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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

America's First Exposure to Photography | Political Portraits | Liberia | Tools of the Trade | Death and Memorialization in the Victorian Era

Death and Memorialization in the Victorian Era

People living in the nineteenth-century United States endured a higher mortality rate than subsequent generations and the memorialization of loved ones held special importance in the all too frequent grieving process. Those with more money could afford to have portraits of family members drawn or painted. Death masks placed over a person's face, shoulders, and sometimes hands just after death were also popular. The advent of photography made it possible for the middle class to afford portraits as well. If a portrait was not made prior to death, it was not unusual to obtain one after the fact. Portraits drawn or photographed just after death were often said to capture a heavenly look of serenity, suggesting that the horrible inevitability of death also held a beauty.

Daguerreotypes often required a subject to remain still for several minutes to ensure that the image would not blur. Some subjects were more still than others. It is unclear exactly when Mary Gideon sat for her portrait in 1853, but the notes in this collection indicate that she died the year that the image was taken. Such a memorial was likely to have been displayed in a special place in the family's home or embedded on a tombstone. Another potential post-mortem daguerreotype comes in the form of the Adams family portrait featuring a somber couple dressed in black holding what appears to be their sleeping daughter on their lap. Animals, too, may have been so cherished as to have been memorialized in photographs such as that of an unidentified man with a cat in his lap.

  • In what ways does a portrait memorialize a loved one? Why would memorials such as photographs help a friend or family member cope with the loss of a loved one?
  • Is a portrait of the deceased different from a portrait of the living? If so, how?
  • What impact would you expect the Civil War to have had on the use of photography for memorialization?
  • How have notions of death and memorialization changed over time? To what might these changes be attributed?
  • How might the increased ease of taking and duplicating photographs have affected the value of portraits and the meaning of memorialization?