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"Leaves have their time to fall": Reflections of Mourning in Nineteenth-Century Decorative Arts

 

The mysteries of mourning fans, portraits and other symbols of the "cult of memory" honoring the deceased will be explained when "Leaves have their time to fall": Reflections of Mourning in Nineteenth-Century Decorative Arts opens at the Georgia Museum of Art on July 19, 2003.

"Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans were obsessed with changes in fashions and philosophies from England and Europe," says Patricia Miller who helped organize the exhibition. "Objects such as mourning pictures, mourning jewelry and mourning fans were imported from England as early as the 1760s, and soon American craftsmen were copying these objects," adds Ms. Miller.

The exhibition is an assemblage of such works, all relating to death or the inevitable sorrow and grief which follow. "Leaves have their time to fall" is a calligraphic ink inscription from a cotton quilt, c. 1847, considered an excellent example of 19th-century mourning textiles. The quilt is attributed to the Sewing Society of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

In addition to the presence of the poem, the quilt also features one of the most widely-used symbols of mourning in the 1800s, the willow tree. The quilt has appliqués of floral sprays, floral wreaths and a weeping willow centerpiece with numerous handwritten mourning, Bible and patriotic verses. Miller explains that the willow's "weeping" appearance made it a natural symbolic association for sorrow and grief. In the 19th-century the tree was also a symbol for resurrection so it became a hopeful reminder of rebirth.

Other symbols include the urn and the obelisk. Mourning jewelry was also extremely popular, but what most fascinates the 21st-century viewer of these objects is the use of the deceased's hair, either woven into a "chain" for jewelry or sealed inside a locket of gold, perhaps with a small mourning scene painted on ivory on one side of the locket. Hair was also ground and mixed into pigment for an artist to paint a mourning scene honoring the deceased. The exhibition's curator Ashley Callahan has included a necklace of human hair by an unknown maker, probably from Georgia. The Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia is loaning a letter press broadside entitled Hair Braiding of Every Style and Pattern. Although it is not dated, it advertises the services of an itinerant hair braider who set up shop briefly in Athens. According to the advertisement, the hair braider's repertoire included bracelets, necklaces, finger rings and crosses made of hair. The broadside boasted "special attention paid to interbraiding the hair of deceased friends into mementoes and keepsakes, of any pattern desired."

The exhibition is generously sponsored by Ms. Elkin G. Alston, a benefactor of the Friends of the Museum, by the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and by the Friends of the Museum.

 

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