The St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Washington, D.C., would be a triple boon for those seeking to study Catholic iconography, but not very promising for those of us seeking funerary portraits. Or so I thought until I poked my nose into the Roberts mausoleum, dated 1913. I can’t find any inscriptions or other anagraphic data for this family. This is a great pity, because it has one of the finest female portraits I have yet seen in an American tomb. It’s actually wonderful, and it stands in a museum niche between the masses holding coffins.
First, we gaze at the image of a fully formed human woman, not idealized in any detectable way. Her rectangular face is shown with plentiful markers of age: jowls, fat in the cheeks and underchin, visible naso-labial folds, and rather more visible creases under and to the sides of the eyes. The cheeks, once prominent, are sagging. The high-arched brows play havoc with the look of the face in the available light, but the “average” look in my view is a kindly one. Prominent ears, bulbous nose, hard chin boss: all tokens of age.
The hairdo is vintage 1900, pulled back but with an undulating mass rising from the forehead. We see her hands, but she is covered everywhere else. Her torso, where the cloth of her dress expresses its form, is thick, but not fat.
The cloth of the dress is a study in patterns and folds and drapery. By a miracle of 100 years of falling dust, the texture of her clothing is wonderfully highlighted. We’ll start with the skirt. We can make out creases in the fabric, and we can also see that it has been patterned to look like velvet, maybe. There are two creases in the fabric over her left hip, for example, reflecting that she has been sitting and gotten up.
Our woman has gently grasped her dress at her left hip. Her blouse looks thick and slightly heavy, thanks to the tight folds in the sleeves. I imagine velvet here, too. The sleeves have turned-back cuffs of a triangular nature. These cuffs have raised patterns which I take to indicate that they were embroidered or brocaded. The blouse generously encloses and does not emphasize the bust; the cloth is gathered at the neck under a collar. The rich embroidery or brocading at the cuffs is repeated at the collar. The collar of sheerer blouse rises up through the collar of the heavier dress.
The waist is encircled by a band of cloth that is as richly embroidered or brocaded as cuffs and collar. The overall effect is chaste but showy: it’s a costly ensemble, and it is desired we know it. The woman also wears a floral pin at the throat and a pendant on a chain of beads or pearls around her neck. She wears mounted pearl earrings, and at least two prominent finger rings that I can see. Her shoes, of no particular interest, just peek out; and she holds what look like budding roses in her right hand. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” so to speak.
To have been able to create a family mausoleum, and to commission a life-sized, full length sculpture of this quality means that this family had real money. The portrait subject’s jewelry and rich clothing points to family wealth, too. Lastly, the mere fact of the existence of such a commissioned statue drives the nail home (a matter of assured taste as opposed to merely being able to afford it). Yet, compared to women whose roughly contemporary portraits I’ve seen, she is more modest overall and closed in. This would be the Catholic side, I suppose.
But as a final observation, this was one of only two pieces of non-nihil-obstat, imprimatur artwork on the premises (besides those little ceramic printed photographs they epoxy to tombstones). So the Roberts people had the education and socially secure status that allowed them to think outside of a reflexive box.