Sunday, February 13, 2011

Memorial to Washington, American Folk Art Museum

Click on above title to see image.

Artist unidentified
Eastern United States
Early 19th century
Ink, mica flakes, and mezzotint engravings on paper with applied gold paper, mounted on wood form
4 3/4 x 1 3/4 x 1 3/4 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Nancy Green Karlins and Mark Thoman in honor of Robert Evans Green, 2001.15.1
George Washington’s death in 1799 was the first cataclysmic emotional loss suffered by the new American nation. Citizens mourned him at public memorial services or by fashioning commemorative objects to place in their homes. In time an industry rose up to meet the collective appetite for material imprinted with the images of departed public figures. Ironically, much of the production of ceramics, textiles, and objects lamenting the loss of America’s early heroes originated in England and was later copied by professional and amateur artists in America. This small handmade memorial to Washington is in the form of an urn with finial placed on a plinth, a neoclassical motif widely disseminated in the decorative arts by Josiah Wedgwood, Robert and James Adam, and others.

The urn became one of the basic building blocks of mourning iconography. Its symbolic association with the spirit of the deceased dates back to its origin as the vessel for the ashes and vital organs of the departed. This piece is a wooden form that is covered with paper. It is embellished with mica flakes, ball-embossed gold paper strips, designs in sepia ink, and portrait engravings, though only the engravings of Washington and Thomas Jefferson remain; the other two sides may have held portraits of John Adams and James Madison.

The portrait engraving of Washington is prominently placed on the front of the plinth and surrounded by a series of circles containing symbolic pictorial elements. Homages to Washington were still being created by schoolgirls as late as the 1820s, when Harriet Lenfestey stitched the following verse into her 1823 sampler: “Columbia lamenting the loss of her Son / who redeemed her from Slavery and liberty won / while fame is directed by Justice to Spread / The Sad tidings afar that washingtons dead.”

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