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Dorothea Lynde Dix, 1845

Dorothea Lynde Dix, 1845 by Seth Wells Cheney

Seth Wells Cheney. South Manchester, Connecticut 1810-1856 South Manchester, Connecticut. Dorothea Lynde Dix, 1845. Crayon drawing with white highlights, 27 ½ x 23 ½ in (frame).Gift of the Estate of Caroline Doane, 1850.


When Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) sat for this portrait in 1845, she was forty-three years old and enjoying her first political success as a humanitarian activist. Spiritually and intellectually driven, she had spent her young adult years teaching and writing moral tomes for children until she suffered a nervous and physical breakdown in 1836. This very personal experience may have increased her sensitivity to the plight of the mentally ill, and, after a chance encounter with “lunatics” in the East Cambridge House of Corrections, she devoted her life to ameliorating the conditions under which they were incarcerated. In the mid-nineteenth century the mentally ill were often consigned to prisons and almshouses, and Dix undertook an extensive eighteen-month survey of the conditions of such Massachusetts institutions.

In 1843 Dix presented her findings to the Massachusetts Legislature, determined to call attention to “the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!”[1] Her published report created a storm of controversy, and the government eventually approved additional funding for one of the state’s most prominent institutions, the Worcester Insane Asylum. Encouraged by this success, Dix spent the next two years surveying the prisons and almshouses of Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In September 1845, she returned briefly to Boston to finish work on a publication that would bring her even greater fame and recognition, Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States.[2]

While in Boston that fall, Dix may have visited the studio of artist Seth Cheney. She disliked posing for her portrait, claiming in her later years that she had no wish to be “flattered or caricatured.”[3] Indeed, many of her later portraits are based on a daguerreotype (Houghton Library, Harvard University) taken of her in the 1840s. Cheney’s portrait of Dix does bear some resemblance to this early likeness, and it is possible that he may have referred to it while drawing Dix’s portrait.

In Cheney’s rendering, Dix appears younger than her forty-three years and, with her large, luminous eyes and peaceful, almost saintly expression, she radiates innocence. A later daguerreotype of her, also in the Boston Athenæum’s collection, reveals some of these same characteristics. Here the camera has recorded Dix, aged by the struggles of her life’s work, but with the same gentle expression as in Cheney’s depiction.

In fact, however, Dix was a more complicated figure than either of these two portraits suggests. Hard-working and tenacious, she was described by a former student as “strict and inflexible in her discipline.”[4] Her later work as superintendent of nurses during the Civil War was mired in controversy and demonstrated that she could be high-handed and authoritarian. Louisa May Alcott neatly summed up the complexity of her character when she described Dix as “a kind old soul, but queer and arbitrary.”[5]

Seth Cheney was himself known for “moral purity” and for a “certain continent sweetness in his disposition.”[6] His drawings were justly celebrated during his lifetime, with contemporaries likening them to those of Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley.[7] His ability to render a sitter’s character, with minimal lines and no color, was the source of much admiration. In his outlook, he was liberal and progressive, embracing many of the reform issues circulating during the heady days of the 1840s, and so it was natural that he should have been moved to draw Dorothea Dix’s portrait. In 1845, Cheney, like Dix, was enjoying his first taste of fame and success. That year he received 47 commissions, for which he charged between $75 to $100 per head.[8]

But this success came only after years of pecuniary struggles. In a letter to his brother, the engraver John Cheney, he recalled his early years in Boston during which he was “obliged to live on from hand to mouth, board-bills in arrears, and clothes ragged, and beginning to grow sick at heart, and thinking it [art] a losing business.”[9] His first year in Boston was eased somewhat by employment at the Boston Athenæum. In 1829 he was hired as “curator” of the Athenæum’s engravings and other fine arts that were housed in what was called Room 12 of the Athenæum’s Pearl Street building.[10] Seth’s employment at the Athenæum was facilitated in part by a letter of recommendation co-signed by George B. Doane praising the young artist’s “talent, intelligence, and integrity.”[11] A physician and graduate of Harvard, Doane was the son of the wealthy Boston merchant, Isaiah Doane; George and his sister Caroline were good friends of the Cheney brothers.[12] Seth Cheney was boarding at Caroline Doane’s Beacon Hill house in 1845 when he was commissioned to draw Dorothea Dix’s portrait, and it is possibly through this connection that the Cheney portrait came into the possession of Caroline Doane. When she died in 1850, she bequeathed the Dix portrait to the Athenæum, where it was exhibited regularly from 1853 to 1870.[13]


Catharina Slautterback from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 306-308. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]Dorothea Lynde Dix, Memorial. To the Legislature of Massachusetts (Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1843), 4.
[2] For a contemporary account of Dix’s life, see Francis Tiffany, Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890). For a recent biography, see David Gollaher, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York: Free Press, 1995).
[3] Helen E. Marshall, Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1937), 243.
[4]Tiffany, Dix, 34.
[5]Quoted in Helen E. Marshall, “Dix, Dorothea Lynde” in Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972), 1 : 488-89.
[6] Obituary, Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 11 (November 22, 1856): 332; Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney, Memoir of Seth W. Cheney, Artist (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1881), 66.
[7]Ballou’s, 332.
[8]Cheney, Memoir of Seth W. Cheney, 87.
[9] Ibid, 64.
[10]BA Trustees Records, November 10, 1829.
[11] BA Letter Book, November 10, 1829.
[12] For the Doanes see Cheney, Memoir of Seth W. Cheney, passim, and Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney, Memoir of John Cheney, Engraver (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1889).
[13] Perkins and Gavin, 34.