Mourning Art developed out of the newly formed Republic's patriotic grief in 1799 with the death of George Washington. His death coincided with the country's growing prosperity, a period of religious revivalism and the circulation of ideas and images recently available to all through print media. Allegorical drawings by artists such as Samuel Folwell, John James Barralet, John Coles, Jr. and Enoch G. Gridley were copied into art forms such as drawings, needlework, paintings and jewelry by adults and children.
The Washington Memorial in the collection of the Bergen County Historical Society was created from silk floss embroidery depicting 8 figures with very finely painted faces, reverse painting on glass for a matt, all in its original frame (30.5" x 30.5", c. 1815, provenance unknown).
The BCHS Washington Memorial design appears to be directly based on an engraving by Enoch G. Gridley, entitled, Sacred to the Memory of the Truly Illustrious George Washington, c. 1800, though it was executed in a more sophisticated manner. In the left lower foreground, Columbia (an early version of Lady Liberty, representing America), is weeping and comforts the eagle (already adopted as a national symbol.) The eagle has an American Shield. A soldier with an inverted musket mourns at Washington's tomb.
A large angel blows a trumpet, center top of image. Some interpretations note she is letting the world know of his death, others that she is calling him to heaven. She holds a wreath, circle of time, over his head. In Gridley's version, the wreath has the text, "Pater Patriae," meaning "Father of our Country." A flag draped from the trumpet lists Washington's victories at Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth, and Yorktown. In the BCHS memorial, the artist added "Stoney Point" to the list. Was this to accommodate whomever commissioned the piece? The painted portrait of Washington in the center does not depict him in military uniform but as a citizen, farmer or President, whereas in Gridley's version, he is a general.
The Greek goddess Athena, wearing a helmet, is positioned to Washington's right. She represents wisdom, courage, civilization and warfare among other attributes.
I found a woodblock print from 1784 that seems to have been overlooked in previous studies on the origins of Washington Mourning Art; it has most of the important elements of the Gridley memorial, including a cenotaph with Washington's portrait and trumpeting angel. It precedes Washington's death by 16 years and "mourns" not his death but Great Britain's loss of America. The book plate notes it as "The Victorious General Washington, survey'd in pleasing attitudes, by Wisdom and Valour, while Britannia deplores her loss of America" (See the images included above).
One knowledgeable observer attributed the painted portrait of Washington in the BCHS Memorial to noted artist, John Trumbull, an aide to General George Washington during the Revolution. His portraits and historical paintings are found in many art museums.
In an infant Republic, without ancient heroes or national myths, the apotheosis of Washington had great appeal. Author Anita Schorsch wrote, "Washington's death formed a bridge between divine sovereignty and humanity and between all that is sacred in death from one generation to another generation, thus creating an archetypal union which might be called mythic, allegorical, apocalyptic, or final."
We remember George Washington's birthday at Historic New Bridge Landing on Sunday, February 19, 2012. You can view this antique Mourning Art, depicting Our First President, we will also display the Martha and George Washington Centennial Quilt, c. 1876. Period music on fiddle and hammered dulcimer by Anne and Ridley Enslow accompany Denise Piccino as she invites you to join in or just watch period dancing. 1 to 5 pm with dancing from 1:30 to 4:00 pm.
Washington headquartered at the Steuben House for 16 days in September 1780. See the recently donated 18th bed that George slept in, now on display at the Demarest House. The BCHS event includes a spinning demonstration and cooking in outkitchen. Tavern keeper in the bar at the Black Horse Tavern (sorry -- "soft" cider only!) Gift shop open. Ad: $7.00, Ch: $5, BCHS members free. 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661.
BCHS continues a fund raising drive to construct a museum building at New Bridge to provide a history museum and library for the BCHS collections. BCHS already owns the land, we just need your help to build the museum. 100% of your donation goes to our mission! We do not receive any public grants or operating money, we rely on donations and membership. www.bergencountyhistory.org.
LINKS and SOURCES:
A Key to the Kingdom: The Iconography of a Mourning Picture - JSTOR by Anita Schorsch
At Home with George: Commercialization of the Washington Image, 1776-1876 by William Ayres
Enoch G. Gridley image: Sacred to the Memory of the Truly Illustrious George Washington
Sotheby's - Auction of the Landmark Collection of Betty Ring, "Rare and important embroidered and painted silk mourning picture." January 2012.
Mourning Art Exhibit: Allentown Art Museum, Embracing the Dark Side, Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side
My apologies for the glare and ghost on photos, a difficult photo to take.