“Hello, Boils and Ghouls!” Those of you who tuned in to Tales from the Crypt in the late 1980s or early 1990s will remember the Crypt Keeper’s gruesome puns. Each episode began with a tracking shot through a decrepit Victorian mansion and down into the Crypt Keeper’s dungeon, where the cackling corpse would bring out objects connected with his scary stories. (Some episodes of the series were filmed in Britain, and “keepers,” by coincidence, are what curators are sometimes called in the United Kingdom.) For Halloween I began thinking about what kind of macabre melodrama the “keepers” here might present from our own crypt (I mean Museum storage).
George Cochran Lambdin’s The Last Sleep (circa 1858) has not been on view for many years because of condition issues, though it was widely admired in the 19th century. In it the artist stages a morbidly theatrical tale of woe. The large painting (nearly five feet wide) shows a distraught husband at the deathbed of his wife. Given the date, the young woman likely died from consumption or from complications associated with childbirth. The darkened chamber is carefully composed with objects emblematic of or associated with death: the white flowers by her bedside, the lone bloom that presumably fell from her dying hand onto the quilted coverlet, the ornamental statuette of an angel attached to the wall but seeming to hover protectively over the dead woman.
The Last Sleep was one of Lambdin’s great exhibition pictures and traveled extensively in the late 19th century, making appearances in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and New Haven. It was among the American paintings featured at 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris. When The Last Sleep made its first appearance at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1858, critics raved about the artist’s skill; the reviewer for The Crayon wrote, “For power of imagination, and as an example of true artistic genius … this picture is, in our opinion, unsurpassed by any work of the day.”
Themes of death or anticipated death were popular in Victorian art and literature, particularly when in service of some moral or spiritual end. Lambdin took care to emphasize sentiment in his picture, elevating it above assemblages of “material horrors” (as The Crayon noted when the picture was shown at the National Academy of Design the following year). After one early review suggested that death was not sufficiently “sanctified” in Lambdin’s picture, he changed the title from The Dead Wife to the more poetic The Last Sleep. His ploy was successful, and the notion of final slumber offered a conceptual balm to future critics.
In exhibitions the artist sometimes included the final stanza of Tennyson’s “The Deserted House” (1830) alongside the catalogue entry for The Last Sleep:
Life and thought
Here no longer dwell
But in a city glorious
A great and distant city they have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
(You can read the full poem here.)
Notably, Lambdin omitted the poem’s final line: “Would they could have stayed with us!”
Reviewers tended to focus on the feeling of loss in the picture, imagining the grief of the distraught husband. French critic Paul Mantz imagined the events leading up to this scene, noting that the anguished husband appears “almost dead himself.” The American writer Henry Tuckerman went further in projecting his own emotions: “The blinds are drawn; the fair youthful form lies stilled in death, and the husband, utterly crushed with grief, has flung himself across the bed. His face is not seen, but we can image its pallor, even as in fancy we can hear the choking sobs with which his bosom heaves.”
Few reviewers commented on the countenance of the dead wife, though to me she seems the star of this Victorian melodrama. Illuminated by sunlight from the outer room, her face is the focal point of our attention. Her husband appears almost as a shadow. And above, the ghostly angel hovers … and waits.
From the keepers here—have a happy Halloween!
George Cochran Lambdin, The Last Sleep, circa 1858. oil on canvas, 40 x 54 ¾ in., Gift of Peter A. Vogt