What did Gilbert Imlay look like?
He must have had a sincere face, suasive eyes. A countenance that convinced that his words were the scions of truth. Mary Wollstonecraft’s biographer Janet Todd writes that he was “tall, thin, rather handsome and self-assured”; Lyndall Gordon also calls him “a tall, handsome American.”
On the Internet, I found an image that purported to be Imlay’s. The site—promoting a screenplay about Mary Wollstonecraft—features an Imlay that looks a lot like President Andrew Jackson. Curious, I double-checked all the Wollstonecraft biographies I own (a good full shelf) but found no other image of him—nor any textual suggestions that one ever existed. (Verhoeven’s scholarly Imlay biography also mentions nothing about any portrait.) Still, to be sure, I sent an email query to scholar Janet Todd, whose 2000 Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life set a new standard in Wollstonecraft biography. Todd has also edited some major editions of Wollstonecraft’s work. “Is there any known portrait of Imlay?” I wrote to her. She replied on 15 October 2011: “No, no picture that I know of.” I wrote back to mention the one I’d seen on the web; she immediately wanted to know its source. I tried to run it down.
I contacted the person who has the site, inquired about the image. Replying quickly, she said she’d found it somewhere on the web—and was eager to know if it was bogus. I said I’d get back to her. Some quick Googling found others like it—and I realized at once why it looked familiar. It was an 1820 image of Daniel Boone—in the words of Boone biographer John Mack Faragher, “the only life portrait of Boone.” The image composes the cover art of Faragher’s book Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, 1992, which I read in 1993. Boone was 84 in 1820. I’m guessing the image had originally appeared on some site that mentioned the business dealings between Boone and Imlay.
So … no extant portrait of Imlay—a conclusion confirmed in the most recent major biography, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2005) by Lyndall Gordon, who writes bluntly: “No portrait exists.” So, for us, Gilbert Imlay is faceless. Shapeless. We know that he must have been charming and convincing. He got some crafty people like Daniel Boone to make bad investments—investments Imlay knew were bad. He wrote powerfully against slavery—not long after he’d invested in the slave trade. He wrote and spoke so emotionally about women’s rights, about the equality of all humankind, that he attracted the attention of authentic revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and the leaders of the French Revolution—and earned the love of one of history’s greatest women.
So his seductiveness, his charm, his smile—all can exist only in our imaginations. Or—if we’ve ever been betrayed by an alluring eye, a subtle word, a persuasive insincerity—in our memories.