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The Strange Art of the Posthumous Portrait

A new exhibition shows how painters and photographers once vied to bring the dead to life.

'The Children of Nathan Starr' by Ambrose Andrews. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the half-century between the 1810s and the 1860s, a number of American artists—many of them self-taught—made their living by painting portraits of the dead. It was a difficult art to master. Some painters only had verbal descriptions on which to draw, and they arrived at likenesses that couldn’t possibly measure up to families’ memories. Even when they were brought in quickly enough to have a body to study, it took a formidable imaginative effort to succeed—to reconstruct what the child in question would have looked like alive and animated. In most cases, the figures they painted came off awkwardly proportioned or posed. 

Once photography arrived in America in 1839, artists could capture their subjects’ likenesses unmistakably. But the kind of truth that daguerreotypes of corpses offered was bitter and potentially horrifying. Photographers needed an arsenal of rules and optical devices to offset the bluntness of the images they made. In the case of infants, Nathan G. Burgess wrote in 1855, the body should be “placed in the mother’s lap, and taken in the usual manner by a side-light representing sleep.” Older children, he said, “can be placed upon the table, with the head toward the light, slightly raised.” Opening the corpse’s eyes might seem daunting, Charlie E. Orr wrote in 1873, but “this you can effect handily by using the handle of a teaspoon.” Painters had to strain the limits of their imagination to reconstruct the features that a camera could capture in a flash, however artlessly.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, a haunting new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum curated by Stacy C. Hollander, shows how energetically photographers and painters competed over the power to depict the dead, particularly children lost to disease. The images these artists produced, as Hollander emphasizes in her thorough essay for the show’s catalogue, had a powerful allure in a society that bore the constant threat of illness and bereavement. As photographs entered wide use, families and artists both kept re-assessing what form these mourning pictures should take. (They have been ever since: mourning culture underwent similarly dramatic changes, for instance, when snapshots displaced more formal posed pictures and bereaved families found themselves with a fuller photographic record of their loved ones’ lives.) 

It can be hard to imagine that families once found paintings of dead and reanimated children comforting. The portraits in Securing the Shadow present a world of skewed bodily proportions and blunt symbolism. Instead of redemptive visions, they sometimes inadvertently offered what look more like nightmares. Toddlers with sad expressions, oversized heads, and large eyes stare poignantly out at the viewer, usually holding objects heavy with religious or artistic meaning: a key or a Bible or a bird tied to a trimmed string. In one particularly disturbing portrait—Ambrose Andrews’s “The Children of Nathan Starr”—three of the children of a Middletown manufacturer bat a shuttlecock over the heads of a serene older girl and the young boy whose death occasioned the picture. The projectile hovers in midair, as if it was just struck, but none of the children’s poses suggest that they’ve been moving; they stare ahead blankly and stand rooted to the spot.  

The painters who made these images were often themselves haunted, afflicted or eccentric figures. William Matthew Prior’s vision of the faces of three disembodied “Heavenly Children” emerging from a bank of clouds is one of the show’s most fanciful images; he had, we’re told, “lost his first wife and six of their children by the time this portrait was painted,” shortly after which he took up Spiritualism. The prolific New England portraitist Joseph Whiting Stock had been confined to a wheelchair by an oxcart accident at age eleven and would die of consumption before he turned 41. His portraits combine a probing eye for detail with a curious disregard for perspective, but their most startling aspect is the uniform expression of serene omniscience he gave nearly all the plump children he painted, as if they’d already crossed over to a new and higher level of spiritual insight. (Many of his numerous postmortem portraits, Hollander notes, he recorded as having been made “from corpse.”)

These painters usually came from poorer backgrounds and moved outside the most rarified artistic circles, which would help explain the odd crudity and stiffness of the pictures they produced. Decades ago, the scholar Phoebe Lloyd put it bluntly: “artists of repute gladly refused such work,” leaving “the ghoulish task…to poor young artists” who had emerged from “the itinerant circuit.” The families who commissioned these pictures were, on average, wealthier than the painters who made them. (They were also overwhelmingly white. It is extremely difficult to find posthumous paintings depicting black children. In this respect, too, photography expanded the range of people such images could show.)

But these artists were good at creating a mood of otherworldliness and piety. It was likely for this reason, Hollander suggests, that paintings of the dead didn’t completely disappear, even after the emergence of photography. Families still wanted the kind of idealized representations they saw in these portraits. Photographs were sometimes enlisted to serve this purpose: The artist could take a photograph and paint from that, sparing him the ordeal of working “from corpse.” It wasn’t uncommon for families to commission both a photograph and a painting. Some of the strangest pictures in Securing the Shadow are photographs of family members holding memorial paintings of their deceased relatives—a kind of compromise between the real and the imagined.

The appeal of photographs, however, was hard to deny. By the middle of the century, postmortem daguerreotypes had become a basic part of American mourning. Many of the surviving examples of these kinds of pictures now reside in the collection of Stanley Burns, an ophthalmologist whose books on memorial photography helped renew interest in the history of the practice. The more than 50 posthumous daguerreotypes on display in Securing the Shadow come from Burns’s enormous collection of medical, criminal, and mortuary photographs. Like the show’s painted portraits, they’re predominantly pictures of children. Some show their subjects as corpses and others pose them, sometimes together with their living relatives, as if they haven’t yet died.

Even though such images were, as Hollander puts it, “a normal part of the culture” in America and England in their time, these are hard images to look at. Like mourning ornaments woven out of human hair (another Victorian mortuary trend), they suggest an uncomfortable closeness with the dead, an unwillingness to move them out of sight, a need to keep a part of them unburied and in view. Some of them show live subjects interacting with a corpse: a husband holding his dead wife in his arms; a hollow-eyed toddler sitting on its dead father’s lap; parents holding dead infants whose eyes were sometimes painted unnaturally open. To the families that had them taken, these pictures promised ways to preserve a lost closeness; now, they’re more often seen as gruesome fantasies in which the dead are used as dolls or props. By the last decade of the 19th century, their popularity was in decline.

What effect would these pictures have had on the people who commissioned and kept them? The lengths to which the photographers in question went to hide signs of death—discharges; limpness; closed eyes—suggested that mortuary pictures had the power to unsettle even the close relatives for whom they were made. Most families, however, were grateful for them. In a letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford in 1843, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about daguerreotypes:

I long to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness that is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there forever.... I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved than the noblest artist’s work every produced.

In an 1873 account related by the anthropologist Jay Ruby, a photographer named James F. Ryder remembered that, when he was working in upstate New York years earlier, a local blacksmith accused him of plying a dishonest trade. Not long after Ryder moved to a nearby town, however, he received an unexpected visit from the same blacksmith, who told him in a “crazed manner” to get the “machine”—the camera—“in his wagon and go with him straight at once.” On the way, the enormous man broke down in tears. He “told me,” Ryder wrote, “his little boy has been drowned in the mill race and I must go and take his likeness.”

The literature on mortuary photography is full of similar stories: outbursts of gratitude and urgent confessions of need. The pictures these photographers took can seem ghastly or invasive in their literalness, starkness, bluntness and lack of imaginative embellishment. But these were often precisely the qualities that endeared them to the clients who went out of their way to have them taken. One way to look at these pictures is as relics from a period when there was a kind of holiness or dignity attached to the exact representations photographs promised—when making a literal, severe image could be a natural way to bless and revere the dead. Postmortem paintings idealized their subjects, while post-mortem photography, for all its starkness, had a better claim to giving what Stanley Burns in a 2014 interview called “irrefutable truth.” Photographs were honest about awful things, but that made them no less of a comfort.

“Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America” is at the American Folk Art Museum until February 26, 2017.