Love's Melancholy

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Love's Melancholy
Constant Mayer
Oil on canvas
20 1/4 x 14 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Restricted gift of Mrs. Herbert Alexander Vance

Why do you think this woman is so sad? This painting is an example of the sentimental images of war widows that appeared in paintings, prints, and poems during and after the Civil War. While not connected to this painting, a contemporary poem expresses a similar theme:
    “True Love Can Never Die” by Marshall P. Beach
    She twined the wreath for an earth hope fled—
    A hero fallen in freedom’s battle;
    “What he should have worn,” she lowly said,
    “When he fell in the fearful din and rattle.
    Oh, summers and winters will come and go
    Forever back from the by and by;
    The eye will dim, and the blood run slow,
    But true, true love can never die…
        -appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine in 1867

Dressed in a simple black dress, eyes directed downward, the young woman in Mayer’s painting mourns the death of her husband. Her virtue is emphasized by the country church in the distance and the wedding ring on her finger. She holds a sprig of red flowers, perhaps a symbol of love; but here they are withered. The artist painted her against a twilight sky, another victim of the Civil War.

The Civil War produced thousands of widows who were left to raise and support families themselves. Like this woman, they wore special clothing to mark their grief publicly. The social rule was that widows mourned for two and a half years, during which they slowly changed their dress from “heavy” (all black clothing with veils and black crape) to “full” (all black clothing with no veils and white trim) to “half” mourning (gray or lavender clothing with gray or white trim). After President Lincoln was assassinated, his widow, Mary Todd, went into full mourning for the rest of her life to show her unending grief over his loss. Can you tell which stage of mourning the lady in Love’s Melancholy was observing?
1. Look at one of the many letters that soldiers sent home to their wives during the war (example: Use the details of the letter and your observations of the painting to describe the toll the war took on families and relationships from the perspective of the man at war and of the woman at home.

2. Even though this woman is in mourning, she is very composed. What does this tell you about how women were expected to behave in those days, even if someone close to them had died? Compare this to The Patriot Mother at her Boy’s Grave. How do these two images illustrate the conventions of grief at the time? Are they different or the same from today?

Further reading:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2008.

Foner, Eric. “The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 6, p. 24).

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