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Friday, December 14, 2012

Death of Washington

Our national celebration of Washington comes on his birthday, February 22 (February 11 according to the Julian calendar that he would have used then), but December 14 marks the day of his death. Given that Washington has often been revered as a sort of secular saint, it seems only fitting to remember him today as well.

Washington had spent December 12, 1799 out inspecting Mount Vernon on horseback in snowy wet weather.  He developed a sore throat and other symptoms including hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing, and died sometime between 10 and 11 PM on December 14. You can read a much more detailed eyewitness account of his illness from Tobias Lear, his secretary as well as a modern physician's attempt at a historical diagnosis (he concludes it was epiglottitis).

Washington's death inspiring a huge public outpouring of sentiment: eulogies, poems, songs, orations, and visual remembrances. Printmakers embraced both patriotism and a profit opportunity and supplied many memorial images, such as this one, printed in Philadelphia in 1800 by Pember & Luzarder. 

Columbia lamenting the loss of her son. Philadelphia: Pember & Luzarder, 1800. Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.797
The text at the bottom explains what's going: "Columbia lamenting the loss of her Son/ Who redeem'd her from Slav'ry & Liberty won/While Fame is directed by Justice to Spread/The sad tidings afar that Washington's dead." The mourning woman on the left represents Columbia, while the woman on the right represents Justice, who is pointing to Fame, which is embodied as an angel  with a trumpet. The print also offers a pithy epitaph for Washington, "Lived respected and Fear'd - Died Lamented and rever'd."

The picture is awash with the classical imagery that was so popular at the time: Washington's image (after the Stuart portrait) sits atop a giant urn and obelisk. Not to mention the allegorical figures themselves. I'm sure the palm trees must have some classical or symbolic significance, but I confess I don't know what. This interview from curator Kim Ivey from Colonial Williamsburg talks about some of the popular symbols found in mourning art and also about the role of Washington's death in contributing to a fashion for all types of mourning pictures, needlework, jewelry, etc. Some of it was Washington's popularity, but there were cultural factors as well, such as "the neoclassical movement, the study of Greek and Roman ruins, just the whole religious movement during the 18th century, and free will." She notes that the death of Princess Charlotte in England in 1817 also set off a great period of mourning.

If you're feeling the urge to remember George Washington, mark your calendar for the Rosenbach's Founding Fathers Hands-on-Tour being offered at 3 PM on January 4.





Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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