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Date: 1877?
Place: Philadelphia
Photographer: W. Curtis Taylor of Broadbent & Taylor
Note: Most known copies of this photograph are identified as taken by "Phillips & Taylor," the studio of Philadelphia photographers Henry C. Phillips and W. Curtis Taylor; however, on October 5, 1877, Whitman notes sending an admirer copies of "Broadbent & Taylor's photos"—”evidence that the photograph was taken while Taylor was still in partnership with Samuel Broadbent (DBN 1: 65). Less than a week later, on October 11, Whitman sent copies of the Centennial Edition of Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets to "Mr Broadbent & W Curtis Taylor / 914 Chestnut st Phil" (DBN 1: 65). The difference in formality again implies that Taylor was better known to Whitman. On July 24, 1880, Broadbent died; Whitman's letter "to W. Curtis Taylor photo. 914 Chestnut St." on August 16 may be responding to that news (DBN 1: 198). After Broadbent's death, Taylor continued in partnership with Broadbent's two sons and kept the studio name until they bought him out in 1884 and renamed the business Broadbent Brothers. Only then did Taylor enter into a partnership with Henry C. Phillips in the studio at 1206 Chestnut St. Some copies, such as the one in the Kendall Reed Collection, bear the stamp of Gilbert & Bacon. Well in the 1920s, this studio occupied the storefront at 1030 Chestnut St.—directly between Taylor's two businesses—and likely obtained a copy negative or purchased the original negative after Taylor's death. The image itself, which Whitman described as a "2/3d length with hat outdoor rustic," was recalled by Thomas Donaldson and Elizabeth Keller as being his favorite photo. This infamous portrait, however, led to a great deal of skepticism about Whitman's honesty, since Whitman sometimes claimed the butterfly was real. "Yes—that was an actual moth," he told Traubel, "the picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals . . ." Whitman told the historian William Roscoe Thayer, "I've always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters." Thayer later wryly commented: "How it happened that a butterfly should have been waiting in the studio on the chance that Walt might drop in to be photographed, or why Walt should be clad in a thick cardigan jacket on any day when butterflies would have been disporting themselves in the fields, I have never been able to explain." In fact, the "butterfly" was clearly a photographic prop now in the collections of the Library of Congress. The die-cut cardboard butterfly is imprinted with the lyrics to a John Mason Neale hymn and the word "Easter" in large capital letters. If, indeed, the photograph was taken in 1877, then Whitman may have been referring to this image when he wrote from Philadelphia to Peter Doyle on June 20, "I havn't forgotten the pictures, but they are a long while a-coming" (Corr 3: 88). If so, then the photograph would most likely have been taken between April 8 (Easter) and mid June. What is not often noted is that the photo simply enacts one of the recurrent visual emblems in the 1860 edition of Leaves: a hand with a butterfly perched on a finger. This symbol is resumed in the 1881 edition. In a review of that edition, published on January 13, 1883, a writer for the Critic referred to Whitman as "the big, good-natured, shrewd and large-souled poet, whose photograph shows him lounging in smoking-jacket and broad felt hat, gazing at his hand, on which a delicate butterfly, with expanded wings, forms a contrast to the thick fingers and heavy ploughman's wrist" (3). Dr. R. M. Bucke read the image symbolically: "The butterfly . . . represents, of course, Psyche, his soul, his fixed contemplation of which accords with his declaration: 'I need no assurances; I am a man who is preoccupied of his own soul.'" Whitman appears to have had a copy of the print made for Bucke at Edy Brothers during his trip to London, Ontario, in summer 1880. Printed at various times facing right and facing left (the one facing left is the original), the flipping came at Whitman's own direction. Traubel noted on October 16, 1891, "W. proposes to get some new reproduction of the butterfly picture. 'I wonder if the process men can reverse the picture? Set it looking right where it now looks left? I want to have it done for my own purposes" (WWWC 9: 36).
Credit: Feinberg Collection
ID: 086

Image 086


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