Ancient History

Follow Me?



One of my ancestors was a folk artist named Justus DaLee. Several months ago I did a little online research regarding his life and his works when I came upon this painting:


It is known as the Justus DaLee Family Record Memorial Drawing.

Justus and his wife Mary, along with seven of their ten children, are pictured standing in a graveyard. Every family member is dressed in gray or black, tidy and simple. Eight headstones, covered in undiscernable markings, stand to the right. Two larger headstones dwarf Justus and Mary—one of them stands between them. Above is a chapel of sorts with a kneeling figure inside. In the center background, a ship sails away. Three birds fly overhead. A tree that looks like a weeping willow dominates the entire left side of the painting.

It transfixes me.

I find it fascinating to study this visual link to a far-flung yesterday—especially when I consider Mary. There is something about her, this great-great-great-great grandmother of mine.

detail_dalee.jpgRather than standing primly at attention, as one would expect from a portrait made in the 1830s (nobody knows for sure when it was painted), she holds herself up by leaning on one of the enormous grave markers. She is weary. Her eyes look down. Her mouth is twisted. She doesn’t want to be there and seems detached. She looks down in one direction. The children look in the opposite direction. Her husband, the artist, is faithful to represent. A baby boy had been born in 1819. He died in 1819. A daughter, Ruth, died at age eleven.

I wonder if Ruth is the kneeling figure in the chapel. I wonder if the baby boy is the ship, sailing away. There is no way to prove or disprove my interpretation of the symbolism—but I doubt an artist father would leave two of his children out of a family memorial record. They are there, somewhere.

Perhaps I need to look no further than Mary’s face.

Whatever I’ve been through does not come close to what she experienced. Her sorrow is forever recorded in watercolor, soluable and fragile, but strong enough to speak to me where I sit, today—centuries shattered. I am a daughter of sorts, admitedly diluted by years and pioneer trails and DNA’s helixes spiraling away, away, away.

11 comments to Portrait

  • Wow. The depth with which your words speak, are no less than the richness of your ancestral painting.

  • amy

    What an amazing painting and how remarkable that you found it at this moment. I never knew you had an ancestor artist, but it makes complete sense.

  • mopsy

    Amy—I found it a couple of months ago and actually made it my computer’s desktop picture for awhile. I always thought I’d eventually write about it, but didn’t know when or why.

  • Dianne

    Hey! Justus is my ancestor too! My GGG Grandfather!!


  • Not only that, but you are part of the whole family of God that weeps with you when you weep and rejoices with you when you rejoice.

    Praying for those times of rejoicing, and for the weeping that lasts for a night. Sometimes a really long night, but just a night, nonetheless.

  • I have to say, too, that as I look at this painting I think he is saying something about the gulf that death can make between a husband and wife…look at how far they are separated by that huge gravestone.

    And I definitely think baby boy is sailing away on that ship. I love that image…like the ships that took Frodo away at the end of LOTR. Don’t know if you ever read that, but the little song that Legolas the Elf sings goes

    “”To the sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
    The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
    West, west away, the round sun is falling.
    Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
    The voices of my people that have gone before me?
    I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
    for our days are ending and our years failing.
    I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
    Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
    Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling…”

    and so forth. Also, the idea that CS Lewis created in Voyage of the Dawn Treader of Aslan’s country being at the very end of the sea where the waters grow sweet…lots of imagery there.

    *sigh* Many hugs, Gretchen.

  • What a lovely and sad post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Not only are they separated by the gravestone, but all of the children are behind her, waiting. Her head looks so precarious. But her back is still pretty straight. Is she holding a baby’s hand? I wish I could see it all close up. It makes me wonder how I would paint a portrait of my own family.

  • mopsy

    Thanks, Jenni—what perfect words to go with the imagery of a ship sailing off into the horizon. I recently read Voyage of the Dawn Treader, actually.

    Inkling—there is a little girl who is about three standing next to her, but she is not holding her hand. I saved the picture to my picture file, so when I open it I can zoom in and out to see the detail better.

  • Theresa

    I found the same photo you did while tracing my family tree. Justus is my GGGG Grandfather (Harriet is my GGG Grandmother). I too spend a lot of time staring at this photo. Mostly wishing I could see what was writen on the headstones. Nice to come across a cousin on the web!

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