“Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America”

American Folk Art Museum
2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue at 66th Street
October 6, 2016–February 26, 2017

Hiram Powers, James Gibson Powers, ca. 1838, plaster, 11 x 6 x 6".

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” The carving of character by light, as the early camera was thought to do, and as this advertising slogan for photographers of the 1800s suggests, was especially trenchant for those who wanted to remember their dead at eternal slumber’s start, with astonishing veracity, via the daguerreotype’s unearthly powers. Memorial portrait painting is another kind of alchemy—venerable, yet stranger, as it tasks the artist with reviving a kind of familiar glow or personality from the deceased––sometimes using the corpse as a model––for the commissioning bereaved.

This exhibition, curated by the museum’s Stacy C. Hollander, is an extraordinary survey of memorial works—mostly painted and photographic—that were made by artists, both formally trained and self-taught, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, a time when we were more intimately acquainted with mortality and the rituals surrounding death. Many of the works’ subjects are quite young—children and babies who died from illness, accidents. One of the most affecting is Thomas Wilder’s oil-on-canvas portrait of Anna Baylies Bushee, 1848, which depicts the girl, just barely five, sitting in a dour parlor near a window that looks onto two small angels—ugly, sickening things—awaiting her arrival in heaven. There’s Charles Willson Peale’s Rachel Weeping, 1772–1818, a painting of the artist’s wife crying over the body of their infant daughter, Margaret, who was taken by smallpox: Margaret’s yellowed lips are held shut by a silken chinstrap, her arms securely fastened to her sides by a swath of white ribbon, tied with a dainty bow. There’s even a plaster death mask by Hiram Powers made from his little boy’s face, James Gibson Powers, ca. 1838, who succumbed to “water on the brain.”

Pictures of headstones appear in the exhibition as well—some so crudely fashioned that they look considerably older than just two or three hundred years. Also on view: an ivory medallion featuring a watercolor and graphite rendering of a virginal teenage bride. A photo encased in a velvety, locket-like frame shows a young lady in her casket, lavished with flowers, with an aged paper fragment that reads “Death’s seal is on that cherub brow, and closed that sparkling eye.” Genteel language often poorly conceals such devastating loss.

Alex Jovanovich