Posthumous Portraiture Exhibit

Collective Narrative

Assignment:
Visit the Posthumous Portraiture Exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum

We cannot help but hear them whisper through the years, “remember me”

Reading the exhibit’s description in the main hall, I was immediately made uncomfortable by this claim above. I’m sure the writer had benign intent, but projecting desires onto the dead rankles me. Dead children even more so. How arrogant to presume what these children would want. And frankly, the thought of these children peering at me from some alternate plane, longing, pleading to be remembered, is disturbing. I don’t believe in alternate planes, but I would hope that the people in them be blissfully unconcerned with the contents of museums here on earth.

I was off to a sour start, but this is not to say I didn’t take away anything valuable from the exhibit. In the paintings, much of the imagery was what you’d expect–birds both alive and dead, trees both alive and dead, drooping fauna, timepieces. However, the recurring image of a child missing a shoe was a sad/interesting way to show that they were no longer tethered to the earth. A non-recurring image that I thought was particularly affecting was that of a young boy tugging on a dog’s ear. Many of the portraits appear stiff (though it’s hard to blame the artists when they were literally drawing from corpses) but deciding to depict that slice of life was a strong choice.

Unknown Child Holding Doll and Shoe, Attributed to George G. Hartwell (1815–1901)

My favorite paintings were ones that showed some action taking place (like tugging a dog’s ear or batting a shuttlecock). I also appreciated when they presented artifacts alongside the painting; for example, the curators managed to get ahold of a few of the toys that were actually featured in one of the paintings. There was another portrait that was presented next to a daguerrotype of a woman holding that very portrait in her arms. These portraits weren’t made for a museum or a gallery–they were made for grieving families.

Installation view of the 19th-century posthumous paintings of Mary and Francis Wilcox, with the toys they’re pictured with (photo by Allison Meier)

There was something else on the information plaque that I didn’t mention before, but really brought it home for me:

We presume stoic acceptance [of the families] at a time when infant mortality was one in four [but] we cannot judge the depth of another’s pain from the remove of centuries.

I know I’ve had the misconception that people in the 1800s excelled at enduring these sorts of hardships; that they were inured to feelings of loss. But the fact is that these mothers and fathers grieved plenty. In Claudia Emerson’s book “Secure the Shadow” (for which the exhibit was named), she tells of a mother unable to part with her dead child for nine days. On the ninth day, they took the posthumous photograph. It’s wrong to think that the owners of such photos were steeled against death. To us, it might seem macabre to pose for a photo with your dead child, but it makes a lot more sense if there exist no other photos of the two of you together. But it’s still hard to imagine taking comfort in them. It was heartbreaking to see how a dead child could look so much like a sleeping one.

Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of his wife weeping over their daughter

Hourly Comic

Collective Narrative

Assignment: Every hour, stop and document what you’re doing at exactly that moment. Do this for an entire day.

11:30am
I’m hosting my birthday party and my place tonight and this is the current state of my apartment:


12:30pm
In the past hour I’ve nudged a few pieces of trash nearer to the trash bin and feebly put some dishes in the sink. I am in serious need of pump up music, so I listen to the Indie classic, “Lisztomania”

1:30pm
Brunch with mom at our usual place, Cowgirl Seahorse. Mom has some self-professed verbal dyslexia so she usually calls it “Seagirl Cowhorse”, but today she gets it mostly right with “Cowgirl Seawhore”

2:30pm
I go to the supermarket to pick up beers for the party. Paradox of choice.

3:30pm

4:30pm
The first sound is me mopping a stubborn bike tire track. The second is me chasing a piece of dry spaghetti with my vacuum cleaner.

5:30pm

6:30pm

7:30
My party starts in 30 minutes but EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME WHYYYY

8:30
No one’s arrived yet so my boyfriend entertains me by juggling limes.


9:30 and 10:30pm
For my birthday I’m hosting a “Bad Movie Night”–a movie that is so awful it’s actually entertaining to watch. We’ve chosen “Garzey’s Wing”, a low-budget anime film. The characters are basically all voiced by the same two people, one of whom sounds like Lisa Kudrow on horse tranquilizers. This point in the evening I decided to cheat on the assignment and have some of my friends make sketches for me. The 9:30 sketch is by Brian Garvey, who’s trying to capture the anticipation of Garzey’s Wing (we still hadn’t started the movie). The 10:30 sketch is by Lindsey Daniels, who’s trying to capture our utter confusion (like, are they going to Gabajuju? or is a character named Gabajuju? or is Gabajuju a weapon?? etc.)


11:30pm
This is another one of my sketches. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but basically my mom has asked me to store a monstrous chair in my apartment (wider than my couch and almost as long). I’m supposed to hold onto this thing until she makes room for it in her apartment. (I feel like I’m representing my mom in a bad light here and I just want to say that in all other respects she is an awesome lady.) Anyway, here’s the chair, and my friend Eddie sitting atop it.

12:30am
This sketch is by my friend Rita. The aforementioned Lindsey introduced us to a reality show called “Solitary” where contestants are literally put in solitary confinement. People are disturbed by this and there is a mass exodus from my apartment. Lindsey is apologetic.

1:30am
I own mugs with feminist messages written in French (a fact unsurprising to anyone who knows me). I don’t really get the full meaning of “Femme de l’etre” though. At any rate, by 1:30am everyone’s left and Max and I are drinking tea.

2:30am
Max has fallen asleep. This is what the apartment looks like post-party.

Final Thoughts:
When Marianne gave us this assignment, I was worried that this exercise in introspection would drive me irreversibly to madness. But I actually liked making little doodles all day long. I don’t think that the assignment really changed the course of my day, because I was going to be eating, shopping, cleaning and partying regardless. Furthermore, the assignment was less disruptive than I thought it would be. In the morning I was worried that every time I stopped to document something I would lose all of my cleaning momentum, but actually I think the breaks were somewhat restorative and helped propel me toward my goal. As an aside, I don’t really enjoy taking photographs in my day to day life (you’ll note there are no actual photographs from the party), but having my friends create a few sketches gave me nice momentos from the evening that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.