Posthumous Portraits in America

Holidays such as Halloween, All Souls Day, and the Day of the Dead remind us of life’s temporality, while giving us occasion to reflect on loved ones who have died.  It is this impulse to remember those we’ve lost that propelled the painting of posthumous portraits in the 19th century –  the age of epidemics like cholera and dysentery – an era when about one in every four children died in infancy.  Securing the Shadow:  Posthumous Portraiture in America,   the new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum, explores how families of that time created remembrances of deceased loved ones, especially young children, through painting and later photography. I confess I really didn’t want to go see it, but I think the exhibit lets you understand how this genre could reinforce a sense of grief, yet provide comfort.

If you were to view the show without knowing anything about the subjects, you might conclude that you were looking at portraits of  living children, painted in a recognizable self-taught, folk-art idiom: often life size, with large heads, expressive eyes, oddly-proportioned bodies, many wearing a dress over long pants, almost always facing the viewer.  To determine if the subject is a boy or a girl, the presence of play props – such as whips, balls and hammers that are associated with boys – help us figure that out.  But it is the use  of various symbols – many Christological – that clue us into the fact that we are looking at a posthumous portrait.

Child Holding Doll and Shoe, Attributed to George G. Hartwell (1815–1901) Probably Massachusetts or Maine c. 1845 Oil on canvas 25 1/2 x 21 3/8"; 32 5/8 x 28 1/2 x 3 1/4" framed Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Robert Bishop, 1992.10.1 Photo by John Parnell, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum

Child Holding Doll and Shoe, Attributed to George G. Hartwell (1815–1901) Probably Massachusetts or Maine
c. 1845 Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 21 3/8″; 32 5/8 x 28 1/2 x 3 1/4″ framed
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Gift of Robert Bishop, 1992.10.1 Photo by John Parnell, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum

In George G. Hartwell’s Child Holding a Doll and Shoe, we find many signposts:  a child in a rose colored dress, sitting in a field strewn with roses (symbol of the Virgin Mary) while in the background, on the left is a ship, and on the right side is a dead tree; in the sky we see the setting sun, all symbols of death. The motif of a child wearing only one shoe has as its antecedent a Byzantine icon, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in which a sandal dangles from the left foot of the infant Christ, while the other is still affixed to his right foot.  In Baby in Blue by William Matthew Prior, we find another symbol:  an unspooled bobbin of thread, referencing the ancient Greek fates who cut life.

Heavenly Children, William Matthew Prior (1806–1873) Probably Massachusetts 1848 Oil on board 20 x 22 1/4"; 26 x 31 1/4 x 1 3/8" (framed) Private collection Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum

Heavenly Children, William Matthew Prior (1806–1873) Probably Massachusetts 1848 Oil on board 20 x 22 1/4″; 26 x 31 1/4 x 1 3/8″ (framed) Private collection Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum

You’ll also find portraits of children painted together, such as  Heavenly Children by William Matthew Prior (above) which, in contrast to the other portraits in the exhibit, depicts his subjects in a rather cherubic manner, one of three styles in which he worked.  

In the rear of the main space, you’ll find several beautiful paintings of children and families, which include both the living and the deceased – Deacon Robert Peckham has two very expressive ones, which are also notable for their size (about 4’ x 5’ and 5’ x 5’).  In the center of the room are scrims with photographs of gravestones that have portraits of the deceased, both children and adults, some life-like, some very stylized. There’s another set in the smaller gallery space. 

The Martinson Gallery contains a collection of postmortem Daguerreotypes, in pocket-sized gilded metal cases.  Photography eventually replaced painted portraits, as it was seen as a quick way to catch flashes of the subject’s soul, and was much less costly.  The wall label informs us that “‘Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades’ became the calling card of the photographer.”

Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride) P. R. Vallée (act. 1803–1815) Charleston, South Carolina 1804 Watercolor and graphite pencil on ivory 2 7/16 x 1 15/16" Collection Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1936.300 Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride)
P. R. Vallée (act. 1803–1815) Charleston, South Carolina 1804 Watercolor and graphite pencil on ivory 2 7/16 x 1 15/16″ Collection Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1936.300 Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

At the entry to the main space, on the wall there’s a glass box covered with a cloth; when you lift it you’ll find a locket with a piece of ivory on which P.R. Valee painted a watercolor and graphite portrait of Hariette Mackie (the Dead Bride) aged 17, who passed away days before her wedding, making this the “quintessential Gothic portrait.”

At the end of the exhibit, you’ll find the “Epitath Project,” which began in Los Angeles in 1995 – that lets you write an epitath in chalk on a slate gravestone.  You can see what others have done on Instagram, at #securingtheshadow

This exhibit is quite moving; you not only see the skill of the artists who rendered their subjects so life-like, but, in some way, you can also feel the love of the families who wanted a permanent reminder of their deceased child.   I recommend seeing Securing the Shadow before it closes on February 26th.

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