Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Memorial for Solomon and Joseph Hays
This circular miniature preserves the memory of the Hays brothers—Solomon (d. 1798) and Joseph (d. 1801)—both of whom died in infancy.
The compact design of the Hays miniature includes several traditional symbols of death and mourning. The boys’ names and the dates of their deaths appear on tiny tablets surmounted by classical funerary urns. There is a female allegorical figure standing between the graves and touching both; her head is covered in mourning. The iconography employed by this miniature is usually associated with Christian beliefs. However, the Hays boys were probably the sons of Jacob Hays, who was a prominent member of New York’s Jewish community.
Miniatures first appeared in Europe as early as the sixteenth century. They take their name not from their diminutive size, but rather from the word “minium,” a lead pigment common in manuscript illumination. From the start, they seem to have been placed in ornate settings, which both protected the images and suggested the value of the individuals depicted or referenced. Miniatures enjoyed great popularity in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. Women wore these items in public as jewelry, while men would carry them more discretely, inside a pocket or a watch case. Because their size made them both portable and suited to intimate viewing, miniatures were a perfect way to keep a loved one present during times of separation.
Many miniatures commemorating the deaths of children appeared around the same time that the child-nurturing nuclear family began to take its place at the center of American cultural life. Miniatures served as a way for parents to express their grief in material form. They also offered solace. In the Hays miniature, hair cut from the heads of the deceased boys forms the weeping willows that curve over their urns. More of the boys’ hair is braided together on the back of the miniature, where it is set beneath their entwined initials. Hairwork like this gave the bereaved a sense of physical closeness to the deceased, while inscriptions frequently promised the eventual reunion of parents and children in heaven.
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Holm, Christiane. “Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004): 139–143.
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Sheumaker, Helen. Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.