Mark Twain Drew This Mouthless Self-Portrait

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Jan. 23 2013 11:30 AM

Mark Twain Draws His Self-Portrait

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This etched copper plate, secured inside a leather cover, was a party favor given to artist John W. Alexander at Mark Twain’s 67th birthday celebration.

The self-portrait is annotated, with an etched note appearing underneath Twain’s face.

Done by truly yours, Mark Twain; N.B. I cannot make a good mouth, therefore leave it out; There is enough without it anyway; Done with the best ink, M.T.
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Underneath the portrait, Twain personalized his message to Alexander: “John W. Alexander; I remember you well, sir! Mark Twain.”

The note that reads “M. Twain’s 70th Birthday Dinner” is somewhat mysterious. Archivists can verify that this favor was distributed at the party for his 67th and that Alexander was in attendance. It appears that Alexander may have added the note later, having misremembered the date of the occasion.

Other distinguished guests at Twain’s soirée, commemorated in Harper’s that month, included Secretary of State John Hay; New York Sen. Chauncey Depew; and writers William Dean Howells, Booth Tarkington, and Hamlin Garland.

Twain published a few articles in Metropolitan Magazine in April and May 1903 about drawing. He illustrated his “Instructions in Art” with wry sketches of Depew, a portrait that he captioned “Either Mr. Howells or Mr. [William MacKay] Laffan. I cannot tell which because the label is lost,” and the hindquarters of an animal, captioned: “The front end of it went around a corner before I could get to it.”

Thanks to Mary Savig and Kelly Quinn at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.