By Susan P. Schoelwer SUMMER 2009
One of the most intriguing early American depictions of the stages of life emerged from the hands of a young Connecticut woman, driven from her family’s home by the violence of the Revolutionary War. Prudence Punderson’s silk-embroidered picture “The First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality” uses mundane objects—a cradle, table, and coffin—to create a vivid and powerful allegory of fleeting time and human frailty.
The setting is the interior of a well-appointed parlor—probably not too different from the one Prudence knew as a child in southeastern Connecticut. At its center, a fashionably dressed, young white woman sits at a tilt-top table, sketching. To the right, a young black woman tends a white baby in a wooden cradle. To the left, a black coffin marked “PP” rests on a dining table beneath a gilded looking glass topped by a phoenix, a traditional symbol of rebirth and immortality. The initials signal that this is also a self-portrait: Prudence traces her life’s passage through the familiar surroundings of daily life. The pewter inkwell on the table survives at the Connecticut Historical Society, as do the family’s pedestal table and looking glass, which are quite similar to those pictured. The young black woman may be the Pundersons’ enslaved house servant, Jenny. Other details were drawn from printed sources. The combination of cradle, coffin, and writing table or desk appeared on cabinetmakers’ trade cards and signs, advertising the craftsmen’s provision of goods needed throughout life. Prudence’s rendering of this commonplace motif as an allegory has no known counterparts in 18th-century American imagery.
The young Prudence, born in 1758, almost certainly inherited and learned her impressive artistic and embroidery skills from her mother, Prudence Geer Punderson (1735-1822). The elder Prudence came from an extended family of craftspeople (including her brother, furniture maker John Wheeler Geer) and was herself a talented needleworker. Through her father, young Prudence likely acquired a better-than-average education and the expensive, imported silks, needles, and pattern books that she used in her work. Ebenezer Punderson (1735-1809) was a Yale-educated schoolteacher and shopkeeper who made several trips to England.
The Pundersons had a history of seeing things differently than most of their neighbors in Connecticut. In the 1730s, Prudence’s grandfather, the Rev. Ebenezer Punderson, had left Connecticut’s Congregational establishment to become one of the colony’s first Church of England ministers. In the 1770s, her father made the unpopular choice to remain loyal to the British crown. When Prudence was just 20, local hostility forced the family to abandon its comfortable home, fleeing to safety behind British lines on Long Island.
Prudence’s composition distills life’s passages to a bare minimum of three, in contrast to Victorian versions that showed several additional life stages. (Lithographs produced by the Kellogg firm in Hartford illustrate 11 distinct ages.) Her depiction of a few steps from cradle to coffin proved tragically prophetic. For Prudence there would be no lengthy transition from youth to middle and old age. In October 1783, at age 25 she married Dr. Timothy Wells Rossiter (1759-1845) of Norwich, and nine months later, she gave birth to a daughter, Sophia. The following month, Prudence was laid to rest in Maple Cemetery in Berlin, Connecticut.
Prudence Punderson Rossiter’s death marked the passing of a remarkable artistic talent. With striking originality and exceptional skill, she combined objects drawn from daily life with motifs adapted from published sources. She thus created pictorial compositions that are unique among early American embroideries and on a par with all but the most advanced paintings of 18th-century America. Her mortality picture and 12 highly unusual portraits of the Apostles, together with other works by this talented family—her mother’s bed hangings, her father’s wallet, her sister’s sampler, her niece’s quilt—will be featured in a fall 2010 exhibition of needlework from the CHS collections. These and other Punderson family items, such as Prudence’s wedding dress and daybook, family furniture and silverware, and 30 volumes of account books from her father’s store, are available for study; contact the CHS Research Center at 1 Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut, (860)236-5621, ext. 230, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan P. Schoelwer of West Hartford is the Florence S. Marcy Crofut Director of Collections Development at the Connecticut Historical Society. She edited catalogues on Connecticut tavern signs and Connecticut River Valley furniture and is directing the forthcoming needlework project.