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Sunset with Cows

They called me to the Window, for
“‘Twas Sunset” – Some one said –
I only saw a Sapphire Farm –
And just a Single Herd –

Of Opal Cattle – feeding far
Upon so vain a Hill –
As even while I looked – dissolved –
Nor Cattle were – nor Soil –

Selection from F589

Emily Dickinson’s poem is reminiscent of this 1856 piece Sunset with Cows, by John Kensett. Barton Levi St. Armand suggests Dickinson may have found inspiration in the painting after its acquisition by her brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan Dickinson. Their daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi recalls that Dickinson often visited The Evergreens to see new artwork: “Sue and Emily were the first to peep at each [painting], propped up against a chair to catch the best light. A picture in itself, those three standing there, Austin and Sue flushed and excited, Emily reveling in a new emotion of color as she gazed.”

Sunset with Cows—with its boldly colored sky and mirroring waters—exemplifies Kensett’s luminist style. Kensett was part of the Hudson River School, which romanticized the American landscape by depicting a sublime wilderness while excluding the presence of Indigenous peoples. As the new American art scene gained popularity, the literary scene simultaneously flourished. Susan Dickinson may have chosen the piece (as suggested by her initials on the back of the painting) to complement her salons, which featured literary guests such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), 126.

Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 282.