Mourning Folk Art

Memorial Picture to Captain Daniel Carew

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This watercolor painting depicts a lush landscape, framed with a willow and an evergreen.  A tree lined path leads to a church in the center of the composition. Hidden in the background, shaded by more greenery, is a red building or tomb and tucked into the foreground on the right, a tiny white village. The artist illustrates an understanding of perspective and also skill applying the use of stylized symbolism A large, inscribed memorial topped with a funerary urn as the focal point of the image is a tell-tale sign of American mourning folk art. .

The inked message on the memorial reads:
Inscribed to
The Memory of Capt Daniel [Carew],
Who died at sea  Aug 19th 1837.  Aged 29 yrs,
Sleep on loved one and quietly rest,
The cares of earth no more shall molest
Thy body returned to it’s mother earth
But thy soul ascends to a brighter world.
Thou  lie’st embedded in the oceans’s depth
Encircl’d by others who here ‘ve slept
Thy dirge is the mighty ocean’s roar,
That sounds the knell [  ] i[s] no more.
Fond wife and children, kindred and all,
In the prime of life, ye too may fall.
And a voice echoes black from the touch,
[Aroude], prepare for thy final doom,

Captain Daniel Carew had taken several sealing voyages to Buenos Aires and the Falkland Islands beginning in 1830.  On one voyage, in 1831, the Schooner Breakwater was boarded by Captain Matthew Brisbane (a former Antarctic explorer, who had been appointed the director of fisheries in the Falkland Islands by Governor and Head Commander of the Falklands , Luis Vernet) while Captain Carew had rowed ashore for provisions. Governor Vernet, who had petitioned to establish a monopoly on seal hunting in the islands, demanded Breakwater to be seized for violation of seal hunting restrictions. Two other American vessels were captured, but the crew of the Breakwater was able to subdue their captors, and escape with the Schooner, leaving the unfortunate Captain Carew behind.

In November, 1831, Simon Carew and 24 others signed a memorial to President Andrew Jackson about the appropriation of the Falkland Islands by the government of Buenos Aires. Jackson gave attention to this incident in his December 6, 1831 State of the Union Address.

The exact cause of Captain Carew’s death is unclear. Ebenezer G. Carew, Daniel’s brother, had a premonition about his death. When the Captain of the vessel came to tell the family of the death of Daniel, his brother, Ebenezer, replied that “he knew” and was able to give the hour and date of the tragedy.

The artist, eleven-year old Sarah Elizabeth Carew,  was born in 1833. She would have been four years old when her father Captain Daniel Carew, died at sea in 1837 while on a whaling voyage.  Most likely, this painting would have been completed at school as part of the curriculum.  

Schoolgirl memorial paintings were one component in the finishing of a proper education for girls in the 19th century.  Often times, these memorial images were used as part of a young woman's final exam to demonstrate not only her artistic skills, but also her literal and social comprehension of symbolic imagery.

Death was commonplace and outward grieving was expected. The tedious process of constructing these works of art was done as a group activity, providing girls with a socially acceptable manner of working through the grieving process. The representation of the willow, the urn and the memorial stone would have been easily recognizable symbols of death given the culture of the day.

Eventually, with the popularity and the affordability of the lithograph print, the creation of personalized painting and embroidery declined.  Visual remembrances were replaced by conveniently purchasable To the Memory Of prints by Currier & Ives.  Additionally, these advances in printing and publishing gave rise to an increase in the use of mourning trading cards and ephemera in mid 19th century popular culture.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why would mourning customs and practices have been an important part of the social make-up of Victorian culture?
  2. What other ways did people of the Victorian era demonstrate they were in mourning?
  3. Why do you think young men were intrigued with joining the crew of a sailing vessel, despite considerable the risk?