MHS for the Media

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams, 1883-1885

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover AdamsIn May 1883, Clover Adams, a descendant of Boston’s Sturgis and Hooper families and the wife of the historian Henry Adams, picked up her camera and began taking photographs—of her husband, of afternoons at the beach on Boston’s North Shore, and of eminent friends who frequented the Adamses’ home on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., H. H. Richardson, Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and John Hay. Examples of these photographs are on exhibit through 2 June at the MHS. Based on guest curator and MHS Fellow Natalie Dykstra’s book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this month, the exhibition showcases Clover’s striking photographs, many of which have not been seen before in a public venue. It also highlights Clover’s many letters and the notebook she used to record the chronology and technical aspects of her photographs, as well as Henry’s letters and other family materials.

Clover Adams came from privilege, married into one of America’s first families, and presided over a celebrated salon in Washington, D.C. She had, as a friend noted, “all she wanted, all this world could give.” With her photography, she began an exploration of visual beauty that she also imbued with questions about life’s meaning and a woman’s place in her culture, conveying what she thought and felt not with words but with expressive, vital images. Inspiration for the composition of her photographs came from fine art she had seen and collected, and while her pictures could be playful—her “dogs at tea” is a perfect example—she could also evoke an intense feeling of loss, as with her photograph of the Arlington graveyard.

Clover’s life began to unravel just as she became adept with this powerful new technology for recording it .  A recurrent undertow of dark moods gathered force until, on a Sunday morning in December 1885, Clover committed suicide by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide. A chemical she needed to develop her photographs had become the means of her death.  

Clover’s story has long been shrouded in mystery, yet she left behind clues. Most eloquent are her revelatory photographs, which invite us to look beyond the circumstances of her death and to stand with her in the world where she lived.