May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Hurlburt Family Mourning Piece

Probably Sarah Hurlburt (1787-1866) Encoders


c. 1808

Watercolor and ink on paper

17 x 20" oval (sight)

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.43

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Probably Sarah Hurlburt (1787-1866)

Hurlburt Family Mourning Piece

In 1799 Young Americans came together to mourn the death of George Washington. As they had been united in striving for independence, they now were joined in grief. Schoolmistresses used such events as opportunities to reinforce feelings of patriotism in their students. Mourning pieces were one manifestation of this public sentiment. An artistic outgrowth of the Romantic movement in Europe, they relied on a codified iconography based on funerary motifs from the classical world recently uncovered at archaeological sites such as Herculaneum and Pompeii. These elements were mixed with Christian symbolism to produce a hybrid that was at once tasteful and morally sound. Within the formal language of the mourning piece, practitioners were free to combine the elements in any manner they chose. Often it was the schoolmistress who designed the mourning composition that came to be associated with her school, but sometimes it was the student who freely created with the building blocks of the convention.

The school that produced this unique watercolor of repeated weeping women is not yet identified. It memorializes Connecticut farmer Lemuel Hurlburt (1750–1808) and two of his young children, who died in 1776 and 1795. The memorial was probably painted by his daughter Sarah, who would have been twenty-one at the time and possibly a student in a Hartford school.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Hurlburt Family Mourning Piece,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.