Art

Revisiting America’s Dead in Posthumous Portraits from the 19th Century

The 19th century saw the rise of the posthumous portrait when, through photographs and paintings, people preserved the faces of departed loved ones.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America
Ambrose Andrews, “The Children of Nathan Starr” (Middletown, Connecticut, 1835), oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 1/2″ (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Nina Howell Starr, in memory of Nathan Comfort Starr)

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.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America
Hiram Powers, “James Gibson Powers” (Florence, Italy, 1838), plaster, 11 1/4 x 6 1/4 x 5 5/8″ (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson)

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.

Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America’ at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America
Artist unidentified, “Mr. and Mrs. McCraine” (Possibly Pennsylvania, 1825), hollow-cut paper 7 1/4 x 10 1/4″ (courtesy collection of Peggy McClard)
Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America
Attributed to Samuel S. Miller, “Picking Flowers” (probably New England, 1840–50), oil on canvas 44 1/2 x 27 1/2″; 57 x 54 x 2 1/4″ (framed) (courtesy Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, photo by Richard Walker)

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.

Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ernst Wunderlich Sr., “Little Annie” (1870s), marble, from the E. Wunderlich Granite Company in Joliet, Illinois (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

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
Oscar Blake, portrait grave marker (Saco Marble Works, Saco, Maine, 1860–80), marble, 10 x 8 x 4″ (courtesy Saco Museum, Maine, Gift of Ernest Roberge, photo by Ellen McDermott)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of two paintings showing the “one shoe off” symbol of death (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of a painting attributed to Samuel S. Miller, “Picking Flowers” (1840-50), oil on canvas; J. B. Gregory, “Theodoric Myers” (1840), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Joyce Burstein’s “The Epitaph Project,” an erasable slate tombstone (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Almira Nichols’ “Memorial Picture for Parish C. Allen” (1896), oil on mattress ticking (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of the 19th-century posthumous paintings of Mary and Francis Wilcox, with the toys they’re pictured with (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America’ at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America’ at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America’ at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America' at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Posthumous portrait daguerreotypes from the Burns Archive (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America
Deacon Robert Peckham, “The Farwell Children” (Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1841), oil on canvas, 53 1/2 x 40 1/2″ (courtesy American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Ralph Esmerian, photo John Bigelow Taylor)

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). 

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