Trinkets of memento mori, such as postmortem photography, literally means “remember, you must die”. Pictures and paintings serve as wonderful windows to the past that allow us to get a glimpse of what life was like over a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the way Tinker Swiss Cottage allows its visitors to.
Although by modern standards taking photographs or painting portraits of the deceased is somewhat peculiar, in the nineteenth century it was a common practice. Often post-mortem photographs were the only images families would have of their loved ones. This was due to the unfortunate fact that it was much more difficult and expensive to have your photograph taken during the Victorian era.
A stark contrast to the incredibly effortless way we take photographs today, prior to the invention of the daguerreotype, the only way to capture any family pictures was through painted portraits. Fortunately, here at Tinker Swiss Cottage we boast two fantastic portraits of Mary’s grandmother Amy Chase Bull and uncle Milton Dorr. These were done by one of the most prolific and important portraitists in nineteenth-century America, Ammi Phillips. Phillips created these paintings in 1815. Interestingly enough, Ammi passed away in 1865- the very same year Robert Tinker began construction on the cottage.
While there are plenty of gruesome post mortem looking photos on the internet, many are inaccurate and feature staged actors and modern visual effects. However, we do have an authentic postmortem photograph currently on display in the Cottage. The photograph is of Mrs. Mary Johns, from Rockford Illinois in 1866.
There is also a postmortem painting on constant display in the upper level of the library in the museum. This painting is of John Manny, Mary Dorr Manny Tinker’s first husband and inventor of the Manny reaper. We know this was a post mortem piece because of the blue grey hue the artist gave to the skin, a common feature of postmortem portraits.
We hope to have you in soon to check out our fantastic, and somewhat eerie works of art this fall!
Hollander , Stacy C. “Reads.” Ammi Phillips – Self-Taught Genius, selftaughtgenius.org/reads/ammi-phillips.