Art and Death

promised childThe nature of art’s ability to heal as told by the artist:

“In the course of my peregrinations, I saw a man walking up and down before an adobe shanty, apparently much distressed; I approached him, and inquired the cause of his dejection; he told me that his only daughter, aged six years *, had died suddenly in the night; he pointed to the door and I entered the dwelling.

Laid out upon a straw mattress, scrupulously clean, was one of the most angelic children I ever saw. On its face was a placid smile, and it looked more like the gently repose of healthful sleep than the everlasting slumber of death.

Beautiful curls clustered around a brow of snowy whiteness. . . . I entered very softly, and did not disturb the afflicted mother, who reclined on the bed, her face buried in the pillow, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Without a second’s reflection I commenced making a sketch of the inanimate being before me, and in the course of half-an-hour I had produced an excellent likeness.

A slight movement in the room caused the mother to look around her. She perceived me, and I apologized for my intrusion; and telling her that I was one of the Governor’s party. . . . I tore the leaf out of my book and presented it to her, and it is impossible to describe the delight and joy she expressed at its possession. She said I was an angel sent from heaven to comfort her.

She had no likeness of her child. I bid her place her trust in Him “who giveth and taketh away,” and left her indulging in the excitement of joy and sorrow. I went out unperceived by the bereaved father, contemplating the strange combination of events, which gave this poor woman a single ray of peace for her sorrowing heart.

When I was about starting the next day, I discovered in the wagon a basket filled with eggs, butter, and several loaves of bread, and a note to my address containing these words “From a grateful heart.” Solomon Nunes Carvalho 

Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West

Adventurous young man
Adventurous young man

Solomon Nunes Carvalho was the first photographer taken on government explorations of the West. He’d never taken outdoor pictures, saddled a horse or built a campfire, but when Captain John C. Fremont asked him along on his next trip, Carvalho jumped at the chance–yet another adventurous young American. The small party of 22 men–a leader, a photographer, a topographer, 7 assistants, 10 Delaware Indians and 2 Mexicans set out with high hopes only to end up in the treacherous Rockies in winter. If they hadn’t stumbled into the remote Mormon village of Parowan they would have died.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho was born in 1815 in Charleston, South Carolina, into a Jewish family of Spanish-Portuguese descent. Carvalho worked as both a portrait and landscape painter and a photographer.  The daguerreotypes that Carvalho took on this expedition no longer exist.

8 responses to “Art and Death”

  1. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a time and place where death is so familiar. I’ve seen some of the 19th-century photos that were taken of children who had died, and to my modern eye, they’re so disquieting. But, of course, today we have dozens or hundreds of photos of our loved ones, and so the “death portraits” aren’t needed or desired.


    • Yes, the first death picture of a perfect looking child I saw in college stayed with me for years. There are ones that look pretty scary as well–like the person had been suffering for years.

      In the novel I’m working on at the moment one of my main characters is an artist and the captain’s wife at the 19th century army post asks him to draw her sick child (still alive). He sketches the girl as if she looked well and the family is delighted. Then the other day I discovered this sensitive real artist who helped a family in a similar way–life’s funny like that!


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