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Visual Representations of Child Death. Artwork and Photographs

Visual representations of deceased children served a purpose far beyond that of recording an image. They often also reflected societies’, and more specifically parents’, attitudes toward death. Additionally, the function of these works was also to console or facilitate the grieving process.1 Ever since early Modern history, artists had painted pictures of dead children laid out for their funerals. The evidence left to us through photographs, paintings, and cemetery monuments provides a romanticized perspective of child death. For example, the Victorian practice of having a posthumous portrait of a dead child painted to represent a living child, while displaying it with photographs of the child’s corpse, illustrates the complex dynamic of acceptance and denial within Victorian society.2

Van Setten observes that in the Netherlands, and possibly in the Western world in general, early nineteenth century people started to give more attention to the consolation of grieving parents. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries few traces of guilt could be found in Dutch expressions of grief. This is unusual because most grieving parents express regret at what they could have done (e.g., sought medical help, baptized an infant so that he would not linger forever in purgatory). Therefore, the shift to artistic representations of dead children and their grieving parents in the nineteenth century is significant.3 Van Setten also observes that there was an abundance of consolatory literature, particularly in the form of poetry.

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