Folk Art

Antique School Girl Memorial or Mourning Theorem from Massachusetts. Only 3 known examples from this school.
  • Rare and wonderful memorial painting for Mary Fairbank and Nancy Crawford.  This school girl academy painting on velvet is probably from Massachusetts and is a combination of theorem painting (using stencils) and hand painting with watercolor.  This complicated mourning painting depicts two gravestones in the foreground on both sides.  Next to the stone on the left stand two young women, dressed in black.  Both face the viewer.  The woman closest to the stone rests her elbow on the edge of the stone and her head in her hand.  She holds hands with the woman next to her.  Two young women also stand next to the stone on the right.  The woman closest to the stone faces the viewer and lays her outstretched hand on the front of the stone.  Her companion faces her and buries her face into the far right woman's hair.  In the background is a large cathedral-like church.  With regard to the religious structure, please see further comments below with the results of recent research.  A dirt path meanders in front of the church.  Next to the left-side gravestone stands a weeping willow.  Next to the right side stone stands another tree.  The background reveals mountains and fluffy clouds.  The tombstones are inscribed:





    Mary Fairbank

    Who died December 5, 1810

    Æ 23





    Nancy Crawford

    Who Died June 27th 1812

    Æ 20

    Two other examples from the same school are known and were sold from the Edith Gregor Halpert Folk Art Collection by Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc. in 1973.  Ms. Halpert's records showed that one of the two paintings was found near Worcester, Massachusetts.  My genealogical research found several girls named Mary Fairbank (or Fairbanks) born in 1787 to 1789 in Massachusetts.  One Mary Fairbanks is listed as born in Needham, Norfolk, Mass in 1789 and died in 1819.  Because this record is based upon a descendant having submitted dates according to family lore, the dates are often off by several years.  My research shows that the Needham Mary Fairbanks is probably the Mary Fairbank memorialized in this painting.  I also found one Nancy Crawford born in 1792 in Northboro, Worcester, Massachusetts.    Research also finds a Hannah F. Buxton (one of Ms. Halpert's paintings was done by Hannah P. Buxton) born in Andover, Essex, Mass in 1820.  The other of Ms. Halpert's paintings memorialized Elizabeth Knowlton and I found an Elizabeth Knowlton who was born before 27 Oct 1801 in Gloucester, Essex, MA.  The second painting also memorializes Mr. Thomas Knowlton.  I found several Thomas Knowltons born in Massachusetts between 1750 and 1760 but was unable to pin down the correct one.  However, all research leads to the probability that the school in which these mourning paintings were done was in Massachusetts.  The probable date given for the Halpert paintings were the first quarter of the 19th century and circa 1833.  Although at least one of the Halpert paintings memorializes Elizabeth Knowlton who died in 1883, it is important to note that school girls were required to paint or embroider these memorial pieces even if they had no one to memorialize at the time.  The Knowlton inscriptions were applied to tissue paper which was probably added to the painting much later.  The fact that the painting I am offering has the inscriptions painted onto the velvet makes it more likely that the inscriptions were added contemporaneously with the paintings.  I estimate this mourning painting as having been done circa 1820.

    Interestingly, since I first created this listing, I, with the help of an astute reader, have discovered three other of these memorial theorem paintings.  The January/February 2010 issue of The Magazine Antiques shows a memorial theorem of the exact same design from the Isabel Carleton Wilde collection of early American folk art on page 236 ("Isabel Carleton Wilde, Pioneer collector of 'American primitives'").  Interestingly, Edith Halpert was friends with and bought many items from Isabel Wilde.  However, the painting from Ms. Wilde's collection is not one of the two from Halpert's collection.  The Wilde piece is inscribed "Hannah Louisinda Forbes" on a paper label at the lower left of the painting and one of the tombstones bears an inscription on a  paper label "Dedicated to the memory of Lyman W. Forbes, who died in Roxbury . . . 1823, in the 23 year of his age".  On October 26, 2002, Weschler's auction house sold a theorem of the exact same image that was painted by Harriet M. Tillinghurst and dated August 17, 1826.  The names on the monuments were Harry H. Harris, wife of Leonard G. Harris and Eliza Ann Torrey, wife of Major Joseph Torrey.  On November 13, 2003, Daniel Olmstead auctioned a piece with the same image.  Unfortunately, the article in Maine Antique Digest (March 2004 at page 33-D) did not list the names on the monuments.  Unfortunately, so far my genealogical research has turned up nothing on any name found on these three pieces.  If anyone has information about anyone listed or knows of other pieces with this image, please let me know as research to pinpoint the school from which it came is ongoing.  After much research done by my friend and art historian, please see his findings at the footnote below.1

    The painting offered has beautiful vivid colors.  There is a stain over the left tombstone and general toning to the background.  No tears or shattering that I can find.  The piece has been removed from the original wood stretcher and archivally mounted in a period gilt Sully-type frame that measures 23 1/8" x 19 5/8".  There is some wear to the gilt, as you can see in the photo.  What you might not be able to see is the beautiful red bole that is peaking through the wear, adding greatly to the wonderful patination of the frame.  Don't miss this very special piece of New England school girl art.  As you can see by the catalog listing below, one of the similar examples has been well exhibited.  A copy of the Sotheby's catalog for the Edith Halpert sale will be included with the painting.

    (#4610)     Sold

    1 As for the religious structure which seems to be a focal point of this group of paintings, let me offer previously unpublished comments by my friend, art historian Ed Polk Douglas, of Lyons, NY:

    Late 18th and early 19th century mourning pictures usually show monuments and foliage which had funereal meanings to the observers. Occasionally, a building is included, and while many such architectural expressions mix fantasy and reality in varying degrees, sometimes a specific place can be identified.

    This seems to be the case with the Fairbank(s)-Crawford group of paintings, for here we see a simplified view of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Ethelbert the King in Hereford, England. The architectural history of this structure stretches back to Anglo-Saxon times, and the story of the various building and re-building efforts is a treatise in itself. (See, Suffice it to say that today, primarily because of extensive changes in the 19th century, the resemblance between the modern building and that seen in the paintings is slight. 

    What, then, is the source of the original creator's "pattern" in the Fairbank(s)-Crawford paintings? Yes, it could have been the artist's personal visit to the the Cathedral, but another possibility are the illustrations of the building which appeared in the monumental MONASTICON ANGLICANUM…(William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth, 1655-1673; expanded edition, 1722-23; republished, 1817-1830). The engravings in the original edition were by Wenzel Hollar, and further views were contributed by other artists. This work, in all its editions, was widely circulated, but the prints, loose and possibly pirated, had an even greater circulation--even into North America.

    Did the pattern creator purposely choose to depict Hereford Cathedral or was this the only illustration of a 'religious structure' at his(or her) disposal? Did the young women who presumeably followed this pattern in their respective paintings know of Hereford Cathedral? These and other questions come to mind, but, for the moment, one can only guess. Regardless, the use of a prominent religious structure certainly adds 'gravity' to the scene!

    You can view prints from the MONASTICON ANGLICANUM by Hollar by clicking the link.  Scroll down a bit to find images of Herford Cathedral.  Mr. Douglas finds that the church in this theorem "seem[s] very close to the last view, but actually the painting views the cathedral from the other side-notice no little structure where the nave and transept meet--or maybe there is a more exact print source that we don't know!"

    Please see Early Mourning Rituals for more information on memorial paintings & jewelry.

    Please also see

    Please see Theorem Painting in America for more information on this wonderful form of folk art.