Posthumous Portraiture Exhibit

Collective Narrative

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

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