The Shadow of Death in America: Securing the Shadow
Over the past several years, a surprising niche interest in the arts has turned mainstream in America: death and the end of life. A topic once shielded by the taboo of privacy, this most intimate of experiences has become the subject of thriving discussion. The New York Times has frequently covered the topic, reporting in a 2014 article that end-of-life talks are finally “gaining ground” across the nation. The Columbia Journalism Review identified a similar trend.
Critiques of the excessive medicalization of human passing, and of our need to find meaning in our last moments, have prompted many to face difficult truths. The Times and the New Yorker have examined the dismal state of affairs in features such as “Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life” of 2010. Recently, The New York Times Magazine ran a long-form piece on B.J. Miller, a medical doctor, triple amputee, and pioneer in the movement to reform end-of-life care. Miller’s story of coming close to death and living to help others complete the journey is, in many ways, a classic American tale of overcoming hardship, reinventing yourself, and attaining success against incredible odds. It is also a sign that times are changing. We did not talk so openly about dying only a few years ago./p>
If our end-of-life practices are so shrouded in taboo, then how did this come to be? What was dying like for the generations before us? Can we reconstruct historical experiences of death and mourning? It would seem unthinkable, yet the exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum sets out to do exactly that. As pioneers in the fields of end-of-life and funeral care invent any number of new ideas–from B.J. Miller’s zen hospice in San Francisco to a method of turning our bodies into trees–it would behoove us to also look back, to a past that can seem as strange to contemporary Americans as this proposed future.
The Art of Loss and Grief
Securing the Shadow brings us surprisingly close to moments of loss and grieving from the past two centuries ago. The exhibition shows both how much our customs have changed, and how the human experience of death remains timeless.
Securing the Shadow is more limited in its range than the title might suggest: this is not an overview of mourning across U.S. history. Perhaps still under the spell of The Keeper, which we saw this summer at the New Museum, we envisioned a kaleidoscopic picture of death in America. There, exhibits as diverse as the Alabama quilts made of a loved one’s clothing, Howard Fried’s display of his late mother’s wardrobe, and the collection of deceased people’s photographs with their teddy bears presented a wide variety of poignant ‘posthumous portraits’. Securing the Shadow’s premise is very different. It chronicles a specific tradition: that of paintings and, later, daguerreotypes of deceased family members, as practiced by middle- and upper-class Americans in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. All individuals represented in the show are from a rather similar background, except for one image: that of an “African American Father Clutching His Infant Daughter,” one of seventy-eight daguerreotypes.
The lack of diversity is not to be interpreted as a weakness of the show. Securing the Shadow’s strength is its focus. The curator eschews an overly wide interpretation of ‘posthumous portraiture’, treating it as a specific historic genre. This allows her to stage a thorough, almost anthropological study of a now lost mourning tradition, which to a contemporary observer seems both peculiar and touching. From roughly the 1770s to the 1890s, there was a vibrant practice in certain American communities of producing images of one’s dead relatives; such likenesses were to be kept in the home, ever a part of the family’s life. Family portraits were often composite images of living and dead individuals, the two difficult to distinguish.
The exhibition traces the progression of this genre: from paintings that depicted the subject on their deathbed to nineteenth-century portraits showing the dead as living. Certain artists, following their patrons’ wishes, began to specialize in the miracle of re-animating a corpse and depicting the dead as they supposedly once were. In the exhibition, painting after painting shows deceased children playing with toys and pets, smiling serenely; sometimes reunited with their brothers and sisters, or else dwelling in idealized Arcadian landscapes. Most of the paintings are large-format, with children of two to five years of age in nearly life size. The paintings’ subjects are eternally present to their relatives, suspended in a realm between that of the living and the dead. These attempts to both acknowledge and defy death could lead to difficult emotions: one observer noted in 1824 that looking at such pictures was a “pleasure & a pain”.
The introduction of the daguerreotype to the United States in 1839 posed a challenge to this artistic tradition. The promise of the new medium was that the dead could be captured more truthfully, their visage never forgotten; the method was advertised as a more perfect alternative to painted portraits. Yet looking at the collection of daguerreotypes laid out in a glass case in a dimly lit gallery constitutes a very different experience than facing the painted portraits. These early photographs record the irrefutable fact of death, often with a ruthless exactitude. The descriptive titles given to these images–“Mother Holding Daughter with Ribboned Hat”; “Father and Daughter with Toy Rattle”; “Girl Dead Several Days”; “Man With Facial Lesion in Coffin”–reveal a matter-of-fact, even blunt encounter with death. The tradition of painted portraits continued parallel to photography, fulfilling needs and desires other than the simple fact of remembrance. Paintings promised to capture the still lingering spirit, along with the vanishing body.
Highlights from Securing the Shadow
The painting “Death of William” by Michele Felice Cornè of ca. 1807 is an example of the deathbed portrait, commemorating a deceased child even as it conveys the family’s sorrow. The infant is lying in a small coffin decorated with swags set on a finely worked wooden table. Little William appears to be resting calmly on his soft pillow. His face is pale and expresses sadness that he is leaving the world too soon, yet he is also serene, delivered from suffering. Behind a curtain, we see his mother decorously grieving, wiping away quiet tears. In a restrained, staged depiction of the events, the painting represents this bond of mother and child, and a final moment of intimacy.
In most of the other paintings, the dead face us as if still living, looking out at us from the picture plane and compelling us to tell their story. Theodoric Myers, age 7, appears in his Sunday best in J. B. Gregory’s painting of around 1840: he wears a starched collar and leather gloves, and his hair is gently combed. His expression is one of patient sadness and calm. Theodoric holds his hat in one hand and a basket of fish in the other; behind him, the sun is setting in a red and golden glow over a placid lake.
Even more heartrending is the portrait of Charles H. Sisson, aged 3 years and 10 months, painted by Joseph Goodhue Chandler in 1850. Charles is playing in the street in his native town in Connecticut. He is painted in a dynamic pose, smiling and turning towards the viewer. His face is represented in realistic detail, with his plump cheeks, grey-blue eyes, and dark blond hair–which the artist would have recorded from the dead body. The boy pulls a toy cart with one hand, and with the other, he points a whip to the sky: an iconographic indication that he is now of the heavens, rather than the earth. Behind him, the town’s Colonial-style houses appear in diminutive perspective. Charles is still there, yet immeasurably far away. The painting represents not only the child himself, but also his family’s conflicted emotions and unwillingness to let go.
The exhibition does not shy away from more challenging images, and it succeeds in exploring the rich, sometimes problematic nuances within the genre. While most portraits, especially of children, are unequivocally sad, some works verge on the spectacular and even the salacious. “Rachel Weeping,” painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1772 as a deathbed portrait of his deceased infant, was later reworked to include the mother sitting over the corpse, shedding dramatic tears and turning her eyes with desperate appeal toward heaven. Rather than kept as a private memento, the painting was then exhibited in Peale’s museum in Philadelphia–an institution famous for its mastodon skeleton, among other curios. The final composition makes for an overly sentimental and rather sensationalized image of grief.
Next to this work, the locket holding a miniature portrait of Harriet Mackie (“The Dead Bride”), painted by P. R. Vallée in 1804, shows the potential erotic charge of posthumous portraits. (The theme of the beautiful dead virgin would later be turned into a masterpiece in John Everett Millais’ Ophelia.) Harriet Mackie, who died tragically just days before her wedding, is painted in exquisite detail, reclining in bed in her bridal veil and floral wreath. With her gently smiling pink lips and faintly flushed cheeks, she appears to be sleeping–as if “waiting to be awakened by true love’s kiss,” as the caption states. This exquisite work was commissioned by the bereaved groom as a memento of the bride that he never could have.
Securing the Shadow contains other kinds of displays besides the painted portraits: photographs of historic gravestones are printed on banners hanging from the galleries’ ceiling. At the end of the show, a blank gravestone asks visitors to chalk in our own epitaph and to post it on social media. This final attempt to bring the exhibition up-to-date with the present seems like an afterthought, at odds with the rest of the show whose strength is its historical depth. The gravestone photographs on the banners appear disembodied and out of context; lacking individual captions, they read as little more than a pattern book of early stone carving in America, a backdrop for the drama of the paintings. Standing before those portraits, we come palpably close to loss and mourning as they were experienced centuries ago.
The late 18th and the 19th centuries, the heyday of the posthumous portrait, were not the ‘good old days’. Dying then was not any easier then than it is now. Even at a time when every fourth child was expected to die in infancy (according to an exhibition panel), the feelings of grief, despair, denial and longing were no less trying for their sufferers. Still, the people who commissioned these portraits were trying to face such confusing experiences directly and to work through them with the help of art. The works in Securing the Shadow testify to this deeply personal process; each one is a document of someone’s struggle to come to terms with loss. Modern day reformers are reminding us of something similar: death is never simple, but, as families and communities, we need to learn to face it and work through it.