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the butterfly photograph

(WHITMAN, WALT.) Phillips & Taylor. Portrait of Walt Whitman holding a butterfly

Philadelphia, [early 1880s?]

Albumen print (5 1/4 x 3 1/4 in – 13 x 8.5 cm.). Framed with a large, bold signature of Whitman removed from an album or some other document.

A beloved Whitman photograph, framed with a large, bold signature of the poet.

This famous portrait was one of Whitman’s favorite photographs. He joked,
“Yes–that was an actual moth,” “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.”

“What is not often noted is that the photo simply enacts one of the recurrent visual emblems in the 1860 and 1881 editions of Leaves: a hand with a butterfly/perched on a finger. 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’” (Folsom). The original prop paper butterfly was found among Whitman’s notebooks at the Library of Congress.

Whitman selected this photograph as the frontispiece of the 1889 birthday edition of Leaves of Grass.

Folsom, “Notes on Photographs,” 1880s, no. 18.