Victorian Postmortem Portraiture

June 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm (Aesthetics, Children, Death, Modern World, Photography, The Victorian Era) (, , , , , , , )

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During the Victorian Era (1837 – 1901) in the United States and Europe, a peculiar funerary practice emerged. Due in part to the high youth mortality rates and in part to the recent popularization of daguerreotype photography, it became commonplace to have professional portraits taken of recently deceased loved ones, most commonly children.

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These morbid images were often the only glimpses of the deceased that distant relatives ever had the chance to experience. Originally considered luxuries, such portraits became increasingly affordable as ambrotypes and tintypes were developed during the second half of the 19th century.

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Since these photographs were meant to serve as memorials of the individual’s lives, the subjects were often formally dressed, fully made-up, and strapped upright in chairs to give them a semblance of vitality. This effect was sometimes enhanced by pink tinting later added to the photographs, making the lifeless faces appear flushed.

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It was not uncommon for parents to pose with the corpses of their infants, or for children to surround the remains of their siblings.

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Later examples of postmortem portraiture occasionally depict the deceased propped upright in coffins, simultaneously simulation life and acknowledging the lifelessness of the corpse.

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While this tradition has all but vanished in modern day United States and most of Europe, various Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe still practice this form of commemoration, although focusing primarily on distinguished members of their religious communities. There are also some organizations in contemporary America that aim to revive this antiquated tradition. However, due to shifting norms and modern conceptions of death and bodies, photographs of corpses are perceived more as unseemly than as sentimental, evoking shutters of chilled terror in those who occasion to glimpse the open eyes of a lifeless face.

Some Further Reading:

The homepage of the Thanatos Archive, a collection of 19th century postmortem portraits

An article about contemporary postmortem portraiture

A look at how death was handled during the Victorian Era, including a discussion of the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s response to which resulted in the popularization of mourning jewelry

An extensive article from UCLA’s website that looks at these photographs within the context of the history of mourning in Western culture

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