ELDEST CHILD OF
W. P. & M. B. CHISOLM
Oct. 13, 1881
Aged 15 Years, 8 Months
& 13 Days
Ninetta “Nettie” was the daughter of William Perry “Willis” (November 23, 1833—January 21, 1888) and Martha B. Chisolm (September 28, 1842-May 5, 1887) and was buried on the family’s raised plot in the famed Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. The white marble sculpture atop her monument sits on a pillow wearing an eye-let lace dressing gown with her head bowed and hands folded in contemplative prayer—clearly a sculptural depiction of the young 15-year girl buried beneath.
The monument itself is a paean to Victorian design—overwrought with symbolism and sentimentality. The pillow is tasseled, the flower boughs carved into the side panels, and the elaborate wreath of lilies on the front of the marker are all part of the profusion of funerary symbolism that exploded during the Victorian era.
The Victorian Era lasted from about 1832 until Queen Victoria’s death in 1903. The era was an eclectic period in the decorative arts with several styles—Gothic, Tudor, Neoclassical—vying for dominance. The period was marked by ornamentation. This was true in architecture, furniture, and funerary arts. In cemeteries gravestones became taller, ornamented, and sentimental.
In Victorian times, flowers took on significance as a way to send coded messages; this was known as floriography from the Latin combining flora—“goddess of flowers” and graphein—“writing”. Each flower had a meaning that was conveyed to the viewer or receiver of the flower or bouquet of flowers—the lily of the valley represented humility, the coral rose represented desire and passion, the white lily represented purity, the Easter lily represented the Resurrection, and so on.
Ninetta’s gravestone was erected at nearly the height of the Victorian Era and displays the high ornamentation that characterized that time period. Her gravestone is festooned with flowers, ornamentation, and the sentimental vision of a young girl in quiet prayer and contemplation.
A splendid portrait, I agree. I can’t quite figure out what the occasion the artist envisions is. She has a long heavy gown and bare feet: an anecdotal recollection of her saying bedtime prayers, dressed in her nightgown? Or is this the morning of the resurrection, and the long gown and bare feet are olde-timey biblical or “otherworldly” garb? I lean away from number 1 because I don’t think they would expose their womenfolk to that degree. On the other hand, the portrait is hardly that of a fifteen-year-old girl but more like one well under ten, don’t you think? The pose, with one leg tucked under the other is childish (in a good way) and maybe even insouciant, which works better in an anecdote. Better than the more determinedly pious sculptures, and the pillow, as you rightly emphasize, is wonderful. Thank you for this. Your first photo is just great, too.
I think that even though the sculpture depicts a younger girl than 15, it is still possible that it was an idealized portrait of her. But that is pure speculation. It is as likely that the parents went into the stone cutter’s shop and saw the monument, liked it, and bought it.
Yes, I agree with your last point.