Coleman Photographs (post-1856?)

Whitman pasted these two photographs and engraving into a copy of her 1853 edition of poetry titled Hours of Life and Other Poems that she inscribed to her dear friend, William Walter Coleman, who was the photographer that took the photos. Whitman presented him the volume just ten days before her death, but the exact dates of the photographs are unknown. My approximation is that they were taken in the years after White’s daguerreotype in 1856.

The first photo is similar to the 1856 daguerreotype of Sarah Helen Whitman and it’s possible that this print was made by Coleman from a daguerreotype taken by Joseph White when she sat for him at that time. However, if this is the case, that daguerreotype is missing and has not been discovered.

The next photo is an engraving clearly made using the first photo as reference. Again, Whitman gave no context with these photos and there are no inscriptions on this engraving to note who the artist was and what date it was made.

The last photo is a unique likeness of Whitman depicted as a medium. Her face is veiled just enough that you can faintly see her left eye closed and the shape of her nose outlined by the drapery of the veil. In the photo, Whitman is attempting to read a manuscript with the help of the spirit world. In a July 18, 1860 letter to her friend Julia Deane Freeman, Whitman says: “I will send you, too, before the Harvest Moon a little daguerre just taken if I can get it copied—for my sister will not part with the original. It is a funny little thing & shows only a piece of the face but all my friends like it & I think you will. My poetical friends like it, I should have said, for the practical & matter of fact think the face is too much concealed. I think you will like it.” We don’t have any other details regarding the photo mentioned by Whitman in this letter, nor do we have a reply from Freeman that might give us more information, but I can’t help but think it’s regarding this particular photo since Whitman is specifically mentioning the concealment of her face. Whitman mentions sending numerous photographs to Freeman during their correspondence between 1856-1862 with so little detail or provenance that I believe there are more images of her out there that have yet to be discovered.

These photos come courtesy of Brown University, and the edition with these photos pasted inside are kept in the Harris collection at the John Hay Library.