Mourning Becomes Them: The death of children in nineteenth-century American art

Catherine E. Kelly

Catherine E. Kelly Art

“In the midst of life we are in death” 

Figs. 1, 1a. Memorial to Daniel Kuhn (1803–1810) by Sarah Kuhn (1793–1832), 1812. Silk and watercolor on silk; 20 7⁄8 by 26 3⁄4 inches, 32by 38framed. The faces and background were painted by Boston artist John Johnston (1753– 1818). Collection of Stephen and Carol Huber; photographs courtesy of the Hubers.

These familiar words, which marched across sermons and samplers alike in the early decades of the American republic, surely resonated with sixteen-year-old Charlotte Sheldon in the summer of 1796. Sheldon was studying at Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy when she heard the news: Polly Buel, another student, had died. Sheldon put down her studies and postponed her chores to attend the funeral, which was held later that same day. “Quite a large concourse of people” turned out to see the girl buried, Sheldon recorded in her diary, admitting later that the whole experience had left her “rather tired.” The death of a classmate was an interruption in a busy life. It was perhaps a cause for sorrow and it was surely a reminder that all earthly things must pass. But it was not remarkable.1

Today, death is the rightful province of the elderly.  The death of a child or an adolescent—even the death of a young adult—is decried as a tragedy. Such a death reverses the natural order of things. Yet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as Charlotte Sheldon’s experience suggests, the death of a child was hardly a reversal of the natural order. On the contrary: it was a central part of the natural order. There is very little in contemporary life, at least in the  first world, that prepares us to understand this. Never mind the ongoing critiques of what Jessica Mitford condemned in 1963 as the American way of death (sanitized and sentimentalized, medicalized and commodified) or more recent attempts to counter it with “DIY death” or “artisanal funerals,” all of which gesture back to a golden age of good deaths. The frequency, proximity, and physicality of death in early America are hard for us to apprehend. The structures of feeling that shaped and were in turn shaped by mourning rituals belie easy claims about the universality of human emotion. And nowhere is this more true than when the deceased was a child.

Numbers cannot tell the whole story, but they provide a point of entry. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, life expectancy varied greatly, depending on factors like region, class, and race. In general, though, life expectancy crept gradually upward—at least until the 1790s, when it began to inch backward. By the eve of the Civil War, the average American could expect to live into his mid-forties. Disease, the accessibility of transportation, and the expansion of the market economy encouraged workers to move farther and to move more often. This highly mobile labor force, aspiring and desperate by turns, served as a conduit of disease.2

Fig. 2. Sacred to the Memory of Polly Shearer, artist unknown, found in New York State, c. 1830. Watercolor on paper, 9 by 14 inches. Collection of Deborah Davenport and Stewart Stender.

Aggregate statistics are sketchy at best, but children seemed to have succumbed faster and in greater numbers than their parents. Between 20 and 30 percent of children died before they turned ten. Parents could—and did—expect to bury at least some of their children.

 This, then, is the brutal backdrop for the mourning pieces stitched and painted by countless young Anglo-American women in the first decades of the nineteenth century, pieces that often marked the deaths of children. The genre’s literary and pictorial conventions were established almost immediately; by the 1830s these elements were so familiar, their meaning so obvious, that they could successfully memorialize Polly Shearer, an eight-year-old child who died some forty years earlier, years before mourning pieces like this one became popular (Fig. 2). The anonymous watercolorist used boldly stylized trees to frame the equally stylized mourners, who link arms and hold back their tears as they contemplate Polly’s fate in hopes that her soul “to Heaven arose,” as the verse on the monument promised. It is impossible to know, now, who the grieving girls might be or to know whether they were connected to Polly Shearer through distant memory or through family stories. All we can know is that a little girl’s death in the eighteenth century reverberated into the nineteenth century, one more reminder that, as one girl stitched into a sampler, “life is uncertain, death is sure.”

Fig. 3. Portrait of a Baby Girl, artist unknown, c. 1828. Oil on canvas, 23by 20 inches. Courtesy of the Potomack Company.

The makers of other mourning pieces were far more immediately connected to their subjects. Sarah Kuhn of Boston, for instance, embroidered a magnificent memorial honoring her brother Daniel, who died at the age of seven in October 1810, in 1812 (Figs. 1, 1a). The fashionably dressed figures who flank the boy’s monument probably represent nineteen-year-old Sarah, dressed in white, and her parents. The rural setting, rendered in the colors of a New England autumn, recalls the season of Daniel’s death. Although delicate in its detail, the picture is massive, more than a yard across in its frame. It would surely have been the largest and most conspicuous piece of decorative art in the Kuhns’ Boston home.

The picture has as much to say about gentility and about the Kuhn family’s investment in Sarah’s education as it does about her brother’s death.  The skills that manipulated silk thread through silk fabric, like the confidence required to begin such an ambitious project and the perseverance required to complete it, were the products of an expansive, post-Revolutionary world of female education. In submitting to the style codified by her teacher, and in creating art that looked a lot like the art created by her peers, Sarah participated in the period’s aesthetic of emulation. The goal was emphatically not the revelation of a uniquely individual self, not an exploration of Sarah’s personal experience of death and mourning. Instead, the task was to demonstrate Sarah’s ability to transcend the merely personal, to be like and feel like those she had been taught to emulate.4

Fig. 4. Joseph Fairfax Lapsley [1845–1847] by George Cooke (1793– 1849), 1848. Oil on canvas, 51 by 42inches. Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

That aesthetic extended beyond the embroidered silk to the living mourners themselves. Mourning was supposed to culminate in resignation to God’s will; ministers and didactic writers were clear on this point. A grief-stricken teenager who overcomes her sense of loss through a heartfelt resignation to her circumstances becomes someone who can serve as a pattern for others who will suffer loss. Like the embroidered figures, the maker herself becomes an object of emulation.

Displayed in a parlor or bedchamber, this extraordinary picture would have told viewers a slightly different story about childhood death than the stories that unfolded around Sarah Kuhn and her family in real time. As the oldest of ten, Sarah grew up surrounded by children, toddlers, and babies. A new sister or brother appeared every two years. Her youngest sibling was born in 1812, the year she worked her picture, the year she married a ship builder. Sarah lived surrounded by children’s bodies and children’s bodily needs. She would have helped care for them when they were healthy and when they fell ill. And if they died, as Daniel did, Sarah would have helped to wash the body and wrap it in a winding cloth. She would have helped disguise the sights and smells of decomposition until the small corpse could be put in a coffin and buried, for well into the nineteenth century, preparing the dead for burial was women’s work.  The female mourners who populate these pieces doubtless signal a heightened recognition of the value of women’s emotional labor. But they also gesture obliquely toward women’s physical labor. Just as Sarah’s delicate stitches help transform raw grief into resignation and emulation, so too do they apotheosize the sister who cared for the diseased and decomposing body into an elegant symbol of refined sentiment.5

Fig. 5. Robert A. Coleman (1834 –1838) by Alfred T. Agate (1812–1846), 1838. Watercolor on ivory, 3by 3 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna Jr., Class of 1913, Fund.

If mourning pieces like these direct our attention away from the deceased, toward the living community and the spiritual and emotional trajectory of mourning, portraits of dead children rivet our eyes on the subjects themselves. Posthumous portraits of children and infants became increasingly popular after the 1830s. Painting a corpse was by all accounts unpleasant work, and re-creating the face of a dead stranger long since buried from survivors’ descriptions was no small feat. Still, such business proved brisk enough that it accounted for a significant percentage of artists’ commissions during the antebellum era. The rise of posthumous portraiture owed much to the growing popularity of paintings and images more generally. It was precisely this market, operating at every price point, that enabled Colonel John Whitfield Lapsley as well as the unknown parents of an unknown girl in pink to commission portraits to mark their grief (Figs. 3, 4). It is difficult to imagine that Lapsley, a prominent Alabama attorney and businessman, a man who could boast that both his grandfathers served as officers in the Continental Army, had much in common with the anonymous parents of the little girl in the pink dress.  The families are united only by their shared desire to commemorate a dead child and their ability to do so. The portrait of the little girl, who died in 1828 at the age of  five, confirms all the conventions of vernacular or folk paintings from the antebellum era. She is woodenly posed in front of a hinted background. Her hands (notoriously difficult for artists to render) are suggested more than depicted. We don’t know who she is and we don’t know who painted her, but she is immediately recognizable as a style, as part of a school.

George Esten Cooke’s painting of Joseph Fairfax Lapsley, nicknamed “Little Fax,” is a world away. This high-style portrait of a two-year-old boy, painted in the year following his death, is as polished and detailed as the other is plain. Fully modeled, “Little Fax” has a bodily and emotional self-possession beyond his years.  The setting is at once specific and allusive. The roses in the background were popular symbols of both death and love; the whip in the boy’s pocket symbolizes his submission to God’s will and, by extension, his parents’ resignation in the face of loss. Despite these legible elements, the painting remains mysterious.  This is not especially surprising, given Cooke’s aspirations. More than a decade before he painted “Little Fax,” Cooke published a series of articles touting the importance of the artist in the Southern Literary Messenger, one of the most important periodicals published in the antebellum South. While patrons were merely tasteful, he wrote, only the artist was capable of seeing nature and only the artist could, “in a moment, transfix and perpetuate” a “whole world of real or imaginary things” on his canvas.  The puzzling elements in the painting, the “real or imaginary things” that surround the little boy, may tell us more about Cooke’s thoughts about his place in the world than they do about his patrons’ ideas about death.6

Fig. 6. Portrait of a young girl thought to be from the Andruff family of Newark, New Jersey, by Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799–1868), c. 1838. Oil on poplar panel, 40 by 30 inches. Private collection; photograph courtesy of Joan Brownstein.

More likely than not, however, the Lapsley family’s ideas about death and the afterlife were different from the ones that had prevailed around the turn of the nineteenth century, the ones that Sarah Kuhn and her family embraced. Parents were still expected to resign themselves to God’s will when confronted with the death of a child. It was not for nothing that Cooke painted a whip into “Little Fax’s” jacket pocket. But, broadly speaking, Protestantism had softened in ways that shifted attention to the deceased and allowed those closest to him to indulge in fuller expressions of grief, to mourn in ways that focused on his particular qualities. Then, too, ministers had begun to talk and write about heaven in ways that rendered it both close at hand and recognizably material. Perched just above the clouds, heaven was filled with flowers and trees, oceans and rivers much like the ones that filled earth and Eden, but far more beautiful; by the 1850s some imagined that heaven included cities and buildings for the use of the believers who had ascended there. Whatever Cooke’s intentions may have been in composing the setting for “Little Fax’s” portrait, some viewers must have felt that they were catching a glimpse into heaven.

The exquisitely materialized heaven that emerged in the second half of the antebellum era was often populated by the recognizable, resurrected bodies of the saved. Ministers and laymen were remarkably interested in the prospect of physical resurrection, in the possibility that particular bodies might be both reconstituted and perfected in the afterlife. Not surprisingly, antebellum debates about human resurrection were never resolved. But the ensuing discussions seem likely to have shaped posthumous portraits, especially, perhaps, portraits of children. When Robert A. Coleman’s New York City parents hired Alfred T. Agate to paint a watercolor-on-ivory miniature of their son, they arranged to have the likeness framed to be hung and displayed (Fig. 5). Posed in front of a heavenly pastoral landscape, the toddler would have invited visitors to move in close, to examine his face. And it was small enough that even framed it could be removed from the wall and held close, a hard, smooth substitute for a soft and wriggly body.7

Fig. 7. Portrait of a young girl thought to be from the Andruff family by Eddy. Oil on wood panel, 14 by 10 inches. Probably commissioned by the family after the death of the child, the image includes a butterfly, signifying the transformation from earlthly matter to some- thing transcendent. Private collection, Brownstein photograph.

The New Jersey family that hired Oliver Tarbell Eddy to paint their daughter (Figs. 6, 7) around the same time that Agate captured Coleman’s likeness were certainly concerned with death and the afterlife. The initial portrait, painted in oil on a wood panel, was made before the girl died. Afterward, her family commissioned a smaller copy of the original to mark the girl’s death. The elements of the two portraits are identical: Eddy employed the same patterned carpet, golden dress, coral necklaces, and draped table to situate the girl within middle-class domesticity.

But if the props are consistent, the girl is not. Painted while still living, her face is pensive and her body full. In the second image, her shoulders and face sag downward, as though deflated. Perhaps these distortions are the mark of a hurried and rather careless copy; perhaps they stand as recognition of the changes that death works on the flesh. More striking still is the butterfly, a common metaphor used by ministers as they attempted to visualize the transformation of earthly matter into something else, something transcendent.

Placed alongside each other, Eddy’s two paintings beg more questions than they answer. How were the portraits displayed? Did they hang side by side? Or was the second portrait created for private mourning, for the kind of remembrance better suited to the bedroom than the parlor? Did the girl’s parents view the portraits with hope, with the expectation that they would one day be reunited with their child’s body as well as her soul? Or did they simply see the absence created by her death? Only one thing can be certain. The unexpected loss of a child, especially, offered yet more proof that “in the midst of life, we are in death.”

CATHERINE E. KELLY is the L.R. Brammer Jr. Presidential Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the Journal of the Early Republic. Her most recent book is Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).  

1 Charlotte Sheldon’s diary is reprinted in Chronicles of a Pioneer School from 1792 to 1833, comp. Emily Noyes Vanderpoel (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1903); quote is on p. 16. 2 The following discussion of death and mourning in late eighteenth- through mid- nineteenth-century America follows upon the analyses of Lucia McMahon, “‘So Truly Afflicting and Distressing to Me His Sorrowing Mother’: Expressions of Maternal Grief in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,”Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 27–60; Mark S. Schantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N. Y., 2008), pp. 38–69; Nicholas Marshall, “‘In the Midst of Life We Are in Death’: Affliction and Religion in Antebellum New York,” in Mortal Remains: Death in Early America, ed. Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2003), pp. 176–186; and Susan M. Stabile, Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 2004), pp. 178–227. 3 On mourning pieces, see Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650–1850 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1993); and Anita Schorsch, Mourning Becomes America: Mourning Art in the New Nation (Main Street Press, Clinton, N. J., 1976). Sampler quotation appears in Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe, American Samplers (Thomas Todd Company for the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames, Boston, 1921), p. 282. 4 See Catherine E. Kelly, Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016), pp. 14–54; William Huntting Howell, Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2015), pp. 116–156. 5 Information on Kuhn family is from George Kuhn Clarke, “Jacob Kuhn and his Descendants” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 51 (1897), pp. 444–445; Vital Records of Medford, Massachusetts, to the year 1850 (Boston, 1907). 6 George Esten Cooke’s painting is discussed in Estill Curtis Pennington, Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth Century Paintings of the South from the Johnson Collection (Cane Ridge Publishing House, Paris, Ky., 2012); quote is from George Cooke (signed “G. C.”), “The Fine Arts,” Southern Literary MessengerMarch 1835, p. 376. 7 For Agate’s portrait, see Amy Kurtz Lansing, “Alfred T. Agate’s Mourning Miniature of Robert A. Coleman,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2003), pp. 114–118. On mourning miniatures more generally, see Robin Jaffee Frank, Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2000).