Alex, Lindsey and myself took the trip up to the Upper West Side to go to the American Folk Art Museum to visit the Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America exhibit. The exhibit displayed posthumous portraits of, most often, young children of the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the paintings were described, in great detail, but only what was pictured within the painting. Many of the descriptions talked about the animals, toys and environment the child was painted with and in, but one piece of the story was often left out --- the reason for death. Is this something that was to be forgotten? Was the painting to be the only story that was carried forward of the child? To preserve identity?
Another thing I noticed was often there were different motifs in the paintings as to indicated further that the child was deceased: sun setting, specific types of flowers that are known to shrivel at the end of the day, books that read 'remember me' on the spine, many loose strings indicating that the thread of life cut too short. I'm curious why it was important to include these symbols in the painting. Were the paintings often displayed in a public location within the house, and so that the guests wouldn't be confused, was it important that these motifs were included? To be sure the proper story was portrayed? I'm unsure, but I thought it was interesting.
I wonder how frequently this type of portraiture spread in popularity over the years? Did it become a popular occurrence over time? Did visiting friends see the portrait in the hallway and decided that they wanted to do this for their children if they ever passed because they felt it was a great way to remember their story? How did this trend catch on? Did the visiting friend remember the story of the deceased child better because of the painting? In Chapter 3 of Narrative and Intelligence, they talk about how we remember stories and it might be relevant in analyzing this situation:
"We do not easily remember what other people have said if they do not tell it in the form of a story... More often than not, other people's stories don't have the richness of detail and emotional impact that allows them to be stored in multiple ways in our memories"
With that quote in mind, it seems that the detailed portraitures were used to preserve identity so that their story would not be lost in the years and centuries to come.