Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alexander Thompson & Mourning Scenes

The death of a loved one in 18th and 19th century America had an effect we wouldn't usually expect today: the production of beautiful artwork. One example of unusual mourning art has already been explored in this blog, but today we turn our focus to mourning scenes.

Mourning scenes, or mourning pictures, are an early example of the sentimentalization of mourning, the practice of beautifying death which emerged in the 1800s. Young women, particularly schoolgirls, were instructed in the art of the mourning scene. A mourning scene was typically embroidered and/or painted with watercolors onto silk or linen. During the early and mid-1800s, these materials were quite expensive. Thus, mourning scenes were more commonly found hanging from the walls of upper-class homes.

Alexander Thompson, the subject of a mourning scene in the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society, was born in Arundel on August 27, 1757. He served in the Revolutionary War for 4 years and 2 months. After marrying Lydia Wildes on April 8, 1784, the couple rode on horseback up the coast to a farm in Topsham. There, Alexander became a prominent member of the community, serving as a selectman for 6 years. In 1794, he was also a founding member of the Baptist Religious Society in Topsham. Alexander and Lydia would have 9 children together before he died on February 23, 1820. Lydia, born in 1764, would go on to live to the impressive age of 93.

Alexander Thompson's grave in Pine Grove Cemetery, located near the front of the fifth row from the right.

After his death, someone--probably one of his daughters--painted a mourning scene in Alexander's honor. Pictured below, it is in many ways an example of a typical mourning scene. In it, two women are depicted next to an urn monument which reads: "Sacred to the memory of Alex Thompson, Feb. 23, 1820. Aged 64. Mindless of love and friendship, cold he lies, deaf and unthinking clay." Behind them, a weeping willow towers over them, alongside an idyllic scene of nature and sprawling countryside.

Mourning scene for Alexander Thompson painted in watercolors on paper. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 101.

Thompson's mourning scene contains three elements common to this type of mourning art. The first is the urn on the pedestal, an image which had long been a symbol of death. Ancient Greeks had used urns to hold the ashes of their dead, and classical images had become quite popular in newly-founded America. The second element is the inclusion of mourners, which were almost always women. In Thompson's mourning scene, the two women depicted both wear Empire gowns in Regency fashion, another reflection of the classical style which was very much in vogue.

Finally, the image includes a weeping willow, whose very name reflects mourning and death. Author Teresa Flanagan points out that though weeping willows were often found in the cemeteries of New England, they were relatively uncommon in the Pejepscot region which included Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell. Despite this, the tree's association with death made them a key element in mourning pictures like Thompson's. Interestingly, willows were often planted in cemeteries because of the large volumes of water they are able to absorb, which prevented the cemetery from flooding. As I wrote about last week, trees like willows have the additional benefit of purifying groundwater near cemeteries.

Another mourning scene from the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society also contains many of these common elements. This time, the subject of mourning is Sylvia Dean Hall (circa 1768-1794). Sylvia's daughter, Betsy (born 1790 in Norton, Massachusetts), created this mourning scene of ink on silk with embroidery probably around 1807 or 1808 at Mary Blach's school in Providence, Rhode Island. Betsy chose to depict herself, her brother and her father (John Hall, Jr.) at the time of her mother's death, rather than the time the mourning scene was produced. In June 1820, Betsy married Brunswick native Leavitt Taylor Jackson and relocated here, bringing the mourning scene with her.

Mourning scene for Sylvia Dean Hall, by her daughter, Betsy Hall Jackson, ink on silk, circa 1807-1808. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 108.

Just as in the later Thompson mourning scene, the Hall mourning scene depicts an urn on a pedestal, a weeping willow and a peaceful nature scene. The biggest difference between the two images is the inclusion of three figures in the Hall image, and two of them male, rather than the classic weeping female. Betsy Ring, the curator at the Rhode Island Historical Society during the 1980s, believes this to be the only example from Mary Blach's school where three figures are depicted.

Mourning scene lithograph by Nathaniel Currier. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1977.1.6.

Though the materials--silk, paint, linen--to produce mourning scenes (as well as the instruction to do so) were expensive, in time they became accessible to ordinary Americans. Another example from the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society shows us that mournng scenes did become mass-produced as time went on. Above is a print by Nathaniel Currier (1812-1888), of Currier & Ives fame. The print contains the classic elements of an urn on a pedestal, a mourning woman and a weeping willow. But if you look closely (click the photo for a larger view), you can see that the names of the deceased on the monument has been added in pen. By the end of the 1800s, no longer was artful mourning exclusive to the wealthy. Beautifying death had become a democratic endeavor.

Flanagan, Teresa M. Mourning on the Pejepscot. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1992.
Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
"Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830." Exhibit of the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1983-1984.

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