Spotlighting Clover Adams

February 29, 2012

A special exhibition, “A Gilded & Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams, 1883-1885” is currently on display at The Massachusetts Historical Society’s Boylston Street headquarters.

Guest curator for this event is Natalie Dykstra whose book “Clover Adams” was released earlier this month. Reviewer Martha A. Sandweiss wrote, “At last, Clover Adams has the biography she deserves. Long glimpsed only as the wife of a famous man or the dazzling hostess to Gilded Age luminaries, she emerges here as a complex and fascinating woman — a thinker, writer, and photographer, but also a deeply troubled soul.”

Dykstra used the resources of the Massachusetts Historical Society in researching her book. Her work provided the perfect opportunity for the Society to fulfill a long-standing desire to showcase its collection of Clover Adams’ photographs, letters, and ephemera. 

A Gilded Life 

As a young woman, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams lived at 117 Beacon Street. She grew up with status and wealth as part of the leading social set in Boston, Beverly Farms, and Newport.

After her marriage to historian, Henry Adams (the great-grandson of President John Adams), the couple set up housekeeping at 91 Marlborough Street. That home, now incorporated into the Hale House building, became a gathering place for Boston intellectuals. It is said that author Henry James may have found his inspiration for Daisy Miller in the independent spirit of Clover Adams.

In 1877, the couple moved to Washington D.C. where once again this hostess attracted a following of interesting people to her salon. 

The Photographer

In 1883, Clover Adams wrote, “ …I’ve gone in for photography and find it very absorbing.” In her day, photography was as much science as art. In a lined notebook she wrote the details for each exposure. She recorded where it was taken, how long the exposure, lenses used, f-stops, and even reminded herself of mistakes. Later, darkroom notes were added.

She created portraits of luminaries like H. H. Richardson, Oliver W. Holmes Jr., and Francis Parkman. Clover Adams staged whimsical photos of her dogs posed at a tea table. And, she recorded family memories of her husband at his desk, her in-laws Charles F. Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams on their porch, and her father Robert W. Hooper driving his wagon.

Her prints of these images were carefully arranged in three red leather albums containing 113 photographs with handwritten descriptions. The photos selected for display in the current presentation give you an insight into a life that has been kept all too secret for all too long. 

The Heartbreak 

The final panels of the exhibition deal with the suicide that overshadowed the accomplishments of this remarkable woman. Episodes of depression had been reported at other points in her life. Following the death of her father in 1885, she slipped into what has been called an “overwhelming depression” and took her own life.

In 1886, Henry Adams commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial, “…that would express the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state of being beyond joy and sorrow,” according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Located in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., this thought-provoking image is considered one of Saint-Gaudens most important works.

In addition to the exhibition and the book, a collection of digitized material about Clover Adams has been made available at, the organization’s website. The exhibition will be on display through June 2.

Search The Back Bay Sun