There’s only one officially authenticated photograph of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. It’s a daguerreotype taken in 1847 when she was 16 years old, years before she wrote the poems that would make her famous when they were published after her death. Amherst College, founded by Samuel Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, received it from a donor along with other Dickinson papers in 1956, and the ownership record is clear and unbroken back to Emily’s sister Lavinia.
Other alleged pictures have cropped up over the years, but none of them have ultimately proven authentic. This was not unexpected since Emily herself declared in July of 1862 to have no photographs of herself. In a well-known correspondence with abolitionist, Unitarian minister and Atlantic Monthly columnist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily responded to his request that she send him a picture as follows:
Could you believe me–without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur–and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves–Would this do just as well?
It often alarms father. He says death might occur, and he has moulds of all the rest, but has no mould of me; but I noticed the quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor. You will think no caprice of me.
She means “quick” in the sense of vitality, the essence of life, which she thinks drains out of photographs after a few days, hence her refusal to sit for a portrait even at her beloved father’s behest.
But now there’s a new contender for the title of only picture of Emily Dickinson as an adult poet, and the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections thinks it may just be the real deal. The image is a daguerreotype taken around 1859 of two women sitting next to each other, one with her arm around the other. It belongs to a daguerreotype collector who bought it in a group of items from a Springfield junk dealer in 1995. The collector noticed the woman on the left bore a strong resemblance to the sole picture of Dickinson, so he began to research the subject, starting with an attempt to identify the woman on the right.
After years of study, he was able to confirm thanks to two moles on her chin under either side of her mouth that the sitter on the right was Mrs. Kate Scott Turner Anthon, a school friend of Sue Gilbert Dickinson, wife of Emily’s brother Austin. Austin and Sue lived in the house next door to Emily, and Kate stayed with them several times starting in January of 1859. She struck up a close friendship with Emily, as their extant correspondence attests to, until they had a falling out about a year later.
A book published in 1951 contended that their relationship was romantic, that the falling out was a break-up. It was not well-received by reviewers at the time, to say the least, but if this picture does prove to be incontestably authentic, the book might be seen in a different light. After all, Emily wouldn’t have a picture taken for her father, so there would have had to be a powerful impetus to persuade her to sit for a picture with her arm around her friend.
In 2007, the collector showed the daguerreotype to Amherst College Archives and Special Collections staff. Their Dickinson experts have been researching it ever since. High resolution scans of both the 1847 picture and the 1859 were compared, and the physical features of the potential Emily match the confirmed Emily. Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Pepin, who has made a study of Emily’s eye problems, examined the eyes on both images and declared them a match. From Dr. Pepin’s report (pdf):
The two women have the same eye opening size with the right eye opening being slightly larger than the left. The left lower lid in both women sits lower than the right lower lid. The right upper lid from the crease in the lid has more length than the left upper lid. Also, the left upper lid margin height sits lower that the right upper lid margin height (0.1 mm ptosis OS).
Other similar facial features are evident between the women in the daguerreotypes. The right earlobe is higher on both women. The inferonasal corneal light reflex suggests corneal curvature similarity, allowing us to speculate about similar astigmatism in the two women. Both women have a central hair cowlick. Finally, both women have a more prominent left nasolabial fold.
After a thorough examination of both of these women’s facial features as viewed from the 1847 and 1859 daguerreotypes, I believe strongly that these are the same people.
Another argument in favor of authenticity is, oddly, an anachronism. Potential Emily’s dress is at least 10 years out of date. In fact, it has several significant elements in common with the dress worn by the teenage Emily 12 years earlier. This suits the adult Emily just fine, since she was determinedly unfashionable. She told her friend Abiah Root in 1854: “I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare.”
Amherst experts together with the Emily Dickinson Museum’s experts went through their textile collection to see if there was a potential match for the blue check fabric of the potential Emily’s dress, and as long a shot as this was, they actually found a sample that fits in pattern and sheen. The picture is too small to make it a definite match to the swatch, but future research with specialized tools will hopefully be able to magnify the garment in the picture so that a match can be confirmed or denied.
Kate is wearing a black dress whose style is from the mid-1850s. She was widowed for the first time in 1857, so that fits.
The authentication search is ongoing. The picture is available for viewing upon request at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Researchers are asking the public to come forward with any relevant information that might be squirreled away in their attics.
Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Collection has a wealth of digitized manuscripts and letters by Emily Dickinson. Given Emily’s famously idiosyncratic syntax which was often conventionalized by publishers, it’s a genuine thrill to see poems like A bird came down the walk in her own hand.