Back to previous post: Gasp, wheeze, cough

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Heywood

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

March 8, 2004

Paint and sensibility
Posted by Teresa at 09:44 AM *

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.

(Well, they did! As Thoreau said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”)

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 (17921833), 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.”

Kip Williams has his own take on 19th c. sensibilities:

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.
The Poor Orphan
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
I’d go on, but I’m crying on my lunch already.
Rivka contributes a link to, 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.

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 weeks
And yes, thank you, I believe I’m starting to feel better.

Comments on Paint and sensibility:
#1 ::: Julie Mensch ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 10:08 AM:

There seems to be no use of perspective, other than a series of cube shapes that repeat with no thought to the actual vanishing point(s). The house vanishes to a completely diff point than the required memorial stones. It's almost as if someone (an instructor perhaps) showed them how to create a "3-d" square in art without explaining how the corners should aim to the vp(s).

Perhaps I should start making one of these for my MIA submissions....hmmmmm.....(title...dates....)

#2 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 10:45 AM:

Will NOT let all the lovely links distract me from the stuff I'm supposed to do today. no no no no no.

Fascinating. And I am now going to have the musical theme from the opening credits of PBS' "Mystery!" running through my head all day, along with the Edward Gorey artwork that derived so much inspiration from mourning pictures.

It could be far worse. This is fun.

#3 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 10:49 AM:

Urm... painting is reported done in 1911, when the Academy closed in 1833?

Especially since the link has 1811, there is perhaps a small typeaux?

#4 ::: Karin ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 11:14 AM:

Thanks for the links here -- 19th century mourning artifacts are a long-standing fascination of mine. (I still remember my mother's horror when I -- at 16 -- told her that I really wanted a copy of this book.) (Never got it, and if copies are going for $300+, I might never yet.)

The bit about willow trees as symbols of resurrection is new by me. Neat!

#5 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 11:56 AM:

Perhaps exercise is the modern equivalent--a reasonable activity pursued beyond the point where it actually does much good, but which proves that you're the sort of person who takes care of your health and likes effort more than rest or comfort.

#6 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 12:24 PM:

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.

The Poor Orphan
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

I'd go on, but I'm crying on my lunch already.

#7 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 12:39 PM:

I remember Emmeline Grangerford's mourning memorabilia giving Huck the fantods. (I love the word "fantods".) And like Rikibeth, I too am reminded of Edward Gorey.

#8 ::: Nicholas ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 12:54 PM:

The Met has also transcribed the inscriptions. Seven names, and only one who had lived past 30.

#9 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 01:44 PM:

I think it is very promising, and a sterling reccomendation for my current antidepressant medication, that I screamed with laughter at Kip's song titles.

But nah, I always sniggered at Kip's quips.

#10 ::: mary anne ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 02:14 PM:

It occurs to me, too, that excessive restrictions on women's activities after a death in the family is also a sign of socioeconomic status. Clearly, you can only devote time to "mourning art" and the post-death seclusion if you don't have to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head. All of which puts it in a similar category to the restrictive corseting of the era, Chinese foot-binding, and any number of other restrictions that have been placed on women throughout history.

#11 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 02:30 PM:

May I suggest a side dish? These paintings simply demand to be viewed during a reading of the poetry of Julia Moore (1847-1920), the "Sweet Singer of Michigan." Twain modelled Emmeline Grangerford after her. Her poems dealt invariably with death and disaster--the untimely demise of children was a particular favorite. Doubtless, they drew upon the same sincerity that the mourning paintings did, but that didn't help Moore's poetry any more than it did these paintings. She had an ear of tin and feet of lead.

No, really. Taste: "Little Andrew;" "Ashtabula Disaster;" "Little Minnie;" "I Wonder Where My Papa Is?"

I am sad to report that the annual bad-poetry contest held in her memory is no more, dead at age eleven. Which is only fitting.

#12 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 02:46 PM:

An episode of, "Antiques Roadshow" is where I first encountered a mourning picture. IIRC it was also from the Litchfield Acadamy (such a name sticks in the mind).

That one was much better, being a bit of needle point, almost Goreyesque, and full of mood and vbrance. It also had a willow, but much more prominently, so much so that it drooped over the tomb, and the mourners, entering the foreground. The overall effect was somber, but not doleful.

Then again, the artist seemed to have a better sense of everything than this one does.


#13 ::: genibee ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 02:48 PM:

Wow, a topic that I know something about! I work for a small decorative arts museum in Washington, D.C. and we have a bunch of really nice examples of these mourning pieces, along with other silk embroideries (like "Liberty at the Trenton Arches", or "Sense of Scent", which is actually not silk, but is really pretty and very early). A lot of these silk embroideries aren't mourning pieces, but funny little allegorical representations of Liberty with a Phrygian cap saluting a giant eagle, or things like that. Many of them are based on popular prints or set motifs that could be slightly rearranged but which usually followed a pretty rigid structure.

What gets me is the samplers - gorgeous little pieces of stitchery created by eleven year olds who obviously had more manual dexterity then than I do at age 28.

#14 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 03:13 PM:

Andrew, I've encountered the SSOM before, but never actually saw any of her alleged poetry.

I was barely two stanzas into "Little Andrew" when I had to stop.

Oh, barf, as we've been saying in other threads.

Two things stick out: one, she seems to think 'nice' rhymes with 'raft', and two, it can be sung to the tune of the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th. Or Mack the Knife, at two tune-verses per stanza.

#15 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 03:30 PM:

"Little Andrew"

The horror, the horror... At least I wasn't sitting in a poetry appreciation chair.


#16 ::: Rivka ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 03:39 PM:

I first encountered the Litchfield Academy through The Scarlet Letter, which turns historic needlework examples - particularly samplers - into patterns and kits. Several of their offerings are copies of works done by students at the Litchfield Academy.

I can't even conceive of the work involved in figuring out, stitch by stitch, how a 300-year-old sampler was created - including the mistakes. I could browse their catalog for hours. As soon as I finish my current project, I'm starting this.

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 04:05 PM:

Interestingly enough, Litchfield means, literally, graveyard.

#18 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 04:18 PM:

Variant of 'lich'. Another is 'lych', but I think that's rare.

#19 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 04:24 PM:

So... if the willow is the symbol of resurrection specifically rather than mourning in general, is -"By the waters of Babylon, we hung our harps in the willow and sat down and wept"- an accident of translation from Hebrew, an early instance, or just an observation? (It's not from King James, however poetic you find his team; the above is a free rendition of a Latin text which is old enough (set IIRC by de Vittoria) that it is unlikely to have been rendered back into Latin from English.

Maybe they just thought they were rendering their own medieval design? Or maybe it \was/ the equivalent of clip art? I can see students being told -"Draw a picture copying the elements posted around you [at any size except close enough to look like tracing]"-. it's also possible that Litchfield valued a faculty member's ability to appear well-behaved (always uncertain with artists?) above the ability to draw realistically.

#20 ::: jo. ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 05:38 PM:

The willow is also a specifically female mourning symbol, at least in the area I teach, English Renaissance drama. Women who have been jilted or abandoned by lovers 'wear the willow' both figuratively and sometimes literally: in Beaumont & Fletcher's )_The Maid's Tragedy_ (1610) the jilted Aspatia wears a willow wreath to the wedding of her unfaithful lover and another woman, and then spends the rest of the night instructing the other waiting maids how to compose an embroidered picture of Dido abandoned by Aeneas.

#21 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 05:39 PM:

I can't find any feminine accomplishments. That is, the link seems to be broken; myself, I bake.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 05:46 PM:

I don't know whether willows signified that to the ancient Hebrews, though Alter might. I know it signified that to early Americans. Many emblems on tombstones signify that, when they don't signify the inevitability of death, or one's lodge affiliations.


Actually, I have no idea what Alter signified to the ancient Hebrews.

#23 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 05:48 PM:

Andrew: Julia Moore (SSoM) reminds me of a section in my Norton anthology where they give you two poems, one sentimental and more like rhyming prose, and the other actually poetic, and you're supposed to compare and contrast. It also reminds me of what Spoon River Anthology might have been if Edgar Lee Masters had been on a steady diet of sugar. (Spoon River sits in a highly favourable light compared to Julia.)

#24 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 06:12 PM:

CHip: de Vittoria may have set Super Flumina Babylonis too, but the setting I know (and just sang eight days ago in church!) is by Palestrina. I think it's "Above the (flowing) waters of Babylon, we sat (down) and wept when we remembered thee, o Zion. Upon the willows in that place we hung our lyres." That's where the text GdP used ends. I think the phrase in salicibus definitely refers to willows (salicylic acid, anyone?), but I don't know if the Latin author knew the actual tree or was just using the one he thought was closest.

#25 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 06:53 PM:

This is the translation in my Gutenberg copy of the King James' Version Bible. Would that have been from original Hebrew or Aramaic, or a Greek version thereof, or a later Latin one, I wonder? (pace Gibson)
There's said to be a story called "Proofs of Holy Writ" about well-known authors of the early 1600's examining final proofs of the original KJV (thus weaving a whole bunch of NH threads together).

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a
song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

As also 'set' by - was it "Earth, Wind and Fire"? (Can't get the lines above to set out nicely - hope youse can read it alright.)
Thinking of choirs: I noted the other day someone wrote "preaching to the converted", which is the phrase I'd use, instead of "preaching to the choir", which I see on, say, Electrolite. Then I noticed the commentor was from the UK, so this probably is a US/Other English-speaking variation.

#26 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 07:01 PM:

The willow, aka the bitter withe, is a magical tree in many ways.

The bitter withe will rot at its heart (see Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings). Traditionally, the bitter withe provided the branches with which the Virgin Mary thrashed the Christ child.

Willow-bark tea cures fevers.

#27 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 07:20 PM:

I am glad others got to Julia Moore first. 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.
It can be found at:

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."

#28 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 08:20 PM:

Epacris, there was a version of it in Godspell. "On the willows there/we hung up our lyres*/for our captors there/required/of us songs/and our tormentors mirth.//Saying,/sing us one of the songs of Zion (repeat three times)/but how shall we sing/sing the Lord's song/in a foreign land?"

#29 ::: Barbara ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 08:21 PM:

Julia had to have been very adolescent when writing these. Give a sophomore English class a poetry writing assignment and they will be divided about half and half between death and unrequited love. I finally quit having them write poetry because I could stand only so much nausea. Of course, some write from their own passionate hearts then bring a small collection to you to be critiqued--read appreciated--and they are similar to Julia's. However, in the 18th c. death was such a prevalent part of life that they had to find ways to deal with it. I have genealogy charts of families with 12 children, two or three of whom lived to maturity. That requires much coping. When I watch the Middle Eastern bombing reports, I wonder how those people deal with all that grief. Maybe Litchfield and other such early American institutions (and let us not forget Victorian England) saw this as a way to keep the young women from hysteria. Much preferable.

#30 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 08:57 PM:

At the bottom of "Andrew" is this:

Note: In stanza 2 I have corrected "An this little child" to "And this little child".

It wasn't enough.

#31 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 09:32 PM:

Barbara: Julia Moore was born in 1847, and her first book appeared in 1876. It is certainly possible that some of the verses were written earlier, though -- again like McGonagall -- she tended to write in, uh, celebration of current events. (She was a farmer's wife in Michigan, and one presumes was scanning the newspapers in search of an infant mortality or yellow fever epidemic.) She had another book in 1878, with the snappy title "A Few Choice Words to the Public, With New and Original Poems, by Julia A. Moore," but her moment had gone by, and that was it for her career.

From the second book's preface:

"Thanks to the Editors that has spoken in favor of my writings; may they ever be successful. The Editors that has spoken in a scandalous manner, have went beyond reason [...]"

And: "Literary is a work very difficult to do," which would make a great T-shirt for writers' workshops.

(Information from the indispensable THE STUFFED OWL, by Charles Lee and D.B. Wyndham Lewis.)

#32 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 09:53 PM:

Rivka: On 40-count, in silk, yes? Someday I'm going to do The Essamplaire's version of Frances Cheyney's whitework sampler. Someday...

There's a lovely magazine called "Sampler & Antique Needlework Quarterly," of which the most recent issue (Vol. 34, Spring 2004) has some mourning embroideries in it, as well as a discussion of "knitting sticks or needleholders."

Speaking as an embroiderer, I'd be willing to bet that a lot of those willows appeared because they're, er, dead easy to stitch: for each branch you need a line of stem stitch and two rows of lazy daisies, and Bob's your dearly departed uncle. You can also do satin stitch for the long trailing leaves.

#33 ::: Rivka ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2004, 09:59 PM:

Anne - forty count in cotton, alas. My mother bought the kit for me, and couldn't bring herself to spend $100 on a needlework project.

Possibly, because she knows I've been working on my current cross-stitch project since our honeymoon, and we're approaching our fifth anniversary.

#34 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 12:15 AM:

Epacris -
>was it Earth, Wind, and Fire?

Maybe they covered it, too.
The reggae version of Psalm 137 "Rivers of Babylon"
(Melodians, 1968? 1970?) was a big hit about 1978
for the Euro-reggae/disco band called 'Boney M'.

#35 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 12:26 AM:

Epacris asked:

This is the translation in my Gutenberg copy of the King James' Version Bible. Would that have been from original Hebrew or Aramaic, or a Greek version thereof, or a later Latin one, I wonder?

The KJV was "diligently" translated from Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), as it says on the title page of a print copy. (All the print copies of the KJV I've ever seen have pretty much the same wording on the title page, and I believe it goes back to the original 1611 edition.)

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

As also 'set' by - was it "Earth, Wind and Fire"?

There was a reggae version but I can't remember who did it.

#36 ::: Hil ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 01:25 AM:

It would be interesting to know the age of Sally Miller and the other girls who were at the Academy. Its generally thought that children move through four main stages in their artistic development: scribbling, pre-schematic, schematic, and the realistic. The abstract comes later as we become more adult. This is quite a nice timeline of that progression. I wonder if the 'clip art' aspect could possibly be an example of the schematic stage where the child has settled on a way of drawing a particular thing that they then repeat over and over. Although its evident in children aged about 6 through 10, schema can still be incorporated into the more realistic drawings that older kids progress to. Perspective drawing also starts for most kids at late primary school age, and its quite a complicated thing to become accomplished at, as is realistic representation. I suppose while we would expect children in times gone by to have gone through similar developmental patterns, under different cultural influences to ours the timing of the progression might have been different. Didn't puberty occur a bit later then?

I also wonder where this sits in relation to the changing history of our understanding of the concept of physical space. I've read that until about the 14th century physical space was not thought of as being a volume of nothingness, but instead the surrounding surface of objects (after Aristotle). So artists drew concrete objects with an illusion of depth, but not the intervening areas between objects. Then artists began developing linear perspective as a way of representing objects in 3-D space on a 2-D surface, giving an early expression to the scientific understandings of space being a physical void that came a bit later. I understand from Margaret Wertheim's book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet the concept as a whole took some centuries to really become the accepted one that we know today. So I wonder how adept at perspective drawing teachers at a girls' academy would have been in 1811.

#37 ::: Christina Schulman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 04:00 AM:

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

Epacris: I think you're thinking of the Don McLean song "Babylon". It was on the same album as "American Pie". (iTunes is marvelous for double-checking one's memory on these things.)

Kip: I would pay money, although not a lot, to hear "Mummy's in Heaven and We're All Sick". Lest you think the early twentieth century was any better, I give you this excerpt from Dorothy Parker's review of The Best Short Stories of 1927:

Their compiler shows himself, in this volume, to be more than ever the unsung hero. In the back of the book, where he lists all the short stories of the year, and grades them, unasked, according to his notion of their merits, you may gain some idea of what the man has been through. I give you some of the titles of the stories that he has wrestled with:

"Vomen is Easily Veak-Minded"; "Ma Bentley's Christmas Dinner"; "Archibald in Arcady" (there is always one of those, every year); "Fred and Circuses"; "Willie Painter Stays on the Level"; "Sylvia Treads among the Goulds"; "Betty Use Your Bean"; "Daddy's Nondetachable Cuffs"; "Ann 'n' Andy"; "Freed 'Em and Weep" (I bet that was a little love); "Jerry Gums the Game"; "Blue Eyes in Trouble"; "Grandflapper" (you can practically write that one for yourself); "She Loops to Conquer"; "Yes, Sir, He's My Maybe"; and "Dot and Will Find Out What It Means to Be Rich," which last sets me wondering into the night just what were the titles that the author threw out as being less adroit.
They say Mr. O'Brien makes ample money, on his sales of these stories written by others, and I hope it is true. But no matter how much it is, he deserves more.
#38 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 04:17 AM:

I gave up my youth for a dance and a drink
But now I've a cough and my handkerchief's pink
I traded fast times and the dusk-to-dawn scenes
For a piebald complexion and mutated genes
Our momma's in heaven, and we're all sick folks now

--- With the sincerest apologies, You Know to Whom.

#39 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 07:47 AM:

When does "clip-art" turn into "iconic imagery"?

I'm thinking of far too many book covers that use standard elements combined and recombined in various ways to give a quick browsing-guide to a volume's genre and general contents.

Fantasy: Guy In Armor. With A Sword. On A Horse. Dragon and/or Castle In Background.

SF: Guy In Spacesuit. With A Raygun. In A Flying Car. Planet and/or Spaceship In Background.

Bodice Ripper: Girl In Disarrayed Low Cut Dress. With A Hottie. On A Moor. Pirate Ship and/or Full Moon In Background.

My point (if I have one) is that using standardized/symbolic elements in art is a tradition of long standing. Not necessarily good or bad, tho' frequently boring.

The skill level shown in the Litchfield mourning images isn't that much worse than what I've seen show up in high-school level art shows.

I could see some experienced, professional artist (Kinuko Craft, perhaps?) turning out a striking piece of art using mourning imagery.

#40 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 08:18 AM:

Bob's your dearly departed uncle

This made me giggle a really lot.

#41 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 09:18 AM:

Xopher: The Godspell lyric is:
On the willows there,
we hung up our lives,
for our captors there required ...
From the Godspell vocal score I just happen to have.

I don't mean to harp, or call you a lyre, just nitpicking to be polite.

#42 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 10:02 AM:

In our hick town with just two Post Offices, one displays school kid art work all the time, and everything seems to be variations on the theme(s) and techniques of the quarter-or-semester. Individuality? No way. So tradition marches on.

#43 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 10:23 AM:

Nye on Moore, another nice bit:

Miss Moore . . . wrote a large number of poems, all more or less saturated with grief and damaged syntax. She is now said to be a fugitive from justice. We should learn from this that we cannot evade the responsibility of our acts, and those who write obituary poetry will one day be overtaken by a bob-tail sleuth hound or a Siberian nemesis with two rows of teeth.
#44 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 01:35 PM:

Re. Babylon: There's also P.D.Q. Bach's (Peter Schikele's) oratorio The Seasonings: "By the leeks of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept." (Also: "Tarragon, of virtue it is full," and "If you've got the money, honey, I've got the thyme.")

Re. Moore: In your small- to medium-sized towns, the classified ads often include an "In Memoriam" column, usually near the thanks to St. Jude. The tradition of truly awful mourning poetry is still alive, heartbreakingly tempered by the fact that these are your neighbors, they're hurting, and this is the only way they know to show it.

#45 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 02:04 PM:

John: thanks. I understand how it takes an effort of will, Oh! not to correct such things (as I did the original lyre-ic, which SS must have just misremembered from Sunday school).

But I shouldn't babble on any more. My friends say I have a leeky mouth, especially with a captive audience.

#46 ::: ben. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 03:42 PM:

RE: reggae and the Rivers of Babylon

The version I'm most familiar with was written by the Melodians in 1969, and covered quite regularly since, notably by Steve Earle, and Sublime.

On a side note, I work for a large state university art department and we crank out major amounts of "art" (lowercase and quotes intentional) in our pursuit of the education of the masses. The masses seem quite happy with it, I on the other hand, am not. At least both sexes can be freely kitchy now.

#47 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 04:23 PM:

Christina, I'm guessing "Grandflapper" was one of the genre James Thurber pointed to where the old granny lady likes to drink and party -- takes a bottle of booze upstairs and announces her intention to put a nipple on it. Ninety-three Skidoo!

#48 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 05:07 PM:

My daughter had the Boney M album Nightflight to Venus. It wore well; in time I grew quite fond of it. Besides the title track, and Babylon, it also notably contained the song "Ra Ra Rasputin".

Oh, those Russians...

#49 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 05:11 PM:

P.S. Should have Googled earlier. Everything is online these days - here's a link to their lyrics.

#50 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 05:13 PM:

Sylvia--Wheee! I only ran into Ra Ra Rasputin only three years ago, as it was a bit of a cult fave among my Canadian friends. (I had never heard it prior to that.)

#51 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 09:18 PM:

Not matter what sort of shape one thinks one is in, dancing two playings of Ra-Ra-Rasputin, (esp. the long dance mix) at the end of an evening leads to very sore calves the next day.


#52 ::: Deana Holmes ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 09:39 PM:

I've recently taken a recent interest in samplers, and I was struck by the resemblance of the mourning samplers to Edward Gorey drawings. I was glad to read other comments here that see the same thing, because I thought that maybe I was reading a bit too much into Gorey. But now it makes perfect sense.

#53 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2004, 10:04 PM:

The Boiled In Lead version of "Rah, Rah, Rasputin" is well worth checking out.

#54 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2004, 09:08 AM:

Gee. Never realized the reggae 'By the rivers of Babylon' version was so popular. I think the one I'm remembering was Boney M.

'Rah, Rah, Rasputin' is definitely a floor-filler e'en now. Some years back there was a production of 'Rasputin: The Musical" (it may have had a different Official Title) in the State Theatre, Sydney -- a very grandolinquent (marble, velvet, mirrors, statues, sweeping staircases, chandeliers) 1920s picture palace. Went well with Romanovs. Alas, it closed fairly soon. Have always regretted missing it, however gruesome 'twas, just to be able to say "I was there".

Re High-school art: Annually for a decade or two, selected 'major works' by Higher School Certificate art students (New South Wales final secondary exam, in the twelfthish year of school at about 18 years old) have gone around the state's art galleries in an exhibition called "Art Express". They tend towards adolescent angst, but are interesting to see, and often some are quite striking.
It must be quite a blast to see your own work on the same walls in the same halls as acknowledged masters of your calling. This year it overlapped with a Caravaggio exhibition, and the dramatic sense had similarities. (Hmm. Earlier still was 'Picasso after Sixty' -- the other end of life. Hadn't struck me 'til now.)
Hope everyone's viruses are weakening.

#55 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2004, 12:11 PM:

Karin: Bookfinder has copies as low as $275, and also several copies of a second volume at 74.50. As usual, Amazon is _incredibly_ overpriced on out-of-print books.

Sylvia -- I'm only one person away from Rasputin: that is, I met someone who met him (she was Olga Ilyin, a novelist, who met him when she was 6 and commented on how his piercing eyes were something she'd always remember).

#56 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2004, 12:39 PM:

Bruce: When does "clip-art" turn into "iconic imagery"?

Never, IMO. Icons on book covers are usually custom-drawn to make a plausible composition. I'm sure you can point to cut-and-paste cases; IIRC there was a notorious pair of SF covers ~20 years ago, but I think that involved taking an entire work and cropping/flipping. There are also cases that look like they use clipart deliberately, to create a fragmented tone -- although the fragments may in fact be original work. Teresa noted a striking feature of the posted work: uprights (e.g. masts) in the far background aren't, suggesting that it was simply copied from somewhere else and rotated to fit (the established line of the river bank).

Now somebody who actually \knows/ something about art can comment....

#57 ::: redfox ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2004, 09:06 PM:

It's interesting to me that while Julia Moore is just wildly, hysterically awful to me, I actually like the Sally Miller painting. Not even as camp, I just like it! (Though still, it's true, probably not in the spirit in which it was intended.)

#58 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2004, 08:24 AM:

Read thru most of the comments here. Intensely interested tho nomuch to say as too ignorant.Not to get too kiss-assy impressed by your erodition MUCH. If you'd like to write a book appplying the sort of thought exibited here to other periods I'd buy a copy.
Mke Sherwood
PS Sympathy to those poor little girls who no doubt had to embroder their det subject until their fingers bled

#59 ::: Holly ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2004, 02:27 PM:

I have most of the feminine accomplishments, *except* embroidery. My particular insanity is sewing, specifically costuming.

Apropos of the time period discussed herein, for the Con circuit this year I've been making an 1878-1883 "natural form" dinner suit. In researching said project I kept wondering why so many of the museum exibit dresses were black or dark brown. How drab, especially given that the styles were so ornate and flashy.

Now I know: because mourning colors were the fashion. The Queen said it must be so. Still drab. Blech. I mean, I wear more black than anybody I know, but I still manage to get some color in my wardrobe.

Something else that costumers should note: black does not photograph well. If you dress is black, no one will be able to see all the kilometers of ruffles you hand-pleated into place.

#60 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2004, 02:33 PM:

Holly, it may also be because a mourning dress would not have been worn enough to wear out, whereas other dresses would have been worn until they were shabby, then passed on to a servant, then worn until they fell to rags, then passed on to the rag man. (Rags were used for making paper.)

#61 ::: Holly ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2004, 09:39 AM:

Ayse, that was my first thought, too, but given that it was considered appropriate to wear mourning every day for a year or more, I had to abandon that theory.

#62 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2004, 06:26 PM:

There aren't that many mentions of willows in the Old Testament; maybe a half dozen or so. I looked it up, and then forgot. One of those is in the list of things that are supposed to be taken during Succot, so there's a certain amount of literature about the symbolism of willows in later literature, but those aren't really ancient Hebrews. Just kinda old Hebrews.

As far as biblical references go, it's worth noting that the sort of big, handsome weeping willows don't really show up in the mideast. What you get is a sort of shrub, which tends to show up on riverbanks and in moist valleys. And, just about all the times it shows up in the texts, it's pretty explicitly linked with rivers or wadis.

So, it seems as though for the ancient Hebrews, willows were a feature of rivers; the symbolic value of rivers, particularly in the psalm refered to is another matter -- Babylon was famous for its rivers, while Israel, particularly Judea, wasn't.

As far as Alter goes, sadly, it doesn't show up in Ancient Hebrew at all. It means "immediately" in the Talmud, and in Yiddish it means "elder" -- like "Chaim" (life), it's a name that gets tacked on to a sickly baby, in the hopes of encouraging it to live longer, and I'm named after someone who was named after someone who was sickly as a child.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.