In the early decades of the 20th century, traveling salesmen in the United States sold everything from billiard tables to dental veneers, and they demonstrated their wares with miniatures and portable samples. Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is showing a grid of 16 tombstone paintings created in 1929 by one E.B. Roberts in English, Indiana, for this itinerant trade.
The “Series of Salesman Samples for Memorials” are part of Expiration Date, a group show centered on mortality. They’re joined by other examples of vernacular art, including a wooden skeleton Penitente figure from New Mexico, and a curious assembly of ink hand prints (1925–35) by German palm reader Marianne Raschig. There’s also contemporary art related to death, like unsettling photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin where bits of corpses are incorporated into beautiful still lifes, and a phantasmagoric 1870 painting by David Scott Evans of a shrouded woman floating in the night, roses flying around her, the seemingly deceased figure caught between the light of heaven, and a skeletal king in hell below.
With their flat style, saturated colors, and one-syllable Anglo-Saxon-sounding names, the tombstone paintings stand out as the best reflection of the visual culture of death in the United States, where for most of the 20th century a funeral with a formal wooden coffin buried below a stern, granite stone was the norm. American cemeteries of the 1900s are on the whole as regimented as the country’s suburbs, complete with the manicured grass. Each stone is a near copy of the other, the only difference being the names. The salesman samples reflect this aesthetic, with monikers like “Grant,” “Lane,” and “Cole” depicted on granite memorials. Dan Piepenbring in an article on the tombstones for the Paris Review wrote that “a name with the faintest whiff of the particular — a Smolenski, say, or a Piepenbring — could dissuade an otherwise willing client, who had to imagine either himself or his loved one resting beneath this stone for all eternity.”
Around this time, the Sears, Roebuck and Company was selling similarly generic granite monuments through their catalogues — you can flip through a 1902 example at the Internet Archive. And traveling salesman would sell all aspects of death, including coffins and mausoleums. A 1922 notice in the American Stone Trade journal advertises a sample case for “twelve beautiful mausoleum designs,” complete with scale drawings.
Each painting is united by a muted sky, a landscape of mottled green suggesting grass and trees. Although created for commercial purposes, there’s something heavy in the repeated tombs against these somber settings, a reflection of the standardization of American death.
Expiration Date continues through April 16 at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan).
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.