Mourning Pictures – An Expression of Grief in the Georgian Era

Portrait of Catherine Lorillard, ca. 1810

I confess, I have a fascination with mourning customs of the Georgian era. I’m not sure how this interest developed, but I do know that I am drawn to objects that helped people express their grief when they lost those they loved.

It was that interest that drew me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition entitled, “Death Becomes Her”. This exhibition focused on the history of mourning attire from 1815 to 1915, and there were a number of items that intrigued me. The portrait above from 1810 was one of those items.

Prior to visiting this exhibit, I was accustomed to seeing memorial scenes that focused on the mourners. These early nineteenth century silk embroideries or paintings, usually called mourning pictures, often included full-length figures standing at grave sites in landscapes appropriately featuring weeping willows.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 8.35.00 AM
D.W. Kellogg chromolithographic print from an 1825 painting. Library of Congress

However, the portrait of Catherine Lorillard is also a memorial, but in a different form. Catherine was the daughter of the New York City tobacco magnate Peter A. Lorillard. She was born in 1792 and, according to family history, died from cholera while in her teens. Her portrait was almost certainly painted posthumously, because the drape over her head is a symbol of death. Her head and neck were painted by a professional artist, perhaps based on a portrait from life. The embroidery was probably by one of her female relatives.

Her expressive portrait, painted in oil on silk and embellished with silk and silk-chenille threads, is unlike any other needlework picture I have seen. What intrigued me most about this memorial, was that it focused on Catherine and not on the images of those people she left behind, mourning her at her gravesite. I could understand her family wanting to have this piece as a way to keep Catherine close to their hearts. And for me, it gave me the opportunity to look into the eyes of the girl who must have been missed terribly by her family and friends.


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