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: A Young Boy in His First and Last Suit


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In The Minneapolis Institute of Arts there hangs a nineteenth-century American portrait of a solemn young boy. Dressed in a red velvet jacket and white satin pants, he stands on a porch, his back to a summer storm. Charming portraits of children enjoy a perennial popularity with American audiences. But the appeal of the Minneapolis painting is now overcast by the knowledge that the boy’s likeness is taken from his corpse.That a considerable number of American artists executed life portraits from the corpse is a recent discovery. I have called such paintings “posthumous mourning portraits” because they were commissioned by bereaved families for use in mourning rituals.1 Sitting in front of a posthumous portrait during the mourning period and viewing it annually on the occasion of the death was a regular ceremony in the nineteenth century, as evidenced in the 1860s portrait of the Bulkeley-Pomeroy family. Assembled before a lifesize portrait in the style of the 1830s, the Bulkeley-Pomeroy family appears to view one young girl crowning another with a floral wreath. But the family knows that one child, Julia, is dead, and that the wreath being placed on her head by her sister, Mary Josephine, is a funeral chaplet. Mary Josephine appears twice in the painting. She also numbers among the middle-aged mourners. Sitting in a gloom, her left elbow resting on two books, she stares at her childhood self and her long dead younger sibling.2From the 1830s to the 1860s, American newspapers carried advertisements placed by indigent artists who expressed their willingness to paint portraits from a corpse. At first the kind of painting that must have resulted from this advertised activity remained unidentifiable. The work that broke the impasse was Shepard Alonzo Mount’s study from the corpse of his niece Camille which can be matched to her “life” portrait.3 The study carries precise color notations and shows where the points of the caliper were put down on the life size, penciled head in order to duplicate the exact measurements of the corpse. Only the closed, long lashed lids of the drawing differ from the open eyes of the painted portrait. This drawing, and others subsequently discovered, sufficed to establish what must have been a common practice.Having located post-mortem preparatory drawings for some portraits, other portraits, for which the drawings were lost, could nevertheless be identified through artists’ journal entries and letters mentioning posthumous commissions. Now the task is to decipher and interpret the hidden symbolism in the documented portraits so that the category can be expanded to include undocumented works.Of the Minneapolis painting almost nothing is known. The name of the boy has not come down to us. The artist, probably a certain James B. Read, who worked in New York City in 1849 and 1850 and in Philadelphia from 1859 to 1870, is now forgotten.4 To judge from the quality of the painting, Read was an artist of modest ability and therefore more likely to accept posthumous commissions. Taking a likeness from a corpse was, after all, unpleasant business. The eyes had to be opened, the jaw secured with a strap, and the artist might have to work as decay set in.5 Artists of repute gladly refused such work. The ghoulish task, therefore, fell to poor young artists, those living in rural areas or who had come up from the trades and traveled the itinerant circuit. The omission of Read’s name from the New York and Philadelphia directories between 1851 and 1858 confirms his itinerant status. However, his obscurity is not sufficient proof that Read took on posthumous commissions. In this case, the evidence must be sought in the portrait’s emblematic design.In posthumous mourning portraits color, hidden symbols, and space signal the post-mortem character of the subject. The traditional mourning colors of red, white and black commonly appear in the costumes and plants; and these colors predominate in Read’s painting.6 Certain symbols function as visual metaphors to express either bereavement over the loss or the wish to retain the dead. Ephemera such as fast-fading flowers and soap bubbles, a dead tree, a boat departing for the farther shore, storm-tossed waters, or a threatening sky speak of the brevity of life. Clinging vines, keepsake books,7 or the dog, faithful unto death,8 express the tenacious hold the living wished to keep on the dead. Often, one or more symbols from either category appear in combination, as, for instance, the black storm clouds, winding honeysuckle vine and keepsake book in Read’s painting.Space, too, may be organized symbolically to suggest a continuum between this life and the next, or so the Minneapolis painting seems to suggest. Here the deceased stands on a porch, from which he looks back toward the bereaved. This porch or veranda is unusual in the history of Western art and its use here undoubtedly reflects the vogue for porches and verandas in American rural architecture.9 The plain architectural element symbolizes a state of transition between closed domesticity and the outside world. This spatial construction is, therefore, the appropriate vehicle for indicating the place of the deceased in the mourner’s consciousness, for the bereaved understand only too well that the dead have departed from their physical space while remaining present in memory. Just so, the young boy in Read’s painting faces the living, with hat in hand, like one about to depart. And, as if in poignant reminder that his life is cut short, the bench behind him is set at a height he never shall reach comfortably.American artists portrayed the recently dead, then, in a symbolic reconstruction which expressed a deep emotional need to retain them, if only in effigy. Not surprisingly, this impulse is in some ways analogous to contemporaneous burial practices. The introduction of garden cemeteries with individual gravesites for the common man was a nineteenth-century innovation. Family plots were laid out and fenced in, monuments selected and the ground planted so that the dead could feel at home.10 In ritual remembrance, Americans visited their dead in the cemeteries just as they sat before the posthumous portraits in their homes.That the posthumous mourning portrait and the garden cemetery were related phenomena is confirmed in the flower symbolism common to both. At the Magnolia Cemetery of Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, honeysuckle, ivy and morning glory vines still grow along the iron railings of family plots, while the broken stemmed rose and certain spring perennials frequently appear on tombstones. Similarly, the plucked rose, a symbol of death from ancient times, is the most common motif in posthumous mourning paintings. The morning glory, a flower that blooms only half a day, is sometimes pressed into service as a reminder of one cut off in the morning of life.11 Or, to take the plant in the painting at hand, there is the trumpet honeysuckle, chosen for its red blossom and because the vine is of the clinging variety.The production of posthumous portraits and the spread of the rural cemetery movement occur simultaneously from the 1830s to the 1860s. Furthermore, both are distributed over a wide area. After the establishment of the first garden cemetery, Mount Auburn, in 1831, cemeteries sprang up from Maine to South Carolina and through the Midwest. Exhibiting the same broad geographic distribution, posthumous portraits were produced, for instance, on Long Island by William Sidney Mount, in Connecticut and Massachusetts by Joseph Whiting Stock, in Tennessee by Ralph Earl. The much traveled artist, George Cooke, left us an example from Selma, Alabama, in his painting of “Little Fax” Lapsley.12 Read’s subject, on the other hand, probably hailed from the north central states, for the trumpet honeysuckle grows in southern Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio.Read’s painting from the north and Cooke’s from the south further demonstrate the homogeneity of the type. The child in each painting takes leave from a porch and the fate of each is disclosed in hidden symbols. For the dead tree toward which Little Fax points is as obvious a reference to death as is the ominous black cloud in the Minneapolis painting.Strangely enough the production of posthumous mourning portraits peaked during the very years when painted portraits—long the predominant theme in American painting—were waning in popularity. By the late 1840s the faster and more economical daguerreotype process was permanently superseding the cumbersome method of taking a painted likeness, a supersession that extended even to making daguerreotype portraits of the corpse. Nevertheless, certain families among middle- and upper middle-class Protestants continued to want life portraits of their dead, a fact which confirms the importance of these images to the bereaved and their significance in death rituals.The posthumous mourning portrait, which at the present state of our knowledge appears to be indigenous to America, has its European antecedent in the deathbed or mortuary portrait. Unfortunately the most recent study of death in western culture, Phillip Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death, does not take the mortuary portrait into account. Ariès sees a change in western attitudes toward death beginning in the eighteenth century: there was a shift in emphasis from one’s own death (la mort de soi) to the death of the other (la mort de toi). Formerly, he argues, the concern had been with the state of the dead man’s soul. Innumerable books titled the Ars Moriendi (the art of dying) dealt only in this single relation of the dying man to his own hope of salvation.13 The shift, registered by Ariès, is toward the relationship of the deceased to the bereaved. And he cited images of mourners at the tombsite, a common motif in both Europe and America, as a manifestation in art of so major a cultural change. This secularization of death imagery is well observed, but the chronology is debatable.In his seminal article, “Portraying the Dead,” Anton Pigler has demonstrated that from the fifteenth-century Italian, and then German artists, painted representations of the corpse laid out on the deathbed or bier.14 Initially, the subjects were more apt to be royalty and persons of distinction and the purpose was to make a final record of their physical being. However, by the seventeenth century in Italy, Germany, France, England and Holland, the practice had been extended to include minor nobility and the clergy, merchants, townspeople and their children. Pigler does not speculate about the uses to which such paintings were put; it seems safe to assume, however, that these mortuary portraits functioned in some commemorative ceremonial within the family or the religious community. By the eighteenth century, the tradition of the mortuary portrait was transplanted to America. The earliest known examples dates to 1747: Joseph Badger’s corpse portrait of Elizabeth Royall painted for the Isaac Royall family of Medford, Massachusetts.15The European mortuary portrait is, of course, the point of departure for the American posthumous mourning portrait discussed in this article. In both instances, the artist begins with a careful study of the corpse. However, certainly by the 1830s, the bereaved in America were no longer satisfied with the traditional form.16 They required of the artist that he mollify their feelings through a deception. Were it not for some disguised mortuary symbolism, the quick would be interchangeable with the dead.There are two possible interpretations one can put on the desire for life-like mortuary portraits. Either the family wished to recall the person as he was before death or to imagine him returned from the dead to commune with them. The portrayals lend themselves to both alternatives simultaneously. But in any case, the intermediate physical state of being dead is not what the bereaved wanted to confront. This avoidance represents a shocking departure from the traditional Christian conception that the body passes from ashes to ashes and dust to dust while the soul achieves salvation. Clearly, American artists emphasized the preservation and continuance of life as it had been lived on earth in the secular realm.He might be standing at home, then, the young boy in Read’s painting. He could just as well be on his back porch, all gussied up and waiting to be off for an important occasion. But as we know, this child exists only ostensibly in the world of the living. Even the fashionable “first suit” and squared off shoes the child wears carry a double meaning. For the colors of his costume are the colors of mourning; and it is in their best clothes that young children of the period were usually dressed for burial.17American paintings are often—from an art historian’s point of view—gratifyingly well documented. Not so in the case of the Minneapolis painting. Nevertheless, the purpose and original meaning of the work may be recovered from internal evidence and by understanding the ritual tradition in which it partakes. The Minneapolis painting of the young boy in his “first suit” ranks as an outstanding instance of the hitherto unrecognized type of the posthumous mourning portrait.Dr. Phoebe Lloyd holds a joint appointment in the American Civilization and Art History Departments, the University of Pennsylvania. She is presently writing Death and American Painting: Charles Willson Peale to Albert Pinkham Ryder.EndnotesThis article is dedicated to my mother, Mary Grant Lloyd, who learned to like walking in cemeteries for my sake.
  1. I wish to thank especially Leo Steinberg, Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art, the University of Pennsylvania, who from the beginning encouraged me to publish my findings on the American posthumous mourning portrait. Dr. Steinberg discovered this work on a trip to Minneapolis and called it to my attention. Dr. Gregory Hedberg, formerly Curator of Paintings, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, supplied me with photographs and information about the provenance of the painting. Dr. David Brownlee, Professor of Art History, the University of Pennsylvania, educated me upon the subject of American porches. And Gail Fowler, a graduate student in the American Civilization Department, the University of Pennsylvania, did research for me on the costumes worn in the posthumous mourning portraits illustrated in the article. The paintings discussed here have never been published before, with the exception of the two works by Shepard Alonzo Mount. For a discussion of the first known examples of this newly discovered genre, see Phoebe Lloyd, “Posthumous Mourning Portraiture,” in Martha V. Pike and Janice Gray Armstrong, A Time to Mourn: Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth Century America, New York, The Museums at Stony Brook, 1980, pp. 71-87.
  2. See also Ibid., p. 85. For the use of funerary chaplets and garlands, see Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas, Costumes for Births, Marriages, and Deaths, New York, 1972, pp. 137-42.
  3. A fuller description of this drawing and painting appears in Lloyd, “Posthumous Mourning Portraiture,” p. 81.
  4. According to Dr. Gregory Hedberg, the painting was purchased from Anne Kerr Antiques in Minneapolis and then donated to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1977. The inscription on the back of the canvas reads: “J. B. Rread/The Artist 1856.” However, because these words were copied onto a new canvas lining, it is probable that the last name was wrongly transcribed and should be Read, not Rread. According to the Inventory of American Paintings, National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution, there are nine extant paintings by James B. Read.
  5. A vivid description of one such incident is found in Leon Mead, “The Apprenticeship of an Academician,” American Magazine, 9, 1898, pp. 198-99.
  6. That black and white are mourning colors probably comes as no surprise to moderns. But the use of red for mourning has not carried over into the twentieth century. It derives from the Christian tradition of draping the coffin with a red pall. See Cunnington and Lucas, Costumes for Births, Marriages and Deaths, pp. 134-37.
  7. Keepsake or gift books, a now forgotten genre, were given to the young of both sexes and to ladies. They were highly sentimental productions containing poems and short stories on the themes of love and death as well as instruction on moral behavior, etc. See Ralph Thompson, American Literary Annuals and Gift Books, 1825-1865, 1936, reprint Hamden, Conn., 1967.
  8. The work that gave currency in the nineteenth century to the idea of the dog, faithful unto death, would be Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1837).
  9. The notable exception to the infrequent use of the “porch or veranda space” is, of course, the Mona Lisa and its many derivatives. Before the painting was cut down, the Mona Lisa’s setting was a loggia. The importance of the porch and veranda to nineteenth-century American rural architecture is stressed by Vincent J. Scully, Jr., The Shingle Style and The Stick Style, New Haven, 1971. Andrew Jackson Downing, especially, in Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) advocates the building of porches and verandas.
  10. On American garden cemeteries, see Stanley French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the ‘Rural Cemetery’ Movement,” Death in America, edited, with an introduction by David Stannard, Philadelphia, 1974; and Donald Simon, “The Worldly Side of Paradise: Green-wood Cemetery,” in Martha V. Pike and Janice Gray Armstrong, A Time to Mourn: Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth Century America, New York, The Museums at Stony Brook, 1980, pp. 51-64.
  11. A whole book has been devoted to the symbolism of the rose. See Charles Joret, La rose dans l’antiquité et au moyen age, histoire, légendes et symbolism, Paris, 1892. For the symbolism of the rose and the morning glory in American painting, see Lloyd, “Posthumous Mourning Portraiture,” pp. 73-75. The highly popular flower books of the nineteenth century also helped disseminate the meaning of floral symbolism. See Sarah P. Stetson, “Mrs. Wirt and the Language of Flowers,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 57, 1949, pp. 377-89.
  12. This posthumous portrait, which descended in the family of the sitter, was recently sold through Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc. See Americana: American Paintings and Prints, Friday, November 21, 1980, no. 32. Joseph Fairfax Lapsley (“Little Fax”), born April 1846 and died August 1857, was a son of Colonel John W. and Amelia Lapsley of Selma, Alabama. According to a letter that accompanied the painting, “Little Fax” stands at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers. The horse in the middle ground was his own. Grete Meilman kindly called this work to my attention.
  13. See Nancy Lee Beaty, The Craft of Dying: A Study in the Literary Tradition of the Ars Moriendi in England, New Haven, 1970.
  14. Anton Pigler, “Portraying the Dead,” Acta Historiae Artium Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, IV, 1956, pp. 1-74.
  15. See Lawrence Park, “Joseph Badger of Boston, and His Portraits of Children,” Old-Time in New England, XIII, 1923, pp. 107-09.
  16. It is likely that the tradition will extend further back in time. One isolated instance dated to 1664 has come to light, the anonymous portrait of Elizabeth Eggington (Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum). Dr. William Gerdts, The Graduate Center of The City University of New York, first called my attention to this work. See Louisa Dresser, “Portrait of Miss Eggington, Granddaughter of John Cotton,” Wadsworth Atheneum Bulletin, 1959, pp. 1-7.
  17. For a discussion of grave-clothes and the funerals of children, see Cunnington and Lucas, Costumes for Births, Marriages and Deaths, pp. 270-78.
  18. Since I first began to work on this subject, I have been able to identify as posthumous upwards to fifty portraits, mostly of children. Now it is becoming apparent that an unexpectedly large proportion of children’s portraits of the nineteenth century are posthumous. Grete Meilman, Vice President, the American Painting department of Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., estimates that approximately seventy-five percent of the children’s portraits sold through Sotheby fall into this category.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. James B. Read
    Portrait of a Boy, 1856
    Oil on canvas
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Butler, 77.46
  2. Attributed to William Beard
    The Bulkeley-Pomeroy Families before a Posthumous Mourning Portrait, c. 1865-70
    Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York
  3. Shepard Alonzo Mount
    Drawing for the Portrait of Camille Mount, 1868
    The Museums at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, Long Island
  4. Shepard Alonzo Mount
    Camille Mount, 1868
    The Museums at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, Long Island
  5. George Cooke
    Joseph Fairfax Lapsley (“Little Fax”), 1847
    Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York
  6. Joseph Badger
    Elizabeth Royall, 1747
    New England Historic Genealogical Society
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Source: Dr. Phoebe Lloyd, "A Young Boy in His First and Last Suit," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 64 (1978-1980): 104-111.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009