George Washington Mourning Art in Bergen County

Mourning Art developed out of the newly formed Republic's patriotic grief in 1799 with the death of George Washington.

Mourning Art developed out of the newly formed Republic's patriotic grief in 1799 with the death of George Washington. His death coincided with the country's growing prosperity, a period of religious revivalism and the circulation of ideas and images recently available to all through print media. Allegorical drawings by artists such as Samuel Folwell, John James Barralet, John Coles, Jr. and Enoch G. Gridley were copied into art forms such as drawings, needlework, paintings and jewelry by adults and children. 

The Washington Memorial in the collection of the Bergen County Historical Society was created from silk floss embroidery depicting 8 figures with very finely painted faces, reverse painting on glass for a matt, all in its original frame (30.5" x 30.5", c. 1815, provenance unknown).

The BCHS Washington Memorial design appears to be directly based on an engraving by Enoch G. Gridley, entitled, Sacred to the Memory of the Truly Illustrious George Washington, c. 1800, though it was executed in a more sophisticated manner. In the left lower foreground, Columbia (an early version of Lady Liberty, representing America), is weeping and comforts the eagle (already adopted as a national symbol.) The eagle has an American Shield. A soldier with an inverted musket mourns at Washington's tomb.

A large angel blows a trumpet, center top of image. Some interpretations note she is letting the world know of his death, others that she is calling him to heaven. She holds a wreath, circle of time, over his head. In Gridley's version, the wreath has the text, "Pater Patriae," meaning "Father of our Country." A flag draped from the trumpet lists Washington's victories at Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth, and Yorktown.  In the BCHS memorial, the artist added "Stoney Point" to the list. Was this to accommodate whomever commissioned the piece? The painted portrait of Washington in the center does not depict him in military uniform but as a citizen, farmer or President, whereas in Gridley's version, he is a general.

The Greek goddess Athena, wearing a helmet, is positioned to Washington's right. She represents wisdom, courage, civilization and warfare among other attributes.

I found a woodblock print from 1784 that seems to have been overlooked in previous studies on the origins of Washington Mourning Art; it has most of the important elements of the Gridley memorial, including a cenotaph with Washington's portrait and trumpeting angel. It precedes Washington's death by 16 years and "mourns" not his death but Great Britain's loss of America. The book plate notes it as "The Victorious General Washington, survey'd in pleasing attitudes, by Wisdom and Valour, while Britannia deplores her loss of America" (See the images included above).

One knowledgeable observer attributed the painted portrait of Washington in the BCHS Memorial to noted artist, John Trumbull, an aide to General George Washington during the Revolution. His portraits and historical paintings are found in many art museums.

In an infant Republic, without ancient heroes or national myths, the apotheosis of Washington had great appeal. Author Anita Schorsch wrote, "Washington's death formed a bridge between divine sovereignty and humanity and between all that is sacred in death from one generation to another generation, thus creating an archetypal union which might be called mythic, allegorical, apocalyptic, or final." 

We remember George Washington's birthday at Historic New Bridge Landing on Sunday, February 19, 2012. You can view this antique Mourning Art, depicting Our First President, we will also display the Martha and George Washington Centennial Quilt, c. 1876. Period music on fiddle and hammered dulcimer by Anne and Ridley Enslow accompany Denise Piccino as she invites you to join in or just watch period dancing. 1 to 5 pm with dancing from 1:30 to 4:00 pm.

Washington headquartered at the Steuben House for 16 days in September 1780. See the recently donated 18th bed that George slept in, now on display at the Demarest House. The BCHS event includes a spinning demonstration and cooking in outkitchen. Tavern keeper in the bar at the Black Horse Tavern (sorry -- "soft" cider only!) Gift shop open. Ad: $7.00, Ch: $5, BCHS members free. 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661.

BCHS continues a fund raising drive to construct a museum building at New Bridge to provide a history museum and library for the BCHS collections. BCHS already owns the land, we just need your help to build the museum. 100% of your donation goes to our mission! We do not receive any public grants or operating money, we rely on donations and membership. www.bergencountyhistory.org.


A Key to the Kingdom: The Iconography of a Mourning Picture - JSTOR by Anita Schorsch
At Home with George: Commercialization of the Washington Image, 1776-1876 by William Ayres

Embroidered Picture by Sarah Montgomery Thompson. Similar size to the BCHS.

Enoch G. Gridley image: Sacred to the Memory of the Truly Illustrious George Washington

Sotheby's - Auction of the Landmark Collection of Betty Ring, "Rare and important embroidered and painted silk mourning picture." January 2012.

Mourning Art Exhibit: Allentown Art Museum, Embracing the Dark Side, Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side

My apologies for the glare and ghost on photos, a difficult photo to take.

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Deborah Powell February 17, 2012 at 02:22 AM
delgado - Historian Kevin Wright responded to your same comment back in Sept. 2011. I'll repeat it here for you since you apparently missed it: Stop around for a quick history lesson! If you come to Historic New Bridge Landing---where all are welcome---you will not only learn the actual name of the "New Bridge House," but also that this storied place survived more of the Revolution than any other home in America, having been used as a fort, military headquarters, battleground and encampment ground in every year of the war. I assume your historical reference is to the Boston Tea Party? Long before the Stars and Stripes was widely accepted as a National banner, the Gadsden Flag---named for Colonel Christopher Gadsden, a founder of the Sons of Liberty, who also served in the Continental Congress---was a popular symbol of colonial defiance. It was first flown by Commodore Esek Hopkins, first commander of the US Navy. Interestingly enough, back in "the times that try men's souls," most conservatives defended divinely-appointed monarchy and its imperial ministry, whereas moderate Whigs and liberal radicals rallied to the cause of self-government and in defense of the rights of personal liberty. In my understanding, the rattlesnake symbolized vigilance against usurpers, against autocracy, and against bureautocracy. The only true divide I've observed is between the bighearted and small-minded. And our common heritage should never be used to divide.
delgado February 18, 2012 at 05:39 PM
The Gadsden Flag was never flown at that site during coloniel times and it was only until very recently 2008 - present that the extreme right wing Republican Tea Party started to use it as there own and now for some strange reason the BCHS, which is known to have elements of Tea Party leaders in its organization as well as the political donations that the Teaneck Repsentative of the HNBL Commisson and current Chairman has given to Republicans clearly indicates that this site has some undue influence of Tea Party Republicans.. The flag should be taken down, it is not authentic and some people clearly are using it to there political advantage.. It is not authentic, espcially when the former head of the Bergen Tea Party continues to have influence in the historic community... its unfair to current taxpayers
Kevin Wright February 19, 2012 at 02:16 AM
Gadsden flags have flown since the Bicentennial (1976). The beautiful Star-Spangled Banner flying above it is not "authentic" to "colonial times," but celebrates the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Neither is the aluminum flagpole "authentic"! What does any of this have to do with the topic? What "undue influence" do these "extremists" supposedly exercise? Do they clean more than their share of the restrooms? If so, it's news to me! I wouldn't ask the political affiliation of someone donating time and talent to the public good at no cost to taxpayers! I just hand 'em the mop. As a Loyalist, I doubt Jan Zabriskie would have flown any symbol of American rebellion against tyranny. On the other hand, George Washington, who headquartered here in September 1780, would endorse such a display of defiance. Perhaps this banner might better be interpreted as a warning against any "shadow government" by unelected bureaucrats, unaccountable to the people or to their elected representatives. The Bergen County Historical Society is a private, non-profit, volunteer organization, dedicated to preserving important evidence of our common heritage. It does not receive public operating support; nor does it impose any litmus test. I do not know (or care to know) what other people do with their own time and means as long as it doesn't pose a threat. Nor am I interested in what those who contribute nothing to the perpetuation of our heritage have to say about those who do.
moe lasiss February 19, 2012 at 10:16 PM
Thank you for the informative article. It seems like delgado has an ax to grind, and needs to get a hobby or a job. Who is the real extremist? Last time I checked it was ok here in America to have different points of view, political, religious, or otherwise, and citizens are free to support whomever and whatever they choose. It seems pretty extreme to try and politicize something as innocent as teaching the lessons of our past. God Bless you and my you find peace.
Deborah Powell February 12, 2013 at 12:14 PM
This year we celebrate Washington's Birthday on Sunday, February 24, 2013, 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Take your photo with General Washington and watch period dancing & music. Find out more about events that took place at New Bridge. www.bergencountyhistory.org.


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