Magical Arts



The Wellfleet Penman

Henry David Thoreau at Cape Cod, 1857


The Wellfleet Penman
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The Wellfleet Penman
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The Maxham daguerreotype of 1856

In the aim of creating a “colour photograph” of Henry David Thoreau, I decided to start with the daguerreotype portrait (above) which was taken by Benjamin D. Maxham at Worcester, Massachusetts on June 13th, 1856. In fact, three of these portraits were made at that time; however, they are all virtually identical except for minor, negligible differences. These daguerreotypes were done initially at the request of a Rochester, Michigan admirer of his writings named Calvin H. Greene, who had sent Thoreau $5 so that he could have one made for himself, and also asking that copies of Thoreau’s two books be sent to his brother in California. Thoreau had earlier responded to Greene’s request for a portrait by writing to him that he would “[...] have the best of me in my books [...] I am not worth seeing personally — the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am,” but eventually the portraits would be done and Greene was sent one along with a letter which said, in part, “While in Worcester this week I obtained the accompanying daguerreotype — which my friends think is pretty good — though better looking than I.” In addition to the portrait and letter, Thoreau also included $1.70 in change (the two other daguerreotypes made at that time were given to Thoreau’s Worcester friends H.G.O. Blake and Theo. Brown).

It will be noted (quite obviously) that the “colourized” version of Thoreau’s portrait that I have created above is flipped over from the original daguerreotype — this is intentional, because it was an anomaly of daguerreotypes that the image created by that method was, in fact, a negative one. That this early portrait is indeed reversed can be confirmed quite easily by looking at the part in Thoreau’s hair as it was in the only two other authenticated portraits made of him in his lifetime.

Other Portraits of Thoreau

The Rowse crayon drawing of 1854

Above we have the only portrait of Thoreau as he looked as a young (or, rather, younger) man, a crayon drawing done by Samuel Worcester Rowse (whose drawings would ultimately make him famous all over the world) during the summer of 1854 while he was boarding at the Thoreau home. Another boarder in their home was Eben J. Loomis, who wrote about how the Rowse portrait came about:

I was very much interested in watching him [Rowse] while he was watching the expression of Henry’s face. For two or three weeks he did not put a pencil to paper; but one morning at breakfast, he suddenly jumped up from the table, asked to be excused and disappeared for the rest of the day. The next morning he brought down the crayon, almost exactly in its present form, scarcely another touch was put upon it.
It is for me, on the whole, the most satisfactory likeness, for it represents Henry just as he was in that summer, so memorable to me, memorable for my intimacy with Henry.

For fans of Thoreau this portrait has always been particularly special, for it is a rather youthful depiction of Henry just as we might well imagine that he probably looked while he lived at Walden Pond (from 1845 to 1847) — in fact, the summer that Rowse did this drawing is in actuality the same summer that Walden was first published.

The Dunshee ambrotype of 1861

Above is the only other portrait ever made of Thoreau, an ambrotype which was taken by E.S. Dunshee on August 19th, 1861, while Thoreau was visiting his friend Daniel Ricketson in New Bedford. We can see in this portrait that Thoreau didn’t look quite as robust as he did five years earlier when the Maxham daguerreotype was taken. Unfortunately, he had already been suffering for some time from tuberculosis, and Ricketson wrote that during this particular visit “he has a bad cough and expectorates a good deal, is emaciated considerably, his spirits, however, appear as good as usual, his appetite good.” Thoreau had written to Ricketson himself several days earlier (on August 15th) that “My ordinary pursuits, both indoor and out, have been for the most part omitted, or seriously interrupted — walking, boating, scribbling, &c.   Indeed I have been sick so long that I have almost forgotten what it is to be well.” Thoreau would never really fully recover, and about nine months after this ambrotype was taken, at 9:00am on May 6th, 1862, he passed away.

Colouring the Maxham Daguerreotype

Apart from just generally cleaning up the original daguerreotype image — i.e. removing various scratches, etc. — I also wanted to make this piece as “true-to-life” as I could, choosing colours that would depict Thoreau as he really did look. With his still being fairly healthy at this time (and looking so in Maxham’s portrait), and with him spending a great deal of time outdoors, it’s fairly safe to say that he must have had a reasonably good suntan — in fact, if one looks closely at my artwork, I’ve even given him the slightest bit of a pinkish sunburn on his forehead, cheeks and nose. [Note: obviously how the colours in this piece look are entirely dependent on the quality of one’s monitor and/or whether or not one has one’s monitor set up correctly and/or effectively!]

As for choosing the colour for his hair, beard and eyes, these naturally required a bit of research, but luckily we do have some very good descriptions of how he looked (and, indeed, not only of his appearance but his general demeanor as well).

Franklin B. Sanborn, Thoreau’s friend and later his biographer, first met him in 1855 (the year before Maxham’s daguerreotype was taken) and noted at that time in his diary that Thoreau was...

[...] a little under size, with a huge Emersonian nose, bluish-gray eyes, brown hair, and a ruddy weather-beaten face, which reminds one of some shrewd and honest animal’s — some retired philosophical woodchuck or magnanimous fox. He dresses very plainly, wears his collar turned over like Mr. Emerson and often an old dress-coat, broad in the skirts, and by no means a fit. He walks about in a brisk, rustic air, and never seems tired.

From this we know that Thoreau’s eye colour was “bluish-gray” and that his hair was brown. The former is corroborated by Thoreau’s friend Ellery Channing:

His face, once seen, could not be forgotten. The features were quite marked: the nose aquiline or very Roman, like one of the portraits of Caesar (more like a beak, as was said); large overhanging brows above the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray, — eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted; the forehead not unusually broad or high, full of concentrated energy and purpose; the mouth with prominent lips, pursed up with meaning and thought when silent, and giving out when open with the most varied and unusual instructive sayings.

And so “bluish-gray” eyes most certainly would seem to be correct, but exactly what shade of brown hair did he have? Edward Emerson — the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson — provides us with a slightly more accurate description:

His type was Northern, — strong features, light brown hair, an open-air complexion with suggestion of a seafaring race; the mouth pleasant and flexible when he spoke, aquiline nose, deep-set but very wide-open eyes of clear blue grey, sincere, but capable of a twinkle, and again of austerity, but not of softness.

Thus, Thoreau’s hair was not just simply “brown” but more specifically “light brown,” and Emerson’s mention of Thoreau’s “open-air complexion” also confirms the assumption that he must have had a healthy tan. As for the colouring of the coat, shirt and bowtie, well, anyone’s guess is as good as mine (although from Sanborn’s description of him something relatively “plain” seemed appropriate) and so I simply chose colours which weren’t too garish or flashy, but which at the same time complemented the other colours used in this piece.

Background & Dating

In addition to wanting to “colourize” a portrait of Thoreau, I also thought it would be nice to put him in some setting that was a little more meaningful to his fans — naturally, Walden Pond, the Maine Woods, or Cape Cod come to mind as obvious choices. Unfortunately, however, none of these places figured in his somewhat limited travels during the year 1856, when Maxham’s portrait was taken. Only Cape Cod figures prominently during this period in Thoreau’s life, with his having made trips there both in 1855 (with Ellery Channing) and his final trip there, alone, in 1857.

Thus, Cape Cod seemed like a fitting locale to put him in, with the only question being whether to choose 1855 or 1857 as the date. This is not that difficult to choose from, however, because various sources mention that Thoreau had only started growing his beard (in this style, which was known as “Galway whiskers”) some months before the photo was taken, and without knowing exactly when that was, it’s safest to simply pick the latter date (at which time he certainly must still have had the beard). This choice also makes this piece a little more quaint and meaningful in that it puts Thoreau all alone on that beach, enjoying his solitude on what would ultimately be his last trip there.

As for choosing a picture of Cape Cod to work with, it seemed only natural to use one of the photos done by Herbert W. Gleason, who had originally been hired by Houghton Mifflin to take photographs for their 20-volume edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (1906). One of the more memorable parts of Thoreau’s Cape Cod is his account of “The Wellfleet Oysterman” — and thus not only was Gleason’s photo of that area chosen for the background of this piece, but hence also arose its title (referring, of course, to Thoreau himself as the “penman,” being the prolific writer that he was). Obviously some artistic liberties have been taken with that Gleason photograph; however, the colours chosen for the sand, etc. were based on numerous photos of that area which can be found all over the internet.

“Beach Bluffs, Wellfleet Shore”
by Herbert W. Gleason, circa 1906

A Final Touch

When one looks at the original Maxham dagguerreotype, there is one particular blemish which stands out amongst all the numerous scars on that old portrait, namely, the big “splotch” that’s over the lapel of his coat. This wouldn’t have been too difficult to clean up, actually, but it already looked almost as though Thoreau was wearing a corsage in his lapel. In that regard, I simply couldn’t resist giving him exactly that as a small adornment, and it seemed only fitting that it should be what was Thoreau’s favourite flower, the Ambrosia.

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