Marian Hooper Adams seems to be a mystery marked by one final decision in her life- the decision to end it tragically in 1885 at the age of 42. What seems to be the most interesting factor is that she turned to photography the last two years of her life as she produced captivating portraits of her husband, her dogs, and the socialites and politicians that surrounded her in Washington D.C.. She went by the name of Clover to close friends and was known to be one of great wit, but also one of great sorrow as her mother died of tuberculosis when she was terribly young.
After being brought up in a wealthy Boston family and volunteering for the United States Sanitary Commission during the civil war, Clover married Henry Adams in 1872. Henry was an author, philosopher, and also the grandson and great-grandson of past presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams. Clover was drawn to Henry’s intelligence as he was an editor of the North American Review and taught medieval history at Harvard. They would bond over their love of literature and philosophy for years to come, creating a close circle of like-minded friends that they would entertain over tea. It was said that Clover was quite the hostess and her invitations were highly sought after around this time. Finding in her work later on, she seemed to poke fun, or make some sort of satirical commentary, on the women’s role as she photographed her three dogs having a tea party. The gossip from her groups of friends at this time would always find it’s way via letter to her father, Robert Hooper, as she would retell stories to him. Clover and her father were extremely close, so much so that on her year long honeymoon with Henry, she proclaimed how much she missed her father by stating, “the anchoring love of her father must have seemed miles away”. This bond Clover and her father had was truly inseparable, one that would leave her in defeat later on in life as he passed away in April of 1885. Clover turned to photography as a way to tell her story through the albums she would meticulously craft together. Some would see it as her way of coping, others will see it as her shedding light on a woman’s role in American society. You can simply sense who Clover was and the way she perceived her world through how she portrayed her subjects. Such as in her album, a photo of Henry shows him in isolation placed next to a photo of a tree in isolation, perhaps commenting on his isolation from Clover in the last few years of her life. Clover held a good deal pain, despite her perfect-seeming privileged upbringing, she still was human and had immense feelings of loss. She carried her baggage and photography was a way for her to express herself and her longing for human connection.
Clover committed suicide in December of 1885 by swallowing a chemical she used to develop photographs, potassium cyanide. It is a bit unsettling that her way out was through something she used for a medium which seemed to bring her joy. What’s even more unsettling is her husband’s silence after her death...later on making the remark, “Poor Mrs. Adams found, the other day, the solution of the knottiness of existence.” It’s as if he knew her demons, but knew he could not be the one to save her at the same time. Henry ended up commissioning a bronze memorial sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to be placed at Clover’s burial site in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.. This sculpture is well-known for the mystery it holds as it has no inscription, no date, no sign for what it could represent. “The interest of the figure was not in its meaning,” he noted in “The Education,” “but in the response of the observer.” While people are initially drawn to Clover’s story through her marriage to Henry or the memorial in Washington D.C., they tend to stick around due to this beautifully tragic enigma of a story. Her artistic explorations may have been short, but they still intrigue and inspire those who are interested in unraveling the mystery of Clover.
Written by Emilee Prado
Images owned by Massachusetts Historical Society