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Maker(s):Wheeler, D.N.
Title:Interior with child in coffin
Date Made:ca. 1867
Materials:toned gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard as a carte de visite
Place Made:United States; Kansas: Larned
Measurements:card: 4 1/4 in x 6 1/2 in; 10.795 cm x 16.51 cm
Narrative Inscription:  printed up left margin of card: D.N. Wheeler, LARNED, KAS.
Accession Number:  SC 2009.25.1
Credit Line:Purchased with the Rita Rich Fraad, class of 1937, Fund for American Art and the fund in honor of Charles Chetham
Museum Collection:  Smith College Museum of Art

Post mortem; momento mori photograph; interior, small black coffin holding a deceased dead child set on two chairs with American flag behind it and open trunk filled with children's clothing nearby, floor is unfinished wood, wall is heavily peeling whitewash, small window has translucent dark curtain over it

Label Text:
With the invention of photography, and in particular the daguerreotype around 1837, it became more affordable to have a family portrait made. Previously only the wealthy few could afford a family portrait, painted either by a local or in the case of great wealth, by a well-known artist.

However, the spontaneous family snapshot was still in the future. Professional photographers had small studios or would come to people’s houses to take elaborately set-up and choreographed portraits. This was necessary because of the long exposure times. Metal head clamps were used to assist the sitter so that the photograph would not blur. These constraints obviously made it difficult to photograph young children. For this reason, we do not see young children depicted in many of these early photos-If we do, they are either asleep or deceased.

Infant mortality rates were extremely high during the 19th century. It is not surprising that parents chose to have their child photographed after death. It was often the first and only chance they had to have their child immortalized. While this custom seems somewhat morbid to the modern eye, the elaborate and detailed arrangement of the deceased child reflects the care and love of the parents. These photographs were not to be hidden away but would be displayed among the photos of the living.

Other label: This type of photograph, called a carte de visite (visiting card), was popular during the mid-nineteenth century. The cards were inexpensive and could easily be distributed to family and friends.

The modest interior of this room shows that the family was not wealthy, but the photographer obviously took great care in staging the scene of the child in his coffin. Here the deceased child is clearly visible, while the American flag and the open trunk are used as attributes to reflect the family’s patriotism and to display their Sunday finest.

Additional writing on this object can be found at
Paper + People the Cunningham Center Blog.

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