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Mourning Fan, c. 1830–34
Painted paper, mother-of-pearl, silvered guardsticks, 10.6 x 19.9 in., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Hicks Collection, 1988.453

This mourning fan, dating from the early 1830s, comes from the Frederick B. Hicks Collection of over one hundred fans given to Boston College during the 1960s, now housed at the McMullen Museum. Most mourning fans were plain black and made of paper or feathers. Painted scenes like the one seen here were much rarer.

During the Regency (c. 1800–37) and Victorian periods (1837–1901), mourning accessories such as jewelry and fans became very fashionable in Europe and America. Embroidered “mourning pictures” including various symbols of grief and remembrance were also produced widely. Most prevalent of these symbols were the weeping willow, expressing grief but also manifesting strength, stability, hope, and healing, and the urn containing the ashes of the deceased. These symbols often also appeared on carved gravestones.

mourning sampler gravestone
Mourning sampler, England, c. 1810, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York
Gravestone, Newton, MA


In the nineteenth century gray and black were associated with mourning. The painting of the river landscape vignette on this c. 1830–34 mourning fan is entirely in grisaille (using shades of gray). The black curtains at the window symbolize death and the drooping leaves of the trees suggest weeping.


The seated woman, her older age indicated by her hairstyle covering her ears and her high bodice, is probably the wife of the deceased. She holds a handkerchief to wipe away tears from her eyes. The seated man is likely the son of the deceased and the standing woman could be either his wife or sister. The child could be the grandson of the departed. They are all wearing black mourning clothes, an outward display of their inner feelings of grief. The empty chair symbolizes the loss of the loved one, in this case the paterfamilias. The chair has wings to protect the sitter from drafts, a type commonly used for invalids; this might indicate that the deceased died from an illness or an infirmity.

The women are wearing black day dresses with exaggerated balloon-like or “leg of mutton” sleeves typical of the early 1830s. They each wear a white chemisette at their necks: a half-bodice of linen or cotton trimmed with lace and other decorative features to fill in low necklines for modesty and decoration. The young boy sports a “skeleton suit,” a one-piece suit typical of the Regency period.

This vase nearest the empty chair holds a bouquet of white flowers—possibly chrysanthemums—which were often associated with gravesites.

vase and flowers

The forlorn baying dog seated on the tomb suggests a strong bond with and fidelity to his dead master. Behind the tomb, the urn on the festooned pedestal is a neoclassical symbol of mourning, representing the vessel containing the ashes of the dead. The use of this symbol persisted during the Victorian era and often appears on carved gravestones of the period.

mourning dog

These mother-of-pearl guardsticks have been intricately carved and incised; the stylized flowers could be poppies, long associated with sleep (because of the opium sedative), peace, and death (blood-red poppies were offerings to the dead in the classical world).



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