In 1838, sculptor Hiram Powers lost his son. James Gibson Powers died “so calmly that we hardly knew when his little spirit breathed itself away,” Hiram wrote of the young boy’s passing from “water on the brain.” Before the family interred his embalmed body in a cemetery in Florence, Italy, far from their former home in Cincinnati, Ohio, Powers touched his son’s face a final time to create a cast of his features.
This small plaster sculpture is on view in Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. Like all of the artworks in this exhibition on self-taught postmortem portraiture, the death cast of James Gibson Powers is an act of remembrance. While we are rarely at a loss to find photographs of our lost friends and family now, the scarcity or absence of those images in the 18th and 19th century meant the fear of forgetting someone’s face was real. The spine of a book in one painting of a departed daughter reads simply: “Remember me.”
Securing the Shadow includes some work from the 18th century, such as a moving painting by Charles Willson Peale of his wife Rachel weeping before the corpse of their infant daughter, her pallor cold as marble. However, the exhibition concentrates on the 19th century, when mourning in the United States became a much more personal act.
Stacy C. Hollander, curator of Securing the Shadow, writes in the accompanying catalogue that Puritan ideas of the body as “merely a vessel that was emptied of meaning once life had fled” dominated in the 18th century. In the 19th century, death became more of a family experience than a community one. Especially in urban areas, a more insular domestic life emerged. The American Civil War also had a staggering impact with its huge death toll, as well as the innovation of embalming to preserve the faces of the dead for longer, and rural cemeteries with their ornate, personalized statuary. With the dawn of photography came postmortem photography, where the dead were often posed as if alive, though the swelling of their hands with blood and blankness of their eyes gave away their departed state.
One gallery of Securing the Shadow has an array of daguerreotypes from the Stanley B. Burns MD Family Collection and Archive showing this side of postmortem portraiture. They’re a rather shocking contrast to the more peaceful paintings on view — in a photograph you could get closer to the resemblance of a person, but with that came their ghastly decay. The paintings were sometimes done quickly in the presence of the corpse, the artist having to pull back eyelids to glimpse the color of irises and imagine a face in animation, yet the exact resemblance wasn’t essential.
Hollander writes that the dead “were held in individual memories, but posthumous portraits allowed those memories to be shared. The success of the portrait relied on a certain willingness to suspend belief and on knowledge of a formal symbolic lexicon.”
These symbols which signify death are essential to reading the paintings in Securing the Shadow. Sometimes a tombstone lurks as a foreboding omen of a tragedy already passed, other portraits are more subtle, like a sunset illuminating a lake behind a boy, or a girl sitting alongside an unfinished piece of sewing, the cut thread harkening back to the ancient Greek symbol of a life cut short. In the 1835 “The Children of Nathan Starr” by Ambrose Andrews, all of the children are playing a lively game of shuttlecock except one boy who stands apart near his older sister, pointing a stick to the sky. He died before this painting was made.
One area Securing the Shadow falls short is in delving into how posthumous portraiture endures despite our access to photography, such as through charitable organizations that donate portraits of stillborns to parents. The only contemporary artwork on view is Joyce Burstein’s “The Epitaph Project,” an ongoing sculpture where a slate tombstone is installed in cemeteries and other public places, and people can use chalk to compose an ephemeral epitaph. We still have a need to remember a person’s physical presence, whether through a Facebook page, becoming a posthumous portrait of sorts after a person dies, or memorial tattoos.
The impulse to mark death is ancient. Yet the combination of accessibility to photography and self-taught traveling artists in the 19th century, along with its high rates of infant and child mortality, combined for a distinct era of portraiture that remains moving in its need to not forget.
Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America continues through February 26, 2017 at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan).