Gender differences in Victorian funerary sculpture


June Hadden Hobbs, the editor of the Association for Gravestone Studies publication, Markers XXIX, , made an observation about nineteenth-century cemetery design (pages 4 and 5) writing that, “statues of men are historical while statues of women are usually allegorical.” Statues of men tend to be portraits while statues of females are usually not a representation of the deceased female but of an idea or virtue, such as, grief, faith, or hope.

An unusual monument in the Rock Creek Cemetery at Washington, D.C., illustrates the point that Hobbs makes. It is unusual because it is a two-side monument; one side dedicated to one family—the Thompson Family; the other side dedicated to a different family—the Harding Family. There are statues on both sides of the rough-hewn cross that dominates the monument. While the two-sided monument is unusual, the statues on either side of the cross are typical Victorian statuary.


One side features a full statue of N. Elbridge Thompson (1840-1904). Standing in front of the cross is a whiskered and distinguished looking man holding his jacket with one hand, his other resting on an open book. This statue was clearly carved to look like N. Elbridge Thompson and in line with contemporary Victorian funerary art to portray the deceased in statue, busts, and portraits. The advent of a process to adhere photographs to porcelain medallions and adhere them to tombstones became very popular. This was part of the Victorian views of sentimentality regarding death and burial practices.

The Thompson sculpture reflects the gendered response to death. According to Laurie Stanley-Blackwell and Brenda Appleby in an article in Markers XXIX, “Romancing the Stone: Female Figural Monuments in Late-Nineteenth-Century Nova Scotia Cemeteries” page 37, “During this era. Prominent male statesmen, war heroes, prosperous businessmen, and religious leaders prevailed as the most deserving subjects for memorialization.” That is, men were much more likely to have a realistic portrait in sculptural form than a woman—though, exceptions do exist.


Women on the other hand were part of the romanticization of death during the Victorian era. Women were quite often portrayed in classical garb, often in mourning, depicted overcome by grief. As Stanley-Blackwell and Appleby describe, “These secular marble beauties were idealized, etherealized, and in some cases eroticized embodiments of ritual mourning. They represented a wide spectrum of mythologized female experiences, from classically austere and occasionally featureless to romantically voluptuous, barely clothed, in some cases starkly nude.”


True to form, the young woman standing against the other side of the cross is a female figure depicted with her head looking down in reflection and sorrow, while holding an Easter lily in one hand and a lily bloom in the other. This is a common Victorian funerary motif. This mourning figure here is expressing the transitory nature of life and is an allegorical figure not meant to be a portrait of Lillie May Harding (1871-1897) the young 26-year old woman buried with her parents on that side of the monument. The statue represents an idealized form.


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