Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge


11. Death

In 1846 John Wood Dodge painted a miniature portrait of Felix Grundy Eakin, the young scion of a middle Tennessee family (fig. 32). The child stands in an architectural setting that suggests his family's prosperity. With painstaking precision of the sort that often characterizes a self-taught artist, Dodge described his subject's costume, face, flowers, and other details of the composition, including hat, toys, and tools on the checkered floor. Their scattered disarray might be the product of a lively three-year-old's play, from which Master Eakin had been distracted to pose for the painter. The circumstances of the portrait were, however, of a different sort altogether.

The image is a posthumous one, memorializing young Eakin, who was among the many victims of the period's awful childhood mortality rates. The details that Dodge so carefully brushed with watercolor onto the small ivory panel were symbolic of the boy's sorry demise. He stands before a fiery sunset, suggesting the end of day, and beside an urn, long a symbol of mourning. The flowers on the ledge are wilted and dropping downward, to join other blossoms already fallen to the floor. The toy cart that Felix Eakin would pull is immobilized by a broken wheel, which is not repaired by the hammer and nails, themselves the instruments of another Son's death on the cross. Dodge's poignant portrait, which conveys its message through such symbols of death, is part of a large group of funerary subjects to which artists in this country, as elsewhere, turned their attention in the nineteenth century.

Elihu Vedder knew the subject well, both in his art and in his personal life. The dead or dying often figured in his imaginative compositions. These included The Dead Alchemist, The Dead Abel, Prayer for Death in the Desert, and The Plague in Florence, all from the 1860s; memorial subjects inspired by family deaths in the 1870s; the multiple versions of The Cup of Death (1880s) from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; and The Last Man (1891), whose subject is posed atop a pile of human skulls. So pronounced was his morbid interest that one of his contemporaries referred to this "idealist of idealists" as "an artistic Poe."[147] The narrative quality of many of Vedder's paintings may account for the number of writers who purchased his work, including James Russell Lowell, Herman Melville, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain.[148]

Death stalked Vedder in life as in his art. In 1872, his infant son Alexander died of diphtheria, a death that was foretold in Elihu's dreams. Three years later, after another son, Philip, succumbed to the same disease, Vedder memorialized him in two posthumous portraits, painting his favorite child from memory.[149] Vedder once confessed, "I always try to embody my moods in some picture."[150] Beginning the year after Philip's death and continuing through the balance of the decade, Vedder did just that in a group of at least four memorial paintings inspired by his personal loss, including Memory (Girl with Poppies), 1877 (cat. no. 65).[151] The initial painting in the group, Woman among Poppies Holding Etruscan Jar, 1876 (private collection), established the iconography that would run throughout. Each of these canvases featured the woman (for which Vedder's bereaved wife posed) with symbolic attributes, to create allegorical statements of the cycle of death and rebirth. The figure holds an Etruscan vase of the sort routinely excavated in nineteenth-century Italy, where the expatriate Vedder spent much of his career; the vessel was made to contain the ashes of the dead, but it was also a symbol of the womb and thereby of rebirth. The dead poppies amid which the urn bearer stands also have funereal connotations. In the narcotic culture of the fin de siècle, poppies, the source of opium, were often used to represent sleep or death; conversely, the plant's seedpods also suggest regeneration, and the ancient Romans associated its leaves with Juno, the goddess of childbirth. The moon hovering on a distant horizon lends a lugubrious nocturnal air to the composition; its glow is filtered through the miasmic vapors that were traditionally associated with evening and danger on the Roman Campagna. The memorial paintings culminated in the largest example, In Memoriam, 1879 (fig. 33), in which Vedder further enriches the symbolism with the addition of a bleached boar's skull atop a funereal shaft that is decorated with a passion flower and a placque inscribed,

Heu flos unus superstes
Inter mortuos iam socios vigens
Sic at in corde desolato
Vivit adhuc nomen illud

("Also, as one surviving flower lives among his dead companions, Thus in the desolated heart still that name lives").[152] In each of these mourning pictures, Vedder relates this allegorical meaning through symbolic forms and objects, the comprehension of which depends on an informed viewer.

No special learning was necessary, however, to understand other treatments of this universal theme. An anonymous portrait of three children (cat. no. 63) suggests the sorry frequency with which families of an earlier age had to deal with such losses. A young boy and girl pose with their sister, who appears to sleep on a Victorian sofa; but upon closer scrutiny, the "sleeping" child seems to have departed this life and here is subject of a final portrait, a memento of her brief existence and of her loss. The closed-eyed, stiffly laid out corpse rests on a piece of furniture that also looks disturbingly like a lidded coffin. The striped drape over her body is topped by a bouquet of white blossoms of the sort recommended by Victorian-era arbiters of funerary practices: "the lily, the rose, the azalea; all white save a few violets; [were] all appropriate to scatter over the dead."[153] On the floor lies her fallen doll, an echo of its owner's still repose, and other abandoned toys and papers. A child's hoop is held by the brother, perhaps suggesting the circle of life now completed, perhaps simply emblematic of childish pursuits from which his baby sister is now retired. At her feet is an empty child's rocker. The "vacant chair" was a familiar trope for sentimental writers, used to connote a loss such as that of "Little Mary, bright and blest," who

Early sought her heavenly rest.
Oft we see her in our dreams --
Then an angel one she seems!
But we oftener see her, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.[154]

In an era when childhood losses were many -- for instance, of Lilly Martin Spencer's thirteen children, only seven survived to maturity -- images of domestic life, and death, were of special appeal to the grieving survivors who patronized artists for such mementos.

Three Children documents a family tragedy of the sort that also motivated George Lambdin. In the mid-nineteenth century, he won acclaim for his paintings of poverty and illness, even death, "because of the skill in pathetic expression."[155] The Last Sleep, circa 1858 (cat. no. 39), deals with a subject similar to the Three Children, but in more generalized and even more sentimentalized terms. Lambdin's is not a specific demise, but rather a general evocation of nineteenth-century death and the rituals of grieving, focusing on a young wife mourned by her prostrate husband. Again, white blossoms bedeck the dead, whose silvery bed curtains provide a shroud. Family piety is marked by the angelic sculpture mounted on the bedroom wall; in the far room, two chairs -- his and hers -- suggest the domestic tranquility now lost. The picture relates its tale of loss with an intent more bathetic than documentary, an emphasis appreciated by Victorian critics and audiences. To underscore the sentimental point, Lambdin titled the work when first exhibited with lines taken from Tennyson's "The Deserted House":

. . . Life and thought
Here no longer dwell
But in a city glorious
A great and distant city they have bought
A mansion incorruptible.[156]

The painting, which was shown without poetry at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, stirred viewers to emotional narration, which, in Henry Tuckerman's case, was even accompanied by sound effects: "the husband, utterly crushed with grief, has flung himself across the bed. His face is not seen, but we can imagine its pallor, even as in fancy we can hear the choking sobs with which his bosom heaves."[157] The subject had an enduring appeal, sufficient to lead Lambdin to paint another deathbed scene in Woman on Her Deathbed about thirty years later.[158]

Funeral rites and their sentiments were also an interest of certain artists in Vedder's and Lambdin's day. Pathos could be prompted even when the lamented was not human; J. Alden Weir, for instance, could pluck the heartstrings of his viewers with a painting such as Children Burying a Dead Bird, 1878 (fig. 34). When the victim was human, sentiment could flow even more freely. And the more exotic the ritual, the more unfamiliar the activities depicted were to the largely Christian audiences in the United States, the more enticing the paintings were. Frederick Bridgman knew this and, like many midcentury romantic artists, based a successful career on "Oriental" subjects, in his case drawn from his travels in North Africa and Egypt (1872-73). Though he was to return to Algiers often in the ensuing years, this was his only visit to Egypt; nevertheless, it gave him an exposure that critics subsequently thought endowed his works with "archaeological value."[159] The Funeral of a Mummy, 1876-77 (cat. no. 10), is a notable example of such a painting.

Bridgman's traveling companion in Egypt, Charles Sprague Pearce, was also moved by the experience. In Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt (fig. 35) Pearce plays to the Egyptomania of the period, as did his friend; however, unlike Bridgman, he conflates that exoticism with familiar biblical references. More strikingly, his subject is steeped with sentimentality that is lacking from Bridgman's. Parents mourn their dead and embalmed child, whose recumbent form is echoed in the diminutive figures in the foreground; these broken ushabtis add a sorrowful, symbolic note, just as do the broken toys at young Eakin's feet or the empty chair and fallen doll in Three Children.

Although the setting for Bridgman's obsequies was remote in time and space, thereby enhancing the romantic allure of the subject, the viewer is not struck by the same mournful sentiment. Instead, the artist presents the scene as if it was his own firsthand impression, an "archaeologically valuable" document more than a Victorian tearjerker. The funeral barge crossing the Nile to the land of the dead looks like a motif straight from the easel of French Salon painters of the period, most notably Bridgman's Parisian teacher, Jean-Léon Gerôme (fig. 36); one reviewer of the 1877 Salon even remarked that it might have been signed by the French master himself.[160] Bridgman's painting appealed to jurors at the 1877 Paris Salon, who awarded the painting a third-class medal. His art also appealed to the critics, who provided readers with detailed descriptions of figures and settings, along with information on the relevant cultural practices being depicted. As Lois Fink has noted, the method of the critics was akin to that of Bridgman and his Orientalist cohort: "Like the artists, they aimed at instruction and documentation -- so that Bridgman's paintings, with commentary provided by reviewers, served on one level much like the illustrations in the National Geographic magazine."[161]

Like Bridgman, Carl Gutherz was a product of European academic training, although his mature works bear no resemblance to the former's Orientalizing motifs. Gutherz came to the United States as a young boy with his immigrant family and was raised near Cincinnati and later in Memphis. He returned to Europe in 1868 for training in Paris and subsequently Munich. Thereafter, his career was divided between periods of European residence and protracted stays in the United States, but wherever he worked, his manner was shaped by his academic training and his proclivity for storytelling subjects. In the 1870s, newly returned from European training, Gutherz produced a series of drawings illustrating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Golden Legend" (1851), which, being based on the German "Der Arme Heinrich," had an appeal to the Swiss-born painter.

Gutherz's interest in narrative motifs continued in later life, but he came to draw more often from Scripture than from writings by his contemporaries. His most productive period came during the twelve years he spent in Paris, to which he returned in 1884 and where he exhibited regularly in the annual Salons. His contribution in 1888, Light of the Incarnation (Lux Incarnationis) (fig. 37), won critical praise for its spiritual sentiment. It also surprised by virtue of its composition, viewing the miraculous events from an angel's eye perspective: artist and viewer -- and the heavenly host -- look down on the spiritual light emanating from a Bethlehem manger far below, symbolic of the divine incarnate in the human. The gathering of emblematic flowers, birds and butterflies, and angels and putti suggests the redemptive theme, while the darkened group of figures foreshadows Christ's ultimate fate. Writers of Gutherz's day were quick to recognize and applaud the affinities of his work with idealist compositions by the era's symbolist artists. For critic Lilian Whiting, Light of the Incarnation "suggest[ed] the same sublime lesson as that taught in the lines of Tennyson: 'Knowledge by suffering entereth / And life is perfected by death.'"[162]

Gutherz's 1888 Salon success was followed by more large canvases in a similar religious vein, including Arcessita ab Angelis, 1889 (cat. no. 26). Gutherz confided in his notebook that "death is the one sure phenomenon, and it is not necessarily less beautiful than any other creation of the Divine Intelligence."[163] In Arcessita ab Angelis, two angels bear a young woman's body tenderly heavenward, assisted by a trio of putti, one of whom weeps and strews blossoms upon the clouds. The ethereal ascension, the transition from the mundane to the heavenly, is rendered in subtle tonalities that reinforce the spirituality of the moment, one that is dramatically different from Maltby Sykes's later Ascension (cat. no. 58).

The guardian angels painted by Dorothea Tanning (cat. no. 60) are of a different species from those who wafted Gutherz's dead maiden heavenward more than fifty years earlier. Her painting is devoid of his religious sentiment; neither does Tanning's subject pretend to document an exotic terrain and culture, as Bridgman did. The guardian angels are instead purely the product of the artist's rich imagination. Tanning spoke of her technique as not based on empirical observation, but as coming from "my hand, its secret path to my brain and how it found ways to paint the visions it found in there."[164] Those visions were often populated with women or young girls, a subject the artist finds endlessly fascinating. "What is more wonderful than the female body? That's the most important and the most wonderful and the most mysterious and extraordinary thing that I know."[165] In her works of the 1940s and early '50s, Tanning's female protagonists often found themselves in strange, dreamlike -- certainly mysterious and extraordinary, even nightmarish -- situations: tearing wallpaper from walls to reveal human forms beneath; standing before charred ruins in a desert landscape; floating in file to the ceiling of a menacing interior; or being ravished by winged furies, as in Guardian Angels.

These visions' surreal quality gave them an affinity with the works in the landmark exhibition of 1936, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, at the Museum of Modern Art, which Tanning recalled as a "real explosion [that] rock[ed] me on my run-over heels. Here is the infinitely faceted world I must have been waiting for. Here is the limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY, a perspective having only incidentally to do with painting on surfaces. Here. . . are signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive and, yes, so perverse that. . . they would possess me utterly."[166] That possession led to her enlistment in the surrealist camp, both artistically, from her first solo exhibition at Julian Levy's gallery in 1944, and personally, with her long association with Max Ernst, whom she married. When, in 2002, she looked back on her life and art, Tanning saw this involvement with surrealism as central: "There's enough of greatness in there that there will always be something rewarding for someone who likes to look at beautiful things and wonderful paintings." Today, she admits, "Surrealism is a piece of history," and yet its allure persists, "and it has stained the consciousness of everyone."[167]

In Guardian Angels, as often in her work, the subject -- the tale from the easel -- is not the visual documentation of a clear narrative. Instead, its sensual significance is intuited, perhaps by painter as much as by viewer; it is the product of suggestion, not exposition. Clues may exist to its genesis, both visual and verbal. The silvery white forms shot through with linear folds recall the abstract patterns in paintings by Roberto Matta, the surrealist master whom Tanning admires extravagantly, the "irrepressible exotic and seminal artist" she thought "worth a hundred pages of fantasies to match his own imagination."[168] The birdlike creatures suggest affinities less with any conventional angelic tribe than with the winged monsters -- "Loplop" and other bizarreries -- that inhabited the mind and paintings of her husband. They transport young girls, known only by their lower limbs, to . . . what? Safety, or ruin? Tanning recalls the circumstances of the painting's creation, in the desert home she and Ernst shared in Sedona, Arizona. "Day after day, surrounded as by an enemy who dares not deal the final blow, we doggedly painted our pictures, each of us in our own shimmering four walls, as if we were warriors wielding arms, to survive and triumph." In such "a place of ambivalent elements. . . you gave yourself up to that incredibly seductive wafture that, try as you might, you could never name."[169] The painting's subject, likewise so powerful yet elusive, so unnameable, suggests the domestic arena, "the spaces around our table and our bed [that] were hung with the web of his [Ernst's] stories, a long strand of shimmering beads strung with knots and areas of time and place in between each one," stories now vaguely recalled, "like dried mummy linen [clinging] to an indistinct silhouette."[170]

In the end, we can trust only the sense, not the story, for there is no clear meaning, neither in word nor in image. It was D. H. Lawrence's advice that we trust the tale, not the teller. Here, as with so many narrative images, we must trust the painting, not the painter.


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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:

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