Mourning Piece for Sarah Elizabeth Burnham
The Burnhams’ young daughter, Sarah, died Christmas Eve, 1830. Ruth Shute herself lost her own daughter four weeks later, nine days after the birth. In this mourning piece, Mrs. Burnham’s figure leans on her daughter’s tomb in an attitude of grief, her face lined with marks of her suffering. The event might account for the somber aspect of her portrait painted by the Shutes within the next year or two. Although childhood mortality rates were high in the early nineteenth century, there was a special sorrow associated with the death of an innocent child, as indicated by the lines of poetry on the tomb and the fallen rose. Commissioning the mourning piece along with their own portraits and that of their son enabled the Burnhams to keep their infant daughter’s memory alive as one of the family in the age before photography.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Mourning Piece for Sarah Elizabeth Burnham,” 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.