Object of the Month

A photographic portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., by Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams

Oliver W. Holmes Jr., seated, facing right Photograph

Oliver W. Holmes Jr., seated, facing right

Image 1 of 1

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the future U. S. Supreme Court justice, posed for a photograph by Clover Adams in February 1884. Holmes was a personal friend of Clover and her husband, the historian Henry Adams. She labeled one of two matched portraits of Holmes that she mounted in a photographic scrapbook, "Judge O. W. Holmes, Jr. Feb 1884." See the other photographic portrait of Holmes that Clover Adams placed next to this image. In 1884, when this photograph was taken, "Judge" Holmes--"Wendell" to his friends--had recently been appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and was at the beginning of an extraordinary judicial career that would extend another forty-eight years. He also was about to become a celebrated public speaker. On Memorial Day 1884, in Keene, New Hampshire, he delivered the first of the addresses that made him a spokesman for the Union veterans of the Civil War--and for veterans of all American wars--when he recollected the gallant service of his fallen comrades: "through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire."

The Early Life and Career of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was born in Boston in 1841, a son of the celebrated physician, poet, and essayist, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Amelia Jackson Lowell. Wendell Holmes graduated from Harvard College in 1861 just as the Civil War began. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, known as the "Harvard Regiment" because of its socially-elite, Harvard-educated officers. He served with the regiment and then in staff positions for three years; he was wounded three times and promoted to the rank of captain. Holmes was offered further promotion, first in the famous African American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and then in his own regiment, the 20th, but suffering from chronic ill health and exhaustion, he resigned from the army in July 1864 and returned to Boston where he enrolled in Harvard Law School.

Both before and after the Civil War, Wendell Holmes and Marian "Clover" Hooper, whom Henry James described as "Voltaire in petticoats," moved in the same social circles and became good friends. After the war, as Clover's attentions turned to their mutual friend Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, Wendell's attachment to another mutual friend--Fanny Bowditch Dixwell, whom Holmes had known since childhood--grew stronger. In June 1872, Henry married Clover and Wendell married Fanny. The following year, Holmes gave up an attempt to make a career as a writer and teacher, and joined the Boston law firm that then became Shattuck, Holmes, and Munroe. He continued to write about the law, and in 1880 he presented a series of lectures on the history of the common law that were published in 1881 as The Common Law, a landmark of American legal history and philosophy. The following year he was in quick succession appointed to a professorship at the Harvard Law School and then to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, becoming chief justice of the court in 1899. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated him to the United States Supreme Court, where he served as an associate justice until 1932.

Who was Clover Adams?

Clover Adams was born Marian Hooper in 1843, the daughter of Ellen Sturgis and Dr. Robert W. Hooper of Boston. Her mother, part of the Transcendentalist circle of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was an accomplished poet and her father was a wealthy ophthalmologist. Ellen Hooper called her youngest daughter "my blessed Clover," but in 1848, when Clover was five years old, Ellen died of tuberculosis, a loss that would haunt Clover for the rest of her life. After their marriage in 1872, Clover and Henry Adams lived, as Henry described it, "very much together," traveling widely, and dividing their time between Washington, D.C., where they maintained a celebrated literary salon, and a summer home in Beverly on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

In 1883, Clover Adams began exploring through photography what her mother had examined in her poetry--a love of beauty woven together with questions about life's meaning and a woman's place. "I've gone in for photography," she wrote, "and find it very absorbing." Through her photographs, Clover conveyed what she thought and felt in expressive, life-filled images, but her career was tragically brief. In December 1885, depressed by the recent death of her father with whom she had remained very close, she killed herself. None of her photographs were published or publicly exhibited in her lifetime.

Henry Adams commissioned America's leading sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, to create a memorial to her and their marriage--a mysterious, hooded bronze figure that stands unmarked in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, where both Clover and Henry are buried. Their friend John Hay described the statue as "full of poetry and suggestion." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had been "touched with fire" in his youth, saw it more starkly as "silence and the end."

A New Biography of Clover Adams and an Exhibition of her Photographs

On 8 February 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, a new biography by Natalie Dykstra, illustrated with a number of Clover's photographs. Many more of her striking photographs, including some that have never been publicly displayed, along with letters, engravings, and artifacts that illuminate her life, will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society from 9 February through 2 June 2012. Professor Dykstra, a fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is the guest curator of the exhibition, A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams, 1883-1885.  The exhibition, at the Historical Society's 1154 Boylston Street headquarters building in Boston, is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM. There will be gallery talks to accompany the exhibition at 2:00 PM on Fridays, 2 March, 6 April, and 4 May.

A companion website, Marian Hooper Adams: Selected Photographs and Letters, features one entire album assembled by Clover and selected letters and documents conveying her approach to photography.

Sources for Further Reading

For Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s early life and career:

Baker, Liva. The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 1861-1864. Ed. by Mark De Wolf Howe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Novick, Sheldon M. Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

For Clover Adams and early photography:

Dykstra, Natalie.  Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. For more information see Natalie Dykstra's website.

Abney, William de Wiveleslie. A Treatise on Photography. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1878.

O'Toole, Patricia. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1990.