Second picture of Emily Dickinson found?

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.

Emily Dickinson 1847-1859 comparisonIn 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.

"A bird came down the walk" manuscript

21 thoughts on “Second picture of Emily Dickinson found?

    1. At least your mind will be gainfully employed. Depending on your job, perhaps even more so than it currently is.

      Thank you for the most excellent Comic Book Guy props. :thanks:

  1. I have studied the images closely. There are some dissimilarities that just can’t be explained away. Emily Dickinson had a somewhat pug nose and the woman in the other daguerreotype does not. Emily Dickinson’s eyebrows were much thicker. Her mouth was set at a different angle. Her chin was smaller — though if she put on a bit of weight that might not be as much a difference. The daguerreotype almost could not have been taken in 1859 because the ambrotype had nearly wiped out dags by then — though I grant a few were still taken. The woman in the newly-found dag is wearing a dress that is far out of date, as mentioned in the blog. This is explained away by saying Dickinson was wearing old clothes. The year 1859 was chosen because that fits the age of the woman if she is Emily Dickinson, and it is a date when the two were together. But the easier explanation is that it is not Emily Dickinson and the dag was taken in the daguerreian period when the clothing was not out of date.

    1. I disagree that Emily had a pug nose. The tip of it is fleshier, but she was 16 then and the cartilage of the nose continues to grow throughout our lifetimes. The eyebrows look like the same thickness and arch to me, almost eerily so, and the oval of the face matches almost perfectly, with just a slight overall lengthening and softening under the chin.

      On the question of the photographic type, the collector believes it was the work of J.C. Spooner, a photographer with a studio in Springfield, MA, who advertised in 1859 that he offered daguerreotypes upon request even though ambrotypes were by then the standard. Supporting the later date is not just wishful thinking, but the clothing of the second woman which is not out of date for the mid-1850s. People wear old clothes, especially before the explosion of cheap and flimsy imports, and Emily Dickinson in particular was known to do so. They do not, as a rule, wear fashions from the future.

      At any rate, the work is far from over. There is much research left to be done before the picture is authenticated or not.

  2. I seem to detect a generalised and proportionate weight gain between the two women,coupled with a coursening of features so common with human aging which may explain some of the anomalies to which you refer Joe?
    Perhaps I am over-identifying with the poor bint due to my own sensitivities regarding abhorrant middle aged weight gain. 😆

  3. Dan,
    You have convinced me as well. I have seen the video from Amherst College but your transposing effort is amazing. Without a doubt I think this is ED at about 29. She looks rather confident and sly…as she was.

  4. Can you make out what it is that’s hanging around her neck? A necklace of some sort? I can’t make out the bottom portion of it, it blends into the darker areas of her dress.

    I LOVE your blog SO much! I wish I could give you a high-five.


    1. I can’t make it out either, sad to say. It could be glasses or a watch. It seems to be intentionally stuffed into her gusset, which is what makes me think it’s a practical object rather than, say, a jewel or cameo pendant.

  5. The only significant difference is the top of her lip as a child was tense and puckered, such that her top lip puckered downwards- almost in a kiss formation. This would occur if she were biting on the inside of her top lip. (People often tense up when getting their portraits taken.) If she had relaxed her lip at the time of the photo, it would have a plumper look and be widened more at the top, which is what we do see in the photo of her at age 30.

  6. This would explain the different shape that the top of her upper lip has- where the ‘v’ of the upper lip seems to come together in a more closer way. She is tensing and poking it out.

  7. Having compared thousands of faces in photos, including projects for Library of Congress, I can tell you that it is at least highly unlikely that a person with lips like those of the woman on the left would be able to hide all traces of a deep cupids bow by changing her expression. Also, there is the significant difference in chin structure, which is partly skeletal.

    To date, no experts in facial comparison have stated that this person is even likely to be Dickinson. What is virtually certain is that these are two different persons.

  8. Well Emily States in the letter that she “had no portrait” but why does she say “had” instead of “have”? Obviously we know she did have at least one portrait taken at that time so why not others? Maybe she just told her friend that because she didn’t have any copies to send him. And if Emily had a romantic relationship with anyone it was Susan Gilbert more likely than Kate Scott Turner. I think Emily and Susan were in love at one point but Susan wanted to be practical and so she married Emilys brother. Trust me if Emily had it her way the two of them would have lived together as lover’s but Susan needed financial support. :boogie:

  9. Well, for what this is worth…I’ve been playing around with lately, & found my grandmother’s grandmother descended from a lot of the same families as Dickinson…the new “Dickinson” (I think–maybe I would though?–can’t discount the possibility I’m Gaslighting myself, or something) bears a jaw-droppingly eerie resemblance to my mother, especially the eyes…cue Vincent Price, hefting cathedral tunes, whilst the drapery burns…

  10. The lady on the right looks like the child on the left who has grown into her features. Though the grown woman’s nose is not as wide, there is an indentation on the left nostril in the same location on both the little girl and the grown woman.

    Also, the eyebrows, though obvious child vs. grown female in comparison, the angle is the same. 🙂 I am convinced this is the same person.

  11. More evidence in favor: If Kate Scott Anthon had two moles under her mouth, what are the odds another woman with two moles under her mouth (not necessarily unusual) would have a daguerreotype taken with a dead ringer for Emily Dickinson (very unusual)?

  12. In addition to Flark’s note, the evidence to support the identity of the second image seems to be…
    1. analysis of eye anatomy by Susan Pepin –
    2. location – found in springfield right next to amherst.
    3. strong resemblance of the second image to the extant portrait of Lavinia Dickinson – sister – in almost every feature but particularly the eyes and face shape.
    4. correct time period, placeable in the author’s timeline
    5. the same kind of dress, from someone who was known to wear outdated fashions and dislike change; the hair part and bow are the same; the hands, the proportion of the fingers, are also the same

    The strongest objection I’ve seen so far (from ‘bmarlowe’ above) is the difference in lip shape… However the lips seem to me the most ‘malleable’ of features, and changes dramatically with amount of sleep, dehydration, and of course age. This is especially true for people with full lips. When coupled with lighting, technological limitations, and pose this difference just does not seem to be a compelling argument in itself against identity…

    To me, the points above taken together with the striking similarity of the features and face shape have me more or less convinced that this is indeed an image of Dickinson.

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