The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality
Prudence Punderson of Preston, CT embroidered this picture as a young woman in the midst of the American Revolution. Her father was loyal to the British, and the family fled to Long Island during the war. Prudence kept a journal in which she reflected on mortality, religion, love, and family loyalty. This journal, along with her sketches and needlework, provide a rare glimpse into the life of a young woman at this time.
At first, this scene might appear to simply show a woman at home. The fashionable furniture, carpet, curtains, gilt mirror, and framed picture indicate the family’s wealth, as does the presence of the girl tending the baby, who is assumed to be the family’s slave Jenny. But the coffin, with Prudence Punderson’s initials on it, is a clue to a second, symbolic meaning to the picture. The image is a “momento mori” or reminder of the shortness of life. Prudence depicted herself at three stages: as a baby, as a young woman, and in death.
Prudence Punderson’s embroidery was the inspiration for contemporary artist Kiki Smith’s installation entitled Sojourn at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York in 2010.