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A surreal remembrance, taut with grief

The artist with his wife, Mary, and their daughter, Effie, who had died shortly before ‘‘Mourning Picture’’ was painted. The artist with his wife, Mary, and their daughter, Effie, who had died shortly before ‘‘Mourning Picture’’ was painted. (SMITH COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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This is one of the more remarkable pictures in the superb collection of Smith College Museum of Art. It’s also the most upsetting.

It was painted by the little known Edwin Romanzo Elmer in 1890, and it shows the artist, his wife, and their 9-year-old daughter, Effie. They are shown in front of the house that Elmer and his brother built in Western Massachusetts, not far from Smith College, around 1875.

The catch is that when Elmer painted it, Effie was dead. Hence the picture’s title — given much later by others — “Mourning Picture.’’

Elmer was the youngest of 12 children. He and his wife, Mary, had just one child: Effie. For a time, the family of three lived in the house together with his parents and his brother’s family. Over time the others moved away.

Then Effie, at the age of 9, died of appendicitis. The force of the loss overwhelmed Mary. Intent on abandoning the house, the couple packed up Effie’s toys and gave away her pets.

Presumably, they were trying to forget — or at least to escape the clutch of the memories the house and Effie’s belongings all held. But before they left, Elmer felt he needed also to remember. (The lurching human soul forever contradicting itself!) So he painted this strange, haunted picture, which seems stretched so tight that it might crumble at the slightest touch.

The painting looks at first like a summer reverie painted by the hand of an untrained but talented artist with a meticulous eye for detail, all of which Elmer was. Note the flowers at Effie’s feet, the delineated blades of grass, the trees’ individuated leaves, the crisp shadows: The whole effect is hallucinatory. It’s reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, yes, but it points forward, too — to the “stuck’’ dream-lucidity of Surrealists like Magritte, de Chirico, and Dalí.

The figures seem to occupy different planes of existence, all vivid but none quite real. The parents, in black clothes, look up from newspaper and knitting with cheerless expressions (observe the vivid light on their chairs!). Effie herself, meanwhile, has the sluggish, artificial air of someone posing for a photograph — which makes sense, because Elmer based his rendering on a portrait photograph of her.

She holds her pet lamb by a collar, while the lamb looks down upon her small kitten — a triumvirate of adored, adoring, and adorable things with its own internal hierarchy. It’s almost as if Elmer were attempting his own domestic version of one of the Quaker Edward Hicks’s “Peaceable Kingdom’’ paintings.

Perhaps the strangest effect in the painting is the craquelure, or spider-web-like cracking, in the clouds. This came about by accident, of course, over time, the result of the white paint drying faster since it contained less oil. But it only increases the picture’s trembling atmosphere of extreme fragility and splintering grief.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

MOURNING PICTURE Edwin Romanzo Elmer

At: Smith College Museum

of Art, Northampton

413-585-2760,

www.smith.edu/artmuseum