The purpose of the exhibition is to evoke a practice of the past: portraying a deceased person, on their deathbed of in their coffin. This "last portrait" - death mask, painting, drawing or photograph - remained in the narrow circle of relatives and friends, but, in the case of famous personalities, it could be widely circulated in public. This practice, extremely common in Western countries in the nineteenth century and until the first half of the twentieth century, is today fast disappearing, or at least it remains strictly within the boundaries of the private sphere.The day before yesterday I visited the Burns Archive in New York for the first time. Stanley Burns' collection was really quite amazing, and I had a wonderful time viewing the incredible and impressive assemblage of photographs, books, and memorial artworks that surrounded him in his bustling brownstone home. I was also quite lucky to find that he had a few extra copies of a book I'd been coveting for sometime--Le Dernier Portrait, the catalog to an exhibition of the same name held at the Musée d'Orsay about 2 years ago--and was willing to sell me a copy for inclusion in the Morbid Anatomy Library.
The exhibition gathers together pieces that are difficult to comment as they are linked to codes and rites now foreign to contemporary culture.
--The Musée d'Orsay website for the exhibition "Le Dernier Portrait"
The book, which translates to "The Last Portrait," explores the art and history of memorial and sickbed portraiture, touching on such portraiture in the fine arts, including examples by Munch, Gauguin, Seurat, Ensor, and Monet; 19th century memorial photography (featuring a selection of images from Burns' Collection, as featured in his incredible Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America); memorial tomb sculpture; news reportage; and the death mask.
This beautiful book now resides at the Morbid Anatomy Library; please feel free to come by and spend some time with it. You can find out more about the library by clicking here. For more on the Burns Archive, click here. For more on the book Le Dernier Portrait, click here. To find out more about the exhibition which inspired the book, click here.