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“Emily Dickinson – Her True Colors”

By Guillermo Cuellar M

Art as Research

Thank you for viewing “Emily Dickinson - Her True Colors” a reproduction from an oil on canvas 30”x40” portrait of the poet at age 16, unveiled at the Jones Library Special Collections and Archives on December 9 2005.

The following is a draft of a paper for publication on my process and research of Emily Dickinson Her True Color.

 I was frustrated by the lack of images available in the market place that would satisfy my desire to see Emily Dickinson as a colorful, alive, and radiant being. “After all,” I said to myself, “her daguerreotype was taken when she was 16 and all the images are based on that image. But artists are making her look older (read "Whose But Her Shy- Inmortal Face")(1). What happened to the girl, the teenager in the picture?” Inside me with determination and sincerity a voice spoke with passion, encouraging me to paint Emily Dickinson as a Victorian Amherst teenager that will look like a teenager, to show her true colors include her passions and dilemmas, to create a portrait that will be honest and truthfully representing who she was.

The daguerreotype on display at Amherst College Special Collections and Archives is the only known image of Emily. Emily’s Sister, Lavina thought little of the miniature as it is indicated in the following passage:

She (Lavina) handed me a miniature of Emily, saying, “This is Emily. No one on earth could paint her face, because no one could possibly catch the light in her eyes, nor the spirit behind them, but this give a faint idea of how Emily looked.”                                                                                               “X” or Mary Lee Hall (2)

A line on one of Emily's poems stood firm in my mind as I read Lavina's words, the lines read something like this: "who are you? are you nobody too?" My heart said yes I am nobody too and I as Emily whom express herself through poetry I do express myself through paint, her poem inspired me to go ahead.

Amherst College Special Collection and Archives provided me with critical physical evidence necessary for the construction of the painting—the daguerreotype and a lock of hair. The lock of Emily’s hair is the single most significant personal piece of evidence that gives color to the portrait. It has survived since 1852, when Emily enclosed it in a letter to friend Emily Fowler. I found other evidence in letters and descriptions of many of her friends and family at the Jones Library Special Collections and Archives, for example:

 “Her nose and chin were delicately chiseled, and her mouth was full, with drooping corners, which meant ironic humor or pensiveness, perhaps both”.(3)

Elements in the Painting

The dress, ribbon, flowers and jewelry

The dress was of a juvenile, not a woman design, as evidenced by the fullness of the front bodice, rising from the boned tucks at the waist, arranged in soft gathers, which were simply taken into an easy, rather wide neckline. There is a small white frill inside the neckline.(5) The dress looks heavy and somewhat of a dense fabric. Obviously, it was a winter dress made of a heavy fabric made of either silk, or silk and wool. It contained a small, monochromatic design, probably woven as opposed to printed, showing it was not a cheap fabric. The material looks like 'figured silk,' not officially a brocade but with a similar pattern since technically the brocade has metal woven into it. (4) The skirt was generously cut, so that the tiny cartridge pleats around the top set it into a nice bell-shaped puff. The shoulder caps and cuffs were nicely finished. (5) The skin-tight sleeves were de rigueur during the mid 1840s. (6) The daguerreotype image gave no clues as to the color of the dress, but research suggests that popular colors of the time included soft sage green, light brown, and rose.

The ribbon around her neck is called “ombré,” which is the French word for “shaded.” The ribbons were made of interlaced satin and velvet creating a pattern. In her case, it appeared to be painted velvet. It seemed to be held together with a small piece of jewelry, in the shape of a flower or a cross with flowers around it, likely made in ivory. Although the actual color of Emily’s ribbon is unknown, it is interesting to note that if the ribbon were in purple and black, it would have been a ribbon to signify mourning. Emily’s grandfather died just 6 months before the daguerreotype was taken, so Emily may have still been in “half-mourning” at the time.

Emily is wearing an unmatched pair of bracelets. On one wrist she is seems to be wearing a gold cuff bracelet with some figurines, possibly embossed or enameled on the gold. On the other wrist it looks like she is wearing a bracelet woven of hair. If so, this type of bracelet would have been associated with mourning—to wear the woven hair of the person who is lost. Again, although there is no historical record, it may have represented Emily’s grandfather.

It is unclear what Emily was holding in her hands, but after studying the image carefully it appeared that she was holding a bouquet of flowers. These were not just any flower, but I believe they were wax orange blossoms. These were commonly used in weddings and were likely a photographer’s props (I have not seen other daguerreotypes with this similar prop). When fresh orange blossoms were in short supply, and in northern climates, like New England, where citrus fruits did not flourish, wax replicas were used instead. It seems that was Queen Victoria who created the fashion for the translucent flowers when she wore wax orange blossoms in a grand wreath, in lieu of her crown jewels, for her 1840 wedding. From then on, the classic floral theme for the Victorian bride was set (7). It is interesting that this prop would be chosen since according to the Chinese, the orange is one of the rare plants that blooms and bears fruit at the same time, it is symbolic of fruitfulness and fertility. It is believed during the time of the Crusades, the custom was brought from the East first to Spain, then to France in the 16th century, then to England in the early 1800s.

The tablecloth

It has not been determined if the tablecloth is printed or double-woven. The tablecloth in Emily’s daguerreotype is a source of much detective work for historians interested in tracking the source of the photographer. Many other daguerreotypes have the same or similar cloth, including the one of Emily’s mother and Nancy Hasting Cutler (1849), a good friend of the family (The daguerreotype resides at the Jones Library Special Collections and Archives). Some think it was William C. North who took the daguerreotype(8) but others have tracked the cloth to a photographer named Otis Cooley.(9) A whole-plate daguerreotype of the Moses Hadley Family shows the cloth and can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society.   

At the Jones Library

At the Jones Library, I found the missing links to Emily’s poetry: her own letters and others’ descriptions of her. The curator Tevis Kimball and her assistant Kate Boyle significantly contributed to the creation of this portrait. They assisted in my research to give meaning and sentiment to the image, adding the color that the daguerreotype lacked. By reading her letters, especially those to friend Abiah Root, and reading about Emily from those who knew her, I became interested in Emily as a teen. I found the life of a rebellious 16-year-old in the Victorian era, and that is what I wanted to paint.

The following are key descriptions of Emily Dickinson from letters and other sources that have influenced my direction regarding the choice of color, background and many other significant details as I painted her portrait.

Emily Fowler Ford described Emily Dickinson in a letter to Mabel Loomis Todd. “Emily was not beautiful, but has great beauties, her eyes were lovely auburn, soft and warm hair laid in rings of the same color all over her head and her teeth were good”.

              Mabel Loomis, Todd, Letter of Emily Dickinson, Harper & Brothers 1930. p.130.

The girl had thrown her hat to the floor in front of her, and her curly auburn hair, stirred by the breeze, framed her youthful and exquisitely beautiful face. Her skin was white without a suggestion of color, but it was the clear, transparent white of perfect health. Her nose and chin were delicately chiseled, and her mouth was full, with drooping corners, which meant ironic humor or pensiveness, perhaps both. It was her eyes that dominated and illumined her whole face. They were large and brilliant, with a strange elusive light. They were amber, and were, as she had confided to a classmate, 'the color of the wine the guest leaves in his glass. It was not their color that drew the attention of all who saw her, but their changing quality, as they reflected the swift succession of fancies that were for ever chasing one another through her restless, inquiring mind.''

              Jenkins, MacGregor, Emily. New York: Braunworth & Co., Inc., 1930, pp. 15-16.

MacGregor Jenkins knew Emily well during his boyhood. Jenkins’ description of Emily helped me with more than her skin color and overall appearance. He gave me information to think about and to be inspired by. I too wanted a healthy looking Emily I did not want an ill looking person like many have described Emily, even if she mentioned in her letters not feeling well during the period of time when the daguerreotype was possibly taken. I also believe that physical symptoms are one way that her body communicated with her and her high sensitivity about the issues she was facing.

Later in her life, T. W. Higginson, Emily’s publisher and mentor, asked Emily for a picture of herself to accompany the publication of her poems. Her response on the following letter left me thinking that she was not willing, or was unable, to provide the daguerreotype to him. We instead have a magnificent self-description, at age 32, by the poet in the first paragraph of her letter:

To T. W. Higginson                                                                                                  July 1862

Could you believe me – without? I have no portrait 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?

Thomas H. Johnson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958 pp 411. Letter 268.

The following letter, from Higginson to Emily, provided me with a key description that became of critical importance in painting background. Here is why:

From T. W. Higginson

Sometimes I take out your letters & verses, dear friend, and when I feel their strange power, it is not strange that I find it hard to write & that long months pass. I have the greatest desire to see you, always feeling that perhaps if I could once take you by the hand I might be something to you; but till then you only enshroud yourself in this fiery mist & I cannot reach you, but only rejoice in the rare-sparkles of light. Every year I think that I will contrive somehow to go to Amherst & see you: but that is hard, for I often am obliged to go away for lecturing, &c & rarely can go for pleasure. I would gladly go to Boston, at any practicable time, to meet you. I am always the same toward you, & never relax my interest in what you send to me. I should like to hear from you very often, but feel always timid lest what I write should be badly aimed & miss that fine edge of thought which you bear. It would be so easy, I fear, to miss you. Still, you see, I try. I think if I could once see you & know that you are real, I might fare better. It brought you nearer e[ven] to know that you had an actual [?] uncle, 'though I can hardly fancy [any?] two beings less alike than yo[u] [&?] him. But I have not seen him [for] several years, though I have seen [a lady] who once knew you, but could [not] tell me much.

It is hard [for me] to understand how you can live s[o alo]ne, with thoughts of such a [quali]ty coming up in you & even the companionship of your dog withdrawn. Yet it isolates one anywhere to think beyond a certain point or have such luminous flashes as come to you-so perhaps the place does not make much difference.

Johnson book, pp 461, letter 330a.

Higginson’s desire to visit Emily in person evoked many sentiments for him. I identify with him as I was trying to picture Emily in my mind’s eye. This line, “but till then you only enshroud yourself in this fiery mist & I cannot reach you, but only rejoice in the rare-sparkles of light” captured what I thought to symbolize the background of her painting—entrusted in a fiery mist. I selected the color of fire to be the background respecting the restrains of the Victorian period.

There are numerous letters to Abiah Root, a childhood friend, from Emily. Many of these letters describe her state of mind, her sentiments, and the events as they were unfolding. Still, she gave very few physical descriptions of herself around the time of the daguerreotype. The following were useful.

To Abiah Root                                                                                    25 September 1845

              …. I have grown tall a good deal, and wear my golden tresses done up in a net cap. Modesty, you know, forbids me to mention whether my personal appearance has altered. I leave that for others to judge. But my [words omitted] has not changed, nor will it in time to come. I shall always remain the same old sixpence… I can say no more now as it is after ten, and everybody has gone to bed but me. Don’t forget your affectionate friend.

                                                                                                                              Emily E. D.

Johnson book, page 21, letter 8.

Written a year later we have this next letter which describes an important change: “wearing a long dress,” no longer child clothing. A long dress was a symbol of entering into adulthood. The type of dress she is wearing in the daguerreotype was still a teen or child’s dress—although it was long it had a child’s neckline.

To Abiah Root                                                                        Boston, 8 September 1846

……I have alter very much since you was here. I am now very tall & wear long dresses nearly. Do you believe we shall know each other when we meet. Don’t forget to write soon.

Johnson book, page 39, letter 13.

I found some significance in the next letter. She mentions a ribbon from Viny, her sister. I have seen many daguerreotypes but have not seen one with a ribbon on an open neck dress. The date of the latter is also significant since is close to the time of the daguerreotype.

To Austin Dickinson                                          South Hadley, 21 October 1847

….Thank Viny 10,000 times for the beautiful ribbon & tell her to write me soon.

Johnson book, page 49, letter 16.

The next letter influenced me a great deal, in a Victorian, New England environment to find Emily maintaining a sense of integrity at age 16 gave much information about her posture and determined gaze for the portrait.

To Abiah Root                                                                                                   31 January 1846

Dear Abiah.

I fear you have thought me very long in answering your affectionate letter and especially considering the circumstances under which you wrote. But I am sure if you could have looked in upon me Dear A. since I received your letter you would heartily forgive me for my long delay.

I was delighted to receive an answer to my own so soon. Under any other circumstances I should have answered your letter sooner. But I feared lest in the unsettled state of your mind in regard to which choice you should make, I might say something which might turn your attention from so all important a subject. I shed many tears over your letter—the last part of it. I hoped and still I feared for you. I have had the same feelings myself Dear A. I was almost persuaded to be a christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly—and I can say that I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever. I have longed to hear from you—to know what decision you have made. I hope you are a christian for I feel that it is impossible for any one to be happy without a treasure in heaven. I feel that I shall never be happy without I love Christ.

When I am most happy there is a sting in every enjoyment. I find no rose without a thorn. There is an aching void in my heart which I am convinced the world never can fill. I am far from being thoughtless upon the subject of religion. I continually hear Christ saying to me Daughter give me shine heart. Probably you have made your decision long before this time. Perhaps you have exchanged the fleeting pleasures of time for a crown of immortality. Perhaps the shining company above have tuned their golden harps to the song of one more redeemed sinner. I hope at sometime the heavenly gates will be opened to receive me and The angels will consent to call me sister. I am continually putting off becoming a christian. Evil voices lisp in my ear— There is yet time enough. I feel that every day I live I sin more and more in closing my heart to the offers of mercy which are presented to me freely - Last winter there was a revival here. The meetings were thronged by people old and young. It seemed as if those who sneered loudest at serious things were soonest brought to see their power, and to make Christ their portion. It was really wonderful to see how near heaven came to sinful mortals. Many who felt there was nothing in religion determined to go once & see if there was anything in it, and they were melted at once.

Perhaps you will not believe it Dear A. but I attended none of the meetings last winter. I felt that I was so easily excited that I might again be deceived and I dared not trust myself. Many conversed with me seriously and affectionately and I was almost inclined to yield to the claims of He who is greater than I. How ungrateful I am to live along day by day upon Christs bounty and still be in a state of enmity to him & his cause.

Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you. I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a releif to so endless a state of existence. I dont know why it is but it does not seem to me that I shall ever cease to live on earth-I cannot imagine with the farthest stretch of my imagination my own death scene-It does not seem to me that I shall ever close my eyes in death. I cannot realize that the grave will be my last home— that friends will weep over my coffin and that my name will be mentioned, as one who has ceased to be among the haunts of the living, and it will be wondered where my disembodied spirit has flown. I cannot realize that the friends I have seen pass from my sight in the prime of their days like dew before the sun will not again walk the streets and act their parts in the great drama of life, nor can I realize that when I again meet them it will be in another & a far different world from this. I hope we shall all be acquitted at the bar of God, and shall receive the welcome, Well done Good & faithful Servants., Enter Ye into the Joy of your Lord. I wonder if we shall know each other in heaven, and whether we shall be a chosen band as we are here. I am inclined to believe that we shall—and that our love will be purer in heaven than on earth. I feel that life is short and time fleeting—and that I ought now to make my peace with my maker- I hope the golden opportunity is not far hence when my heart will willingly yield itself to Christ, and that my sins will be all blotted out of the book of remembrance. Perhaps before the close of the year now swiftly upon the wing, some one of our number will be summoned to the Judgment Seat above, and I hope we may not be separated when the final decision is made, for how sad would it be for one of our number to go to the dark realms of wo, where is the never dying worm and the fire which no water can quench, and how happy if we may be one unbroken company in heaven. I carried your letter to Abby and she perused it with the same feelings as myself, and we wished together that you might choose that better part which shall not be taken from you. Abby sends much love to you and many wishes for your happiness both temporal and eternal. She hopes to hear from you soon, very soon, and Abby and I shall be in a state of suspense until we hear from you & know what choice you have made or whether you have ceased to think of serious things. Do write me very soon and tell me all about yourself & your feelings, and do forgive me for so long neglecting to answer your letter. Although I am not a christian still I feel deeply the importance of attending to the subject before it is too late.

Your aff friend,

Emily E. D.-

Johnson book, page 26, letter 10.



1. Polly Lomgsworth, Language As Object: Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art;Whose but her Shy- Inmortal Face, The poet's Visage in the Popular Imagination. University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. pp. 35-41.

2. Genevieve Taggard, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, 1930. pp. 336-7

3. Jenkins, MacGregor, Emily. New York: Braunworth & Co., Inc., 1930, pp. 15-16.

4. Based on a conversation with Edward Meader, Curator of the Flynt Center, Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 26 2003.

5. Based on correspondence with Joan Severa, author of “Dress for the Photographer.”

6. Cunnington, C. Willett, English Women 's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Mineola, New York:

Dover Publishing, 1990, p. 143.

7. Cornelia Powell,

8. Mery Elizabeth Kromer Bernhard, Lost and Found; Emily Dickinson's Unkown Daguerreotypist, New England Quaterly, pp. 594-601

9. John Felix. A Daguerreian Detective Story, The Journal. New England Journal of Photographic History. No,146/7. Issue 3&4,1995.


Emily Dickinson Museum:

Emily Dickinson International Society

The Emily Dickinson Journal