Among the Romans, it was very common, in some periods more than others, to have a portrait of yourself as a part of, or on the premises of, your tomb. It was an assertion of selfhood and existence and social significance before death; or it allowed a commemorator to assert these things for the dead. From dead babies . . .

Tiberius Natronius Venustus, lived 4 years, 4 months, and 10 days. Antiquarium of the Santa Rosa/Via Triumphalis Necropolis, Vatican City. Photo: author.

to families . . .

Quintus Servilius Hilarus, freedman of Lucius, and family. Museo Gregoriano Profano, Vatican Museums. Photo: author.

to grizzled elders . . .

Bust of an old man, Boston, MFA. Photo: author. (I actually don’t know if this was a funerary portrait.)

you can find all ages and types, nor was this exclusively a man’s game.

So you can imagine how interested I was some years ago to discover that Americans have put portraits in or on tombs, too. It’s interesting to think about how much Americans who self-commemorated this way were like the Romans. For this reason I’m starting a series exploring these portraits. I don’t have all the answers, but I can start thinking through the problems here.

At root, when people use their tomb to tell a story about themselves through words, images, style, architecture and choice of location, they’re trying to impress us, and sometimes they play it like a zero-sum game. You can see how this ardent social competition, sometimes waged long before death, might explode into a bonfire of vanity if the gasoline of money is poured on it. Making fun of the awkward missteps of nouveaux riches is an old game, but the vieux riches are just as guilty. Where between these two poles do American funerary portraits fall?

I omit as a class the hugely interesting tombs with photographs glued to the stone or etched in. I’ve discussed landmark examples here, but on the whole since they are usually modest, and because the Romans didn’t have that technology, I’ve decided to leave them out of this series.

A caveat: portraits are meant to be seen and admired. By who, or how many? I can only guess at that sometimes. But whatever the commemorators’ original intentions, many portraits are found within mausolea behind locked doors and dirty glass. Practical difficulties might limit even an intended audience. My photos never rise above the barely adequate, as you’ll see.

The Rouss portraits, Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester, VA.
Charles Baltzell Rouss was a businessman who did very well after transplanting himself to New York City. He built the complex at 555 Broadway St., which still exists. He comemorated this sucess and its location by adopting the middle name Broadway. In any event, when he died in 1902 he joined his wife Maggie (d. 1899) in a fine, large mausoleum in the Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia. Inside the mausoleum are sculpted portraits of Charles and Maggie, and, one presumes, on the basis of their smaller scale, their two sons, Peter (d. 1932) and Charles (d. 1891).

A first question is: are the portraits attempting to be lifelike, capturing the “warts and all” of their subjects? The portrait of Rouss, when compared to his picture, seems lifelike in his bulbous nose and the tuft of hair over his forehead disguising baldness. No image of Maggie is available on the web, but the portrait has a long, bent, sharp nose and she, like Charles, shows age in her thin face that has lost its youthful fat. At the very least we can say that the sculptor did not suppress all signs of age and infelicities of physiognomy into some idealized youthful perfection. How much might have been “airbrushed” away I cannot tell from the available photograph.

Both mid-torso-length busts are covered in rich, heavy, garb. The clothing is elaborate and meant to add visual interest with a play of light and shadow in the drapery and folds of the cloth. His coat has a softness in texture, and this softness is carried over into the the way his vest ruffles and the cloth pulls around the buttons. A tall stiff (detachable) collar hides any floppy wattles under Rouss’s chin and effectively places his head on a pedestal. Maggie has a complicated neck thing (let’s call it a scarf) that cascades down to the plinth. Under this scarf is a stiff cloak with multiple layers of horizontally ribbed or striped cloth that fall in drapes crimped like a pumpkin or giant oyster shell. He, at least, and I think she, too, have the corpulence of the well fed leisure class.

The faces have been molded so as to crisply articulate the features. On him, one can easily see the jowls and slackening of the cheeks. A mustache hides any folds between nose and lips. The expression is one of disengaged interest, by which I mean he seems to be looking intently at something, but he expresses no emotion. Gravitas and dignity are the name of the game here. The riffling tuft of hair on top not only hides his bald spot but also allows for a continuation of the artist’s signature play of light and shadow to give an interesting texture. I call this riffle “The Buchanan,” after its most prominent bearer.

James Buchanan, by George Peter Alexander Healy. Detail. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

Her face, which I think has slightly pursed lips and just a hint of a nascent smile, is also grave. The overall smoother texture of her face and hair (despite its strands) does not offer the artist as much scope for the visual interest he achieved elsewhere, and is less successful in this respect than Broadway’s portrait.

The atrocious quality of my photograph makes it harder to read the sons, but they appear to be suitably young and they do not have a generic look about them. The son on the right (presumably Peter, since Charles never lived that long) has an interesting wave in his hair and a modern style tie–a later production. As for the tone of the portraits, it is humorless gravitas down the line.

Second question for now: were these, or some portion of these busts intended as portraits for the house while these people were still very much alive and then transferred to the tomb only upon their death? The sculpture, at least of the parents, is quite good and must have commanded a premium, but to a man of Rouss’s resources, getting a bust sculpted might have been no more of a setback than getting a professional photograph is for us—so it is conceivable a rich man might spend ostentatiously to create a bust specifically for his tomb that would hardly ever be seen. It is also conceivable that disgruntled children or a later generation uninterested in Victorian portrait busts relocated them as white elephants into the mausoleum.

Estelle Artman or Pauline? portrait, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.
In the Artman mausoleum, there is Caleb D. and Estelle, she dead in 1943, he in (I think) 1931. A plaque below the rear window reads “In loving memory of Pauline.” I can’t make out any of the names on the other loculi. In any event, there is a brightly colored stained glass window in the rear of the mausoleum, featuring a woman in Greek or biblical garb holding a lamp (an eternal flame, I guess) up to a giant cross. What stand out instantly are the signs of age on the face—jowls, naso-labial folds. This is in stark contrast to the other female allegorical figures we see around the cemetery (and elsewhere) like the one I add below. I take it as evidence that sometimes, at least, portraits in American tombs are there by intention and were executed for funerary purposes.

This is of particular interest because the Romans did something similar, but for a different reason. They would put a woman’s realistic head showing age onto a lissome Venus body. The idea connoted by the “costume of Venus” as the term of art goes, was that the woman had brought home the bacon, sexually, in her marriage. The aged head connoted something like old-school dignity. The Romans were fine with their statues giving off visually mixed messages as long as all the messages were honorific.

Here the female figure may be closer to the early Christian symbol of the orant, a praying figure representing the soul of the deceased. The pose is all wrong, but the eternal flame in juxtaposition to the cross seems to betoken some assertion of eternal life through Christ(‘s sacrifice). So in the case of the Artman portrait, the costume is olde-timey biblical to denote the other realm in which the deceased now finds herself.

Albert Hale Mershon Mausoleum portrait. West Laurel Hill, Philadelphia.
Mershon (1839-1926), another businessman, and his wife, Martha Rebecca, inhabit a fine mausoleum in West Laurel Hill. The earliest burials I could see in the mausoleum were in the 1880s, and Mershon might well have been prosperous enough to have built himself a mausoleum upon the death of relatives that early. He had fought in the Civil War, and would have been about 40 in 1880. (Aside: the stained glass window depicts a remarkably long-suffering Christ knocking on Winnie-the-Pooh’s door.)

Albert Hale Mershon Mausoleum. Martha Rebecca Mershon? Photo: author.

The portrait bust, which extends only down to the breast bone, features a head turned lightly to the proper left. The photograph makes the eyes appear to look coquettishly forward at us, but that’s just the lighting: they are looking directly forward, that is, toward our right. The features are youthful; no folds or wrinkles are visible. The features are delicate, and the eyes are close together: the shape of the head is classicizing. Here is a goddess’s head from the Walters Gallery in Baltimore to show you what I mean. The hair is different: what can I say, goddesses liked a central part. This is not the time to enter a long discussion, but I’ll note that the Romans at some periods created portrait images similarly influenced by Greek ideal forms—the later portrait types of the emperor Augustus are a landmark example.

Still, there are signs of individuality: the hair, of course, sports a style of the late nineteenth century. The hair is in a bun tied back with a ribbon–you can see one end of the ribbon fall to the (proper) left side of her neck. The hair in front has been teased up into curls over the forehead. Her bodice is generously, yet modestly open, emphasizing the rise of her neck. She wears a choker which breaks up and articulates the expanse. The neckline is bordered by a frill which might be a scallop upon closer inspection.

The bodice has a brocaded border outside the frill and then falls in unbroken striped fabric. The lighting and the polish of the marble makes the bodice shine like silk, and it gives an impression of sheerness because it clings to and emphasizes her feminine form. A large but balanced corsage of flowers hangs above her left breast. The notional weight of the flowers might be taken to indicate that the artist intends us to see the bodice as heavier than it looks so as to support it.

An idealized woman, then, made to look sexy within the bounds of premodern mores. Was it commissioned by her husband? It would help a lot to observe it closer.

John and Robert Allen Trenwith monuments, Laurel Hill, Philadelphia, PA.
Trenwith (1836-1902) and his son (1870-1892) might make you think they went down on the Titanic with their sumptuous evening wear:

In Roman monuments which simultaneously depict more than one generation of a family, you can sometimes tell who is older on the basis of tokens of age such as wrinkles that the sculptor has applied to a face, and sometimes by the hairstyle even when the faces are depicted equally (or indistinguishably) youthfully. This is a long way of saying that I wish I knew the chronology of the monument’s creation. It’s actually a complex of monuments, with the major parts being Trenwith on an obelisk, his son on a plinth with an eternal flame upon it, and Trenwith’s brother on another interesting monument with an anchor and a capstan atop.

I suppose that the treatment of the two figures here argues for a different artist and therefore a different time of completion, perhaps in proximity to the dates of death. Though the eyes sparkle in a somewhat similar fashion, differences stand out. The background, for a start, smooth versus rough claw chisel work. Senior’s clothing, like that of Rouss above, is sumptuously carved to give a feel for softness and drape. The collar of his jacket softly curves in a sort of roll. The face is highly mannered because the artist has attempted to foreshorten it to make it look “right” to those looking head on at the relief. The details of the right side of the face are fewer, since that side is turned away from us. I admit the result looked “googly-eyed.”

John Trenwith monument, Laurel Hill Cemetery. Detail. Photo: author.

Junior is in lower relief and the sculptor has avoided the mannered foreshortening. And, being younger, his face is understandably tauter, and his hair fuller. The treatment of the clothing, however, could not be farther from senior’s. The starched shirt and the dinner jacket are reduced to geometric planes articulated by lines and notional buttons and button holes. The peak lapels stand out like wings. The bow tie has been reduced to turns of a flat ribbon. However, junior’s chin has senior’s shape, and the two foreheads are similar. I think this reflects some respect for the family connection—and for family resemblance—by the artist.

That’s all for now. The most important question I, at least, think this selection raised was whether some free-standing portrait busts in tombs were repurposed after life to a funerary context, and under what circumstances such a repurposing could take place. Put another way, was it important to those people to “be present” for visitors to their normally closed mausolea? In the case of the stained glass window in the Artman mausoleum, the answer is “yes,” which leaves it open that some of the busts might have done so, too. The Trenwiths certainly wanted to excite public admiration.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: