Chapter Three
The Mourning Portrait

A reader paging through a collection of daguerreotypes is most surprised, perhaps, at the number of images of death. There are photographs of dead children, dead adults, of parents holding their dead children, and of groups of somber mourners gathered around coffins. What explains this custom? Why did parents, children, and spouses, grieving the dead, spend the money and take the time to have a daguerreotype made of the departed? The answer lies both in conventions and views of the daguerreotype and in the mid-nineteenth century conventions of death and its representation.

Most simply, the death portrait, especially a picture of a dead child alone, was a memorial. If the daguerreotype served as an accurate portrait of the soul, of a person's essence, it was doubly effective, with its accuracy and haunting depth, as a way of keeping the memory of a dead child fresh, of bringing a dead child back to life.

An 1849 article in Godey's Lady's Book remarked on the rapidly proliferating urban daguerreotypists "busy at work in catching 'the shadow' ere the 'substance fade.'"(1) The casual phrase captures the assumption that daguerreotypes, even the ones taken long before death, would one day serve as memorials.(2) It also reflects one of the reasons that the daguerreotype was an effective memorial; imprinting, as it did, the light off a person, it seemed to include a part of his or her physical being, one that nearly captured the life of the dead. Godey's, in praise of the daguerreotype, related this story:

Not a great while ago, one of our Daguerreotypists observed in his rooms an old lady in deep mourning. She was a stranger, and was looking with evident eagerness along the walls at the various portraits that were exhibited as specimens of the art. All at once she uttered a low exclamation, and sank half fainting upon a sofa. Water was brought to her, and after a little while she was restored to self-possession. She then stated that news of the death of her only daughter, a resident of the west, had been received by her a few days before. Remembering that a likeness had been taken a short time previous to her going to the west, the faint hope had crossed her mind that there might be a duplicate in the rooms of the Daguerreotypist. She had found it, and gazed once more into the almost speaking face of her child!(3)

Figure 10

Figure 10

It was in this climate, in which the daguerreotype was celebrated for its ability to provide comfort, even to conjure up the dead, that mid-century Americans called upon the daguerreotypist in their hour of grief. However, the memorial portrait did not originate with the daguerreotype; while daguerreotypes quickly established their own conventions of death, the best explanation for the origin of photographic death portraits may be the adoption of an older tradition. Postmortem paintings have a long history, and emerged in large numbers in the United States in the early nineteenth century, accompanying the decline of the Puritan injunction against such "graven images" and the rise of a sentimentalization of death, especially the death of children.(4)

While some paintings were produced from memory or previous drawings (sometimes drawings made in the last few days of life, in anticipation of the need for a memorial), the death portrait was occasionally made, like photographs, in haste. When, in 1837, young Jedidiah Williamson was run over by a loaded cart and killed, the prominent genre painter William Sidney Mount, a neighbor, was called in to make a sketch from his dead body in preparation for a memorial portrait.(5)

Daguerreotypes were faster than paintings in such situations, and much cheaper, especially since painters were known to charge double if the subject was dead.(6) The new technology allowed the middle and working classes to have death portraits made, and they were often preferable even for the wealthy; they did a much better job at evoking the memory of the dead. The poet Elizabeth Barrett wrote (of British photographs) in 1843:

I long to have a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which 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 fixed forever! ...I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist's work ever produced."(7)

Like Godey's, Barrett was struck by the fact that the daguerreotype was a shadow, a physical imprint of the departed. Some parents, like those of Jedidiah Williamson, had death paintings of their children (made before the invention of the daguerreotype) photographed. The transferring of the image was an effort, perhaps, to capture the eerily lifelike quality of the daguerreotype, as well as its permanence.

Figure 11

Figure 11

The daguerreotype death portrait had another feature that made it different from, if not better than, the painted memorial. It captured the physical reality of death, while painted memorial portraits invariably showed a living subject, with stock symbols (certain flowers, for instance, were conventional signals) to indicate that the subject was dead.(8)

In some cases, the idealized painting may have been preferable, as with Jedidiah Williamson, who was badly mangled in his accident. At other times, however, the unblinking reality of the daguerreotype had an additional advantage. Karen Halttunen tells us that the mid-century middle-class "sentimental" culture privileged the moment of death itself, when the hypocrisy of a person's lifetime fell away, and the treasured last words were uttered without earthly motives.(9) Death portraits could capture something of this state; in a sense, the death portrait was more accurate, in reflecting the essence of a subject, than a portrait of the living. The moment of death was also seen increasingly, in the nineteenth century, as one of joy and comfort, as a release from the difficulties of this world into God's hands. A realistic daguerreotype taken just after death might show a "beatific" or even "triumphant" entrance into God's kingdom.(10)

Compare the "Portrait of Camille," painted of a dead child by William Sidney Mount's son Shepard Alonzo Mount in 1868, with the anonymous daguerreotype of a dead child (Figures 10 and 11). Camille is plump, happy and alive in the picture. The nameless child in the daguerreotype is pale, emaciated -- one can almost see the painful weeks before death -- but peaceful now, at rest. The painting may cheerfully portray the life of the deceased, but to nineteenth-century eyes, the daguerreotype, in showing the moment of death, or one just afterward, does a better job at portraying the person, the essence of the child, his soul.

Figure 12

Figure 12

If the photograph above illustrates the beatific death, a death portrait of the first bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, Joseph Cretin (see Figure 12) depicts the triumphant. A crucifix is placed in his hands, he is dressed in his vestments; even his face seems to suggest that he died while praying earnestly for his own salvation. The portrait must have been made at the Bishop's funeral, but it suggests the moment of death, the moment in which this holy man rose to heaven.

A sizable percentage of death portraits (slightly less than half of a small sample) are not just of the dead, but include, or even focus, on their living mourners.(11) By the era of the daguerreotype, a new form had emerged to join, if not replace, the death portrait, one that focused on the process of mourning itself.

Halttunen argues that the sentimental middle-class culture of the mid-nineteenth century included a cult of mourning. Bereavement was seen as one of the purest of deep emotions, and lengthy and emotional explorations of the joy and sadness of death were common. It was a sign of middle-class gentility, Halttunen contends, to mourn properly, and mourning became a public display for the middle class. Manuals and magazine articles explained the proper form for the bereaved and for sympathetic friends, from dress to condolence calls.(12)

Figure 13

Figure 13

It is not entirely surprising, then, that the newly genteel wanted to record their mourning, as proof of their proper bereavement and as a trigger for further grief. The daguerreotype in Figure 13 is a good example of this type of mourning portrait.(13) The father of a dead girl holds her body in his arms; as we noted in chapter two, mourning portraits are nearly unique in representing fathers alone with their children. The child appears peaceful, but devoid of personality (bearing an odd resemblance to a doll), in contrast to the close, forceful death portraits of children alone. Her father is central and well-lit; his complex, solemn face -- bereaved but not wretched -- is the emotional axis of the photograph. While the background is a home, suggesting subtly that the child has just died and been lifted from her death bed, her father is in his mourning clothes, the child has been dressed, and a flower has been put in her hand. The stiffness of the child suggests, also, that it is well past the hour of death. The impression (and the reality, it appears) is that this photograph is of the mourning process, not of the death.

There is clearly a tension here, between the emotion of the death portrait and the choreography of mourning conventions; the mourning conventions seem to dominate. Halttunen remarks that "In the nineteenth century, the dead vied with those who mourned them for iconographic attention, and often lost the contest."(14)

Figure 14

Figure 14

Nowhere is this more clear than in the daguerreotype in Figure 14. The photograph is labeled "Grave of Robert Barnard"; the mourner is unnamed, slightly out of focus, and partially hidden. Clearly, in some sense, this is intended as a memorial portrait of Barnard. The thrust of the photograph, however, is otherwise. The eye is drawn to the only human face in the photograph, that of the pensive mourner -- his hat off, his head bowed. The photograph also serves to depict the process of the burial. The dirt of the grave is fresh, and the wildness of the burial site is emphasized, with trees framing the picture and the fence around the grave.(15) The photograph emphasizes the action of the living; their mourning and the difficulty of the burial are the real subjects of the photograph.(16)

The daguerreotype, as we saw in the first photograph discussed in chapter one, often helped to create the presence of the absent -- in this case, the dead. In fact, the mourning portrait, like the mourning process it represented, used daguerreotypes themselves. At least two women, in the 1840's, posed in mourning attire with daguerreotypes of their dead children, and by later in the century, this had become a convention.(17) The process had come full circle; the photograph now documented a convention in which it had a part.

Table of


1. Arthur, Characteristics, p. 352.

2. One of the reasons that mid-century Americans collected photographs was so that they would have a portrait in case of death. This was apparently the case with Emily Dickinson's father. Dickinson, telling a correspondent in 1862 that there was no portrait of her (and failing to mention the now-familiar 1849 daguerreotype, which she disliked), wrote: "It often alarms father. He says death might occur, and he has molds of all the rest, but no mold of me...." (Mabel Loomis Todd, ed., Letters of Emily Dickinson [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931], pp. 275-276)

3. Arthur, Characteristics, p. 354.

4. Stannard, "Sex, Death, and Daguerreotypes," pp. 81-87.

5. Phoebe Lloyd, "Posthumous Mourning Portraiture," in Martha V. Pike and Janice Gray Armstrong, A Time To Mourn; Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth Century America (Stony Brook, NY: The Museums at Stony Brook, 1980), pp. 79-82.

6. Lloyd, "Posthumous," p. 73.

7. Quoted in Stannard, "Sex," p. 96.

8. Stannard, "Sex," p. 92.

9. Halttunen, Confidence, p. 144.

10. Lewis O. Saum, "Death in Pre-Civil War America," in David Stannard,ed., Death in America (University of Pennsylvania, 1974), pp. 41-47.

11. My sample can be found in Stanley B. Burns, M.D., Sleeping Beauty; Memorial Photography in America (Twelvetrees Press, 1990), plates 1-38, Rudisill, Mirror, plates 192-195, and Stannard, Sex, throughout.

12. Halttunen, Confidence, pp. 124-152. It was these conventions of dress, presumably, that allowed the daguerreotypist in the Godey's story above to divine that the old woman was in "deep mourning," the highly ritualized initial period of grief after the loss of a close relative.

13. For similar examples, see Burns, Sleeping, plates 13 and 27, and Stannard, Sex, p. 101 (Figure 12). See Burns throughout for daguerreotypes of mothers and of both parents with dead children and of men and women with their dead spouses.

14. Halttunen, Confidence, p. 127.

15. This is in contrast to a contemporary genre of photography that I have not included, one that serves, too, to illustrate an emphasis on the action of the living mourners: photographs of the beautiful, well-groomed "rural" cemeteries of the East. A movement, led by Cambridge's Mt. Auburn Cemetery (1831), emerged at mid-century to bury the dead in serene sites instead of crowded city cemeteries. Boston's Southworth and Hawes photographed the Mt. Auburn Cemetery extensively. See Robert A. Sobieszek and Odette M. Appel, The Spirit of Fact; The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976), pp. 104-109, and Halttunen, Confidence, p. 127.

16. See a strikingly similar daguerreotype, this time with two mourners, Burns, Sleeping, plate 24.

17. Trachtenberg, Reading, p. 31, and Burns, Sleeping, plate 18, for the photographs, and Halttunen, Confidence, p. 126.