Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Miniatures painted in sepia are another perplexing form of sentimental jewelry. There is a great deal of disagreement over what exactly a sepia is. I define sepias as miniatures painted in watercolor on ivory in either a shade of gray, brown, or black. The sepia paint may or may not be entirely derived from or include “dissolved” human hair, that is, hair that has been ground into a fine dust with mortar and pestle so as to be fit for a paint base. Like cameos, portraits of individual sitters or more frequently allegories may be painted in sepia. Because sepias depicting mourning allegories are by far the most common, it is generally assumed that all sepias were mourning jewelry. However, this is not the case. Sepias depicting shepherdesses, Greek gods, republican symbolism (personifications of liberty, liberty staff and cap, cornucopias, and other revolutionary insignia), domestic scenes, landscapes, friendship allegories, and risqué copies of French art are also common enough.

The Apotheosis of Daniel Legate, Jr.

Mourning sepia with mourner dressed in classical garb, a weeping willow, urn, chopped hair ground, and inscription on the plinth, “DANL. LEGATE JUN. OB: 10TH April 1791.” The cameo-like portrait medallions surrounding the memorial were a popular addition to cemetery monuments in the 1790s. The spirit of Daniel Legate reclines wrapped in clouds above the mourner and next to the inscription on the upper left edge, “WEEP NOT FOR ME.” The reverse composed of a hairwork ground covered with tiny gold stars. The hair of the deceased literally forms the heavenly ether, a symbolic union of body and spirit. Scale in centimeters.


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