The image I’ve been looking at is actually a mourning picture in watercolor and ink on silk, done by Miss Sally Miller in 1811 while she was attending the Litchfield Female Academy.
Mourning pictures were a deeply conventionalized art form, usually consisting of one or more mourners drooping over a memorial stone or urn, often with a willow tree nearby. (Here’s one. And another. And two more.) The willow tree is there as an image of resurrection, because willow trees have been known to re-root themselves after being uprooted—though their suitably droopy and easily-drawn shape may have had something to do with it as well. The pictures were painted, or embroidered in silk, or sometimes made from human hair. They belong to the same streak of American culture immortalized by Mark Twain in the Emmeline Grangerford section of Huckleberry Finn.
Mourning pictures were a sincere expression of grief by the friends and relatives of the deceased, but one feels the impulse to say that they were also the product of an increasingly prosperous and self-consciously genteel society that was turning female mourning into a consumer lifestyle.
An oxbow-shaped digression: Nineteenth-century American women didn’t just cultivate weepiness for its own sake. What had first been praised during the Romantic revolution as “sensibility”—a sort of impressionable authenticity and naturalism, as opposed to the perceived aridity, formalism, and callousness of the preceding era—had mutated into “delicate sensibilities” (soulful natural virtue minus the revolutionary leanings), and then just “delicacy”, a state in which women still had that labile, sympathetic impressionability, but were incapable of being led by it into undesirable behavior. This was an advantageous characteristic. A display of delicate principles and sensibilities was evidence of a female’s worthiness for elevated social position and refined company. Behaviors that now strike us as bizarre make more sense if you understand it as a demonstration that one possesses Proper Feeling. Mourning behavior (which is not the same thing as grieving) was of course heavily influenced by all this; which brings us back to that picture.
What the Metropolitan Museum of Art says about it is:
The Litchfield Female Academy (1792–1833), where this picture was made, was one of the few schools that provided both academic and ornamental educations for young American women. Parents sent their girls to Litchfield expecting them to return home knowing English grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, and religion. But any ladies’ academy, no matter how progressive, was still expected to provide instruction in needlework, music, and painting. This painted silk mourning picture is one of eight known from the Litchfield Female Academy. All are almost identical in size, composition, images, and coloring. The painted faces in all eight appear to be by one artist, possibly Flora Catlin, an art teacher at the school from 1815 to 1831.(Drawing and painting, music, and fine needlework are “feminine accomplishments”: skills which are neither quick nor easy to learn, and are extremely hard to pick up on your own. Like her brother’s knowledge of Latin, a young lady’s accomplishments were an index of a genteel education.)
What I find most striking about this picture is that either the Litchfield Female Academy was seriously scanting their students’ basic drawing lessons, or this picture (which, as noted, exists in multiple nearly-identical versions) was the art project for students who had no talent for art, because the thing looks like it’s been put together out of clip art. Three small evergreen trees are repeated five, seven, and nine times. There are two identical specimens each of three different funerary monuments, and the side-by-side female mourners at the far left are likewise identical. The man and women at the far right of the foreground group have been flipped and duplicated in the group at the upper left—the man twice, the woman once but with a different headdress.
The background elements are clearly swipes from other pictures. The city visible to either side of the willow tree, on the other side of the hill-climbing river, was drawn by somebody who understood perspective, but it’s been tilted to make its shoreline match the line of the river. If you zoom in on those bits, you can see from the ship masts and trees and building walls which way was originally up. And the house on the far right is as impossible as anything in Escher, mostly because the area between the two trees, which should be its near corner, is a flipped-over window segment from its facade. That is: whoever put this together hadn’t even been taught to draw a cube.
I wish the image were sharp enough for me to read the inscriptions on the monuments. There’s a lot of room. You could probably work in most of your family’s dead from the last generation or two: a very worthy project for a young lady to be working on. You could take it home to your parents at tne end of term to show them that you were getting a real education.
Wicked Andrew Willett suggests as a side dish a reading of the poetry of Julia Moore (1847-1920), the “Sweet Singer of Michigan.” He poetry was the model for Twain’s complete known works of Emmeline Grangerford; and, as Andrew says, “She had an ear of tin and feet of lead.” I’ve always been fond of I Wonder Where My Papa Is?, but Little Andrew, Ashtabula Disaster, and Little Minnie have much to recommend them.
Mike Ford is also a fan of Julia Moore, and says:
Like McGonagall, she was stone-blind to the actual nature of the “praise” she got from people like Twain and Bill Nye. Her greatest achievement may have been Lord Byron’s Life, which ought to have been read out above the poet’s grave; if it hadn’t brought him up, snorting, nothing would.
The best comment on her is probably from Bill Nye: “Julia is worse than a Gatling gun; I have counted twenty-one killed and nine wounded, in the small volume she has given to the public.”
I once found a pile of sheet music from just before the Civil Wah, and was surprised at the depressing nature of the subject matter. Long story short, I left the book sale without the majority of the music, which was in two pieces, so I don’t have the actual titles. I will reconstruct them from my infallible memory.Rivka contributes a link to Scarlet-Letter.com, which manufactures kits that exactly reproduce historical samplers (some of which were worked by students at the Litchfield Academy), thus enabling you to work your own mourning picture. Rivka’s passing up the opportunity to work this one instead; whereas I, being into the skiffy stuff, have my own reasons to appreciate this one.The Poor OrphanI’d go on, but I’m crying on my lunch already.
The Pathetic Widow
The Miserable Amputee
The Touching Plight of the Baby Bird
O, Can Such Things Happen?
The Hideously Affecting Ballad of the Wronged Son
All Dead On The Battleground
The Dead Child
The Dead Family
Mummy’s in Heaven and We’re All Sick
Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow Wow
Finally, clever Nicholas has provided the inscriptions from the monuments. It failed to occur to me that the Signature, Marks, and Inscriptions link, which on other items had meant the old labels stuck on the backs of paintings, or the potter’s marks on the bottom of a vase, would in this case be the text on the monuments. It reads:
Inscriptions: [in ink on upper monument] Memory of a Brother / Stephen Miller / timber, April 3d. 1793 AE 25y / To thee this morning sun / shown bright, / But ere evening sat in / endless night; [left obelisk] In Memory of a Mother / Mrs Thankful Miller / Oct. 12th April 1777 aged 38 years / There expectation failed. and / hope fond hope’s in disappoint / ment lost; [left tombstone] To the memory / of Gordon Miller / who departed This / Life in 5th year / of his age / Sept. 1776; [right tombstone] To the memory of Hannah Miller / who departed This / life July 1776 / in the 3rd year / of her age; [central obelisk] To the Memory of a Sister / Mrs. Mary Starr / Oct. 20th May. 1811 aged 25 years / The tribute of a Sister / who lov’d thee living, & who mourns / Thee dead; [two tombstones to right] To the Memory / of an Infant / Francis Miller / Born Nov. 1780 / Died Feb. 1781; To the Memory / of a Babe who / died in infancy / July 8th 1782 / Aged 3 weeksAnd yes, thank you, I believe I’m starting to feel better.