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Mourning Adolphus

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

This poignant little mourning painting from the collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society reminds us of the frailty of children's lives in earlier centuries. Folk art commemorations like this one were common ways for family members to memorialize someone dearly loved. They were tangible keepsakes for the bereaved. It’s easy to imagine that the process of creating the piece of art was a way to come to terms with the grief; each careful stroke of the paintbrush allowed the artist to reflect on the life and love they shared with the deceased. If received as a gift, pieces like this could help the bereaved feel the compassion and support of those around them in remembrance of their loved one.

In the case of this mourning scene, an inscription reading “A.C. Died July 13th 1782 Aged 2 years” gives enough clues to be able to identify the memorialized child. Adolphus Colton (b. 1780) was the young son of Deacon William and Hannah Colton of Longmeadow. They were also the parents of William (b.1778), Hannah (b.1782), Rhodolphus (b.1784), Sophrone (b. 1786), and Jeduthan (b. 1791).

Though we don’t know anything about the cause of little Aldolphus’ death that July of 1782, whether illness or accident, we do know that his mother surely must have had little time to devote to mourning with a four year old son and a five month old baby at home at the time of his passing. Of her six children, it seems that Adolphus is the only one who did not survive childhood.

The watercolor painting is on paper but at some point was pasted onto a wood background. From a distance it appears that only the oval portion is painted, but in fact the entire brown surround is watercolor as well. It measures approximately 7” x 9” within the frame and features the image of a woman wearing a short sleeved, black dress. Her head appears draped with a black veil. She stands beneath a willow tree, leaning against a memorial tomb with a large Grecian-style urn. To the left at the foreground is a large thorny rose bush, with one rose in full bloom and several others in bud, not yet open to the world.

A thorny rose bush, symbolic perhaps of the beauty and pain of life

Though more grand on paper, in reality Adolphus Colton’s headstone in Longmeadow Cemetery is much more modest. A simple redstone grave marker is inscribed, “In Memory of Adolphus, Son of Mr. William and Mrs. Hannah Colton who died July 13th 1782 in His 3rd Year.” The stone’s epitaph, nearly entirely covered by the earth around it reads, “Tis God that lifts our comforts high/ Or sinks them in the grave.” It was a line from a hymn by Isaac Watts, popular at the time of the child’s death. Though these lines in particular may appear somber to us, the larger context of the hymn is one of faith and confidence in God’s choices. Many years later, in 1808 (Hannah) and 1825 (William), his parents were buried next to him in Longmeadow Cemetery where they remain to this day.

Contributed by Melissa Cybulski, LHS Board Member

Originally published October 28, 2021

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