Mourning Art

mourning art

Tangible expressions of grief keep lost loved ones close. Curator Kim Ivey explains the customs of mourning art.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

Mementoes and memorials of grief from centuries past are connections to the larger culture, and also to individual lives. Associate Curator of Textiles and Historic Interiors Kim Ivey is here to tell us more about these tangible reminders of personal loss. Mourning, m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, became quite the big thing after the death of George Washington in December 1799. Is that when we really got into this?

Kim Ivey: That’s absolutely correct. With the sudden death of George Washington on December 14th, 1799, the whole America, all of the colonies, all of the states were just plunged into a period of mourning. The figure of Washington had been honored, but in death, he actually became a real hero and a real figurehead.

This whole mourning expression was not just due to the death of George Washington. There were a number of more complicated factors that played into it. Certainly the neoclassical movement, the study of Greek and Roman ruins, just the whole religious movement during the 18th century, and free will. All of that played in to this phenomenon that occurred and really took off – I don’t like to really say that word, took off, but really took off with the death of Washington.

Interestingly in England, there was also a very popular mourning period. It was spurred on by the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817. She died in childbirth. She would have been the hair the heir to the throne.

Lloyd: For all the same reasons that George Washington’s death spurred it here, her death spurred it there. Phenomenal how one individual can really solidify something that is coming together for other reasons, but comes together solidly around that one person.

Kim: That one event or person. What I can say is that the act of mourning influenced a variety of art forms. The objects were made by professionals, like jewelers or goldsmiths, as well as amateurs such as schoolgirls.

For example, a professional artist marketed prints, metals, ceramics, jewelry and textiles bearing mourning images and memorials to honored heroes. But also, amateurs like schoolgirls wrought permanent memorials in needlework, in paint, and in ink. These schoolgirls were attending female academies or boarding schools, where they were not only creating these memorials, but they were also studying English, arithmetic, geography and other subjects.

Lloyd: There were a lot of requirements: you used a certain kind of thread if you wanted to show one thing, and a different kind if you wanted to show something else. There were a lot of quite strict conventions about what you could do and what you couldn’t do, and what tree symbolized this and what urn symbolized that.

Kim: Right. Well what we, when we talk about needlework, we typically say that the needlework of the late 18th and early 19th century was involved different hands. There was the schoolteacher’s hand. She would design the needlework piece, she would possibly draw the design. Sometimes she brought in a professional artist, who drew the design and painted details. The actual needlework was stitched by the schoolgirl, typically between the ages of 11 and 16.

It was part of the culture of the time, at all levels and by all different social strata. You have the schoolgirls doing mourning work art, you have the professional artists who are selling mourning work, and we haven’t even spoken about the jewelers who were selling mourning jewelry, which is probably the most popular form of mourning art, and probably the type of object that most of our visitors to Colonial Williamsburg readily recognize.

Wearing mourning jewelry really connected a relative with a deceased family member or or a lost one. They were really personal reminders of human mortality. The ring especially was a very popular mourning form of jewelry, because it symbolized eternity. Rings were often given out at funerals. We read in wills that the deceased specify that rings be given out to their friends and those attending the funerals.

Lloyd: Rings would be suitable for men and women, would they not?

Kim: Correct. What we do find in portraits of the period – and when I say “period,” I’m talking about late 18th century, early 19th century – what we do find are figures of people wearing mourning jewelry such as brooches with figures of weeping women and urns, and weeping willows. We do see rings on these figures in the portraits, and they’re usually of lost loved ones.

But getting back to just the symbolism of a weeping willow, it did symbolize death. It was also used in the graveyard. You see weeping willows in graveyards because the tree absorbed moisture from the ground and it kept a graveyard drier. So it had a very practical use, as well as a symbolic use.

While we’re talking about symbolism, I think it’s interesting to point out some of the symbols that actually had, or some of the objects that we see in needlework pictures that actually had hidden meanings. These meanings may not be familiar to us today, but they were very familiar to the people making these pictures and to those viewing those pictures in the period.

The urn, for example, we probably do recognize it has the symbol of death today. It was also known for being the repository for earthly remains. The oak tree, a symbol of strength – if you were to see an oak tree cut down in a tree, or laying on its side, it would symbolize death, as in being cut down in the prime of your life. A sailing ship referred to the departure of your soul. A river or a path usually was referring to time. So those are just some of the symbols, or some of the objects that we see in these pictures that have symbolism or meanings.

Lloyd: So in that period, if I were looking at something and it had an oak tree and a ship sailing, I would know what that meant, just because it was common knowledge.

Kim: More than likely you would. If you had had some formal education, you would recognize those symbols. They were fairly recognizable to the general public at that time.

Lloyd: I had never figured that out, that everything in one of these pictures must have a meaning, or it wouldn’t be there.

Kim: In the mourning pictures, yes. That’s not to say that a decorative border or pattern was painted or stitched onto a picture simply because it looked nice, and they made the picture more attractive. But generally speaking, there were certain elements put on or stitched or painted on to a picture that meant something.

Lloyd: We’ve mentioned stitching, needlework. Were there other kinds of mourning art? We’ve also mentioned rings, jewelry. Anything that we haven’t talked about?

Kim: Well, can you imagine sleeping under a memorial to your deceased president? Or a former president? We own, or we have a quilt in our collection, a bed quilt in the collection, that features a printed handkerchief in the center that commemorates the death of George Washington. It was clearly a prized possession. It was kept in mint condition, and probably only brought out for special occasions and possibly slept under by the owner.

Some people consider mourning art morbid. But that’s not how it was considered during the period. It was an appropriate way to express your grief, whether you were an adult or a schoolgirl. I think that’s a real difference in how we approach mourning today. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, you were allowed to grieve. Can you imagine a schoolgirl working through the grief of her mother by stitching a commemorative to her mother, by using her needle, in and out, in and out, and working through her grief.

Today if you’re fortunate, you’re given three days off from work, and you’re right back at work. There’s nothing that you wear that symbolizes you hurt, there’s nothing that you hang on the outside of your house, so I think it’s very different.

Lloyd: That's Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. We like hearing from you; send us a comment at Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

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