This research article throws new light on the initial photographs of Swami Vivekananda taken in America, including the famous ‘Chicago pose’ photograph, and also his sketches in the media.

Genesis of the Chicago pose

Swami Vivekananda’s portrait known as the ‘Chicago pose’ is such an iconic image that it continues to signify not only his career, but also the public image of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. It is worth pondering how this photograph came to be. I say ponder, because in the absence of direct documentation, the job is to lay out evidence in sequential order and apply reason. Logically, this sequence begins with the understanding that the ‘Chicago pose’ was created after the Parliament of Religions.

There are five clearly identifiable photographs taken of Swamiji during the Parliament of Religions in September 1893.1 Some of these were later reproduced in books; they were not seen in the newspapers during the congress. Swamiji was a dark horse coming into the Parliament. The story of how he acquired the necessary credentials to become a last minute delegate is well-known, and the reports of his participation written by journalists are well-known, but his picture was scarcely seen during that event—at least not in the way it was later imagined in India.

For example, there is no reason to believe that Swamiji’s portrait was ever posted on the fairgrounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition—nor was it displayed publicly during the Parliament of Religions. Consider the social reality. Americans would have had difficulty distinguishing a foreign visitor like Swamiji—who was ‘in costume’—from the Asian performers on the Midway Plaisance. As far as the average visitor to the World’s Columbian Exposition was concerned, the Maharajah of Kapurthala, who was feted at the Fair on 15 August, was merely a wealthier version of the Hindoo juggler on the Midway.2 They were all simply exotic. Swamiji was definitely not a fairground attraction, so the notion that his picture was posted at the World’s Fair—which closed on 30 October—is untenable. The Parliament of Religions, on the other hand, was an assembly of considerable gravitas. If pictures of Swamiji had been placarded around the Art Institute as if it were a political convention, it would not have won him approbation.

Swamiji went to the Exposition on the morning of 20 September with Narasimhacharya, Lakshmi Narayan, H. Anagarika Dharmapala, and Virchand Gandhi to participate in the tolling of the Columbian Liberty Bell by representatives of the world’s religions.3 During this excursion they were stopped and photographed as a group.4 Their photograph was sold to a book publisher and it appeared in at least three books.5 In Buel’s The Magic City, Swamiji and his fellow delegates were presented on par with the Midway Plaisance ethnographic subjects shown on subsequent pages. In a Portfolio published by The Werner Company, Virchand Ghandi and a Colombo tea merchant were introduced with the caption: ‘Two East Indian Types . . . who are excellent types of the refined and prosperous East Indian.’6

The reasons why Swamiji’s image was underrepresented in the newspapers during the Parliament were mostly technical. To my knowledge, his named image appeared only three times in the newspaper during that historic event. Why? Because unlike other delegates, Swamiji had not supplied cabinet cards of himself in advance to the Parliament committee, which in turn would have lent them to the news media, which in turn would have sent them to engraving houses that supplied the newspaper trade. Instead, Swamiji was sketched ‘live’ by artists attached to local newspapers. These artists had a different agenda than the journalists. Their job was to convey the immediacy and excitement of the spectacle with loose, lively, line drawings. Some popular artists signed their work. On 13 September, Swamiji was illustrated in the Chicago Inter-Ocean with the caption ‘Swami Dvivakananda’.7 Swamiji was not drawn as a speaker that day; he was simply a conspicuous part of the pageant: ‘The handsome and learned Brahman monk, Suami Vivikendi, clothed in his rich orange robes and heavy turban, dropped into a back seat at the right of the chairman.’8 On 20 September the Inter-Ocean again sketched Swamiji ‘live’—but unnamed—sitting on the left, next to Christophore Jibara as part of ‘A Group on the Platform’.9 It was not the sketch artist’s job to understand Swamiji’s words. Some of them boldly portrayed Swamiji with racial and cultural bias—scarcely observing his actual features. A black-faced sketch of Swamiji appeared in the 12 September Chicago Record and a hooknosed, baggy-eyed sketch of him appeared in the 20 September Chicago Herald. 10 In contrast to lively illustrations in other newspapers , the Chicago Tribune printed engravings of the delegates that for the most part had clearly been drawn from photographs. The artists had different make-ready deadlines than the journalists, so they may not have covered the afternoon or evening sessions that Swamiji often chaired. Therefore the lack of images of Swamiji during the Parliament is not a reflection of the impact he had on that event, it reflects the way that newspapers worked at that time.

The notion that
Swamiji’s picture was
posted at the World’s
Fair—which closed
on 30 October—
is untenable.

In Swamiji’s day the prevailing typesetting technology was Linotype / letterpress. All inkable surfaces were printed in relief, so images had to be physically converted into wood or metal blocks that locked into the page forme with the type. By the early 1890s it was fairly common tosee black and white photographs reproduced via halftone line screens in books and magazines that used coated paper. For newspaper production however, due to the interaction of ink with porous wood-pulp paper, halftones appeared too muddy. Hand-cut wood engravings dominated newspaper imagery until after the turn of the century. Great advances had been made in photomechanical methods for engraving and electrotyping, but it was still a labor-intensive process. Fashion was shifting from the tightly detailed wood engravings seen in periodicals like Harper’s to loose, sketchy pen and ink drawings. This style was especially preferred for portraiture. The portraits of the Parliament delegates printed in the newspapers were for the most part hand traced from cabinet cards.11 Although the Parliament committee had no cabinet cards of Swamiji to distribute, they had one of Manilal Dvivedi—even though he did not come to Chicago. Some reporters were confused by the lack of publicity material on Swamiji —and the availability of Dvivedi’s—so Swamiji was referred to in several reports as Swami Dvivakananda or Dvivedi Kananda. In fact, there is a clear description of Swamiji in one newspaper misidentified as Dvivedi:

‘Manilal Dvivedi, Brahmin from Bombay, wears wide pantalets, dress and folded turban of yellow, and has a round benevolent face which is bright and youthful and breaks into frequent smiles. His countenance so much resembles the images of Buddha that it is hard to believe he is a Brahmin. He is a general favorite and crowds gather to hear him converse during the recesses. Sometimes he changes his costume to scarlet.’12

After the Parliament, Swamiji received numerous invitations to speak. He was also undoubtedly inundated with requests for his photograph. Someone took him to Thomas Harrison’s photographic studio in the Central Music Hall on the corner of Randolph and State streets. My best guess is that the person who took him to Harrison’s was Ellen Isabelle Hale (Mrs. G.W. Hale), because Swamiji was photographed wearing a starched white collar and cuffs. In later letters he reassured Hale that the collar and cuffs were receiving proper care.13 Swamiji is not wearing a stiff white collar in any of his five Parliament photos, indicating that he had not yet been coached in formal presentation as a ‘man of the cloth.’ Thereafter, collar and cuffs mark his public dress in America. Swamiji wrote several letters to Hale during 1894 regarding re-orders of the Harrison photographs, which further suggests that she was involved in the original sitting.14

Of these ven known Harrison photographs, two were seated, two were portrait vignettes, and three were standing.15 Swamiji crossed his arms in two of the standing poses. Of these two arms-crossed photos, one is full-length and one is waist-length. According to one authority, the familiar waist-length pose is cropped from the full-length exposure.16 This cannot be true because the two images do not match when superimposed. The most obvious difference is the position of his left hand. In the full-length arms-crossed pose, Swamiji’s left hand is tightly tucked into his right arm and his face is sombre. This must have been the photograph he referred to in his 5 August 1894 letter to Ellen Isabelle Hale as the ‘nasty standing’ photo.17 Swamiji wrote the phrase ‘nasty standing’ in quotes as if it were an appellation that the Hales were already familiar with. It might be plausible to speculate that when Swamiji and the Hales were choosing which of Harrison’s proofs to order as cabinet cards, the fulllength arms-crossed pose was the least favorite and someone—possibly Mary B. Hale—dubbed it the ‘nasty standing’ photo. This leads me to surmise that a misunderstanding arose in the summer of 1894 when more of the ‘arms-crossed’ cabinet cards were ordered, and a person at Harrison’s sent Swamiji the ‘nasty standing’ photo, not realizing that there were two arms-crossed photos. While this rationale is logical, it remains conjecture in absence of direct documentation.

What led to the arms-crossed stance in the first place? Scholars cite the conventions of nineteenth-century portraiture without shedding much light on this question.18 At Greenacre in 1894 Swamiji was casually photographed standing with his arms crossed.19 Perhaps it was part of his natural body language, since he crosses his arms in five other photographs.20 Perhaps Harrison observed him cross his arms in course of conversation with his friends at the photo studio.

Perhaps the only artifice of the ‘Chicago pose’ was that Harrison suggested he turn his head while his arms were crossed. Harrison had to be careful setting up each shot before he opened the shutter. In the 1890s dark slides were time-consuming to prepare and develop.21 Exposures were seldom wasted. It seems to me that the full-length pose was the first of the two arms-crossed exposures because Swamiji holds a stiffer, almost resistant position. What we call the ‘Chicago pose’ must have been the second arms-crossed exposure, because the photographer decided to refocus and close in, and as he did that Swamiji relaxed his posture. This time his arms drop slightly and he seems to regain his center of gravity. Swamiji had a distinctive bearing, which some described as ‘princely,’ but it was simply his natural balance.22 In the ‘Chicago pose’ his left hand rests lightly atop the right, ready for action, yet his head turns away from his torso. This opposing angle effectively separates intellect from body. His gaze seems directed toward a distant shore or distant future. Swamiji’s expression exhibits equipoise, and his posture is regal. Of the seven in the series, it is handily the most dynamic. Swamiji looks like a champion. The National Park Service ‘Stone of Hope’ memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington D.C. shows King with his arms crossed. It is a posture of power.

Swamiji had a
distinctive bearing,
which some described
as ‘princely,’ but it
was simply his
natural balance.

It seems that people preferred Swamiji’s waist-length, arms-crossed stance. It may have been the last exposure of the session. It is assumed, due to that image’s proliferation, that more cabinet cards must have been ordered of it. In time, it became known as the ‘Chicago pose.’

(To be continued. . .)



1) See pages 56, 61, 62, 63, 72 in Swami Chetanananda, Swami Vivekananda East Meets West 2nd Edition (St. Louis, Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 2013).

2) ‘There was, on the faces of the Hindoos, an expression of reserved pride, and the celebrated Maharajah of Kapurthala, who was so long at the Fair, bore almost exactly the facial appearance of our juggler.’ The Dream City: a portfolio of photographic views of the World’s Columbian Exposition (St. Louis, Mo.: N. D. Thompson Co., 1893-1894) Section VII.

3) ‘The New Liberty Bell’ The Buffalo Enquirer (Buffalo NY: 21 September 1893) p. 5.

4) Blanche L. Snow was probably the photographer.

5) Walter Houghton, editor, Neely’s History of the World’s Parliament of Religions, (Chicago: 1893) p. 535; John Wesley Hanson, editor, ‘Group of foreign representatives’ The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers, (Stockton, CA Occidental Publishing Company: 1894) p. 367; and James W. Buel, ‘Hindostanee Delegates to the Congress of Religions,’ The Magic City and Midway Plaisance (St. Louis, Historical Publishing Co.: 1894).

6) Portfolio of Photographs of the World’s Fair No. 10, (Chicago, The Werner Company: 1894).

7) ‘Firm in their Faith,’ Chicago Inter Ocean (13 September 1893) p. 2.

8) Ibid. p. 1.

9) Christophore Jibara was Archimandrite of the Orthodox Church of Damascus. John Henry Barrows, The World’s Parliament of Religions (Chicago: Parliament Publishing Company, 1893) p. 137..

10) Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda in Chicago, New Findings, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2000) pp. 97, 99.

11) There was a method of affixing photos to the wood blocks before engraving. Inter Ocean 17 September 1893 p. 35.

12) Sterling Standard (Sterling, IL 21 September 1893) p.1.

13) 19 September 1894 Swamiji wrote to Mrs. George W. Hale (Ellen I. Hale): ‘I am taking good care of my cuffs and collars, etc.’

14) Swamiji discussed orders of Harrison’s photographs in seven letters to Mrs. G.W. Hale CW V9 (10 March 1894; July, 1894; 5 August 1894; 20 August 1894; 23 August 1894; 5 September 1894; October 27, 1894). If Hale had not been involved in the first sitting, I doubt that he would have thrust that responsibility upon her.

15) Chetanananda, East Meets West 2nd Ed. pp. 58, 59, 60, 68, 69, 71.

16) Pravrajika Virajaprana, ‘The Photographs of Swami Vivekananda Section Two,’ Vedanta Kesari, June 1995, p. 226-227.

17) To Mrs. G. W. Hale, Greenacre Inn, Eliot, Maine, 5 August 1894, [P.S.] The Harrison people sent me two ‘nasty standing’ photos—that is all I have out of them, when they ought to give me 40 minus the 10 or 15 I have got already!!! S. CW V9 XXVI

18) Gwilym Beckerlegge, ‘Swami Vivekananda’s iconic presence and conventions of nineteenth century portraiture,’ International Journal of Hindu Studies, V 12 No. 1, (Springer, April 2008) pp. 1-40.

19) Chetanananda, East Meets West 2nd Ed. p. 74.

20) See other arms-crossed photos: Chetanananda, East Meets West 2nd Ed. pp. 70, 105, 125, 148.

21) Dry plate glass negatives were commercially manufactured by 1881. They were convenient, but they required longer exposure times. Since Harrison was master of processing in his own studio, he may have preferred the older wet collodion method of creating glass negatives.

22) Reminiscence of Josephine McLeod, Vedanta and the West, (November-December 1962): ‘His dignity impressed everyone. Yet, when someone once said to him, “You are so dignified, Swami,” he replied, ‘It isn’t me, it’s my walk.


Source : Vedanta Kesari, September, 2019