslie. "Players: Edwin Booth and the 19th Century American Stage" Common-Place, April 2008.
Winter, William. Life and Art of Edwin Booth. N.Y.: Macmillan and Co., 1894. Call number: PN 2287 .B5 W5 1894
Mary Devlin Booth portrait above is included courtesy of the National Heritage Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manney, 79.78.2
Portrait photograph by David Bohl.