Up until the 18th century mourning was a luxury enjoyed (sic) mainly by royalty and those with sufficient aristocratic pedigrees. When Sir Henry Unton, a mere Ambassador, MP and civil servant extraordinaire, died of bubonic plague while in the queen’s service in 1596 he was accorded a baron’s funeral for services rendered, a full two stations higher than his own of Knight.
Certain mourning customs that were familiar to the Victorians, the worlds best mourners, would have seemed equally at home four-hundred years earlier. While the 16th century was awash in black, the upper class women (and by that we mean aristocratic) draped themselves in various veils and bauble-free headgear, usually in black, sometimes in white if you were Marie Stuart (please clip those “r”s like a proper scot). Men donned a hooded cloak, seen quite clearly in Sir Henry’s funeral procession. These are not monks, but friends and family, who would be expected to wear the garment up to six months depending on their relation to the deceased. Male mourning would later lose the mourning cloak and cowl, and substitute darker, more somber versions of au current fashion.
Prior to Et in Arcadia ego (Nicolas Poussin, 1637-1638) death iconography was quite literal, and consisted mostly of deaths heads and crossbones, reapers, and uniquely animated cadavers out to pay a call.
During the enlightenment era a fundamental change occured. While mourning goods became more affordable by the middle classes, mourning customs began to be sentimentalized as the enlightenment philosphies began to change the very basis of family life and family feeling. Rousseauian ideals and neoclassical motifs collided so that by the second half of the 18th century every grieving mother envisioned herself a stoic Roman matron mourning her Brutus while posing attractively on the lawn with an obelisk. Early on it was primarily in mourning iconography that women played out these neo-classical fashion fantasies, long before they appeared draped over the heaving bosoms of the demi-monde at the Palais Royale.
Mourning Jewelry and Portraiture
It was common custom for a person to stipulate in their will to have memorial jewelry made for loved ones (rings, brooches, lockets) either using macerated hair to paint with, or locks of hair woven to create a pleasing pattern or design, with a sentimental phrase, pertinent names, dates etc. The to-be-deceased would have set aside some locks of hair for this purpose. So it is with little surprise that (especially) during the Terror, when people were certain of their own demise, we find the condemned preparing for death, and their own remembrances there-after. Locks of hair and other tokens are exchanged frequently, bequeathed, and smuggled out of prisons by sympathetic, and sometimes merely pecuniary, opportunists. This was especially the case for the royal family. Despite thorough efforts by the revolutionary government to deter the traffic in royal relics, there were reports of locks Louis XVI hair being sold in little boxes, and “large silver rings, which have secret openings, containing in their upper part, made convex for this purpose a small piece of the coat of Monsieur Veto…” [source: The Politics of Appearance – Wrigley]
The year is 1791 and Bourcet, as an official in the house of the Dauphin, is displaying his royalist sympathies with a lack of subtlety that does him credit. Upon the table to the left are marble busts of the king and queen, one white lily (of france) lies dying upon the table, while a second remains in a french blue vase. I speculate that the lilies are the two dauphins of france, the elder of the two perished just before the fall of the bastille in July of 1789. The Bourcet family seems to be mourning their own loss. M. de Bourcet’s downward gaze falls upon the fallen lily, hand empty and outstretched, while the other holds his eldest affectionately to his side. The four children stand between their parents. The eldest, father’s little soldier, gazes forlornly at the portrait on the floor, a toddler on Maman’s lap reaches towards the portrait upon the wall, too young to understand where his deceased brother has gone, while the young girl watches pensively by her youngest sibling’s cradle, the infant turns away, perhaps ready to join the elder sibling who went before, and take her place in the empty frame above. Madame and Mlle. are the only two who gaze at the viewer. Who is the painting beneath the table?
The Victim’s Ball
To read more on the most unusual mourning practice of the age, view my post and gallery on Les Bal des Victimes!
Will posterity believe that persons whose relatives died on the scaffold did not institute
days of solemn and common affliction during which, assembled in mourning clothing,
they would attest to their grief over such cruel, such recent losses, but instead [instituted]
days of dancing where the point was to waltz, drink and eat to one’s heart’s content.
Portraits with bits o’ black crêpe, taffeta, velvet and no provenance, but that are intriguing none-the-less: