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Clean Linens and Good Manners in a Family History of Virtue

A crumbling, half-eaten yellow cake sits in a patch of sunlight in Frances F. Denny’s series “Let Virtue Be Your Guide,” published as a book in December by Radius Books and on view at ClampArt in New York until December 19. The book’s afterword by Lisa Locascio describes a Great Cake ordered by Martha Washington to celebrate her husband’s return, made with 40 eggs and pounds of butter, but Denny explained this one: “It’s a birthday cake,” she said in a recently published interview. “It resembles a kind of crumbling edifice. I see the WASP world disappearing.” The series documents that disappearing world in Denny’s own family, recording rooms filled with paintings of ancestors and a hand-drawn family tree dating back to 1550, floral wallpaper and stained table clothes. Denny also made portraits of family sitting in these handsome rooms. Set among the images are texts from unnamed members of the family, identified only by the year of their birth, explaining the WASP code they lived by. “In my family the default was decorum, but with kindness. A good grasp of language and an ability to engage in a conversation about ideas. Attention to personal grooming, with a preference for elegance. Dullness and shrinks were insupportable and topics of conversation would never include medical complaints, sex, money, or news of one’s children,” says someone born in 1949.

Named after an exhibition of colonial girls’ embroidery samplers, the series explores the idea of virtue as it intersects with definitions of womanhood, especially in the domestic realm of thrift and good manners. A whole chapter of Locascio’s text is devoted to stain removal, a fitting mix of the ideas of purity and home. “There is an entire canon of stain removal literature, and an arsenal of products to achieve its ends. A woman I went to school with confided her mother’s foolproof method for removing red wine stains, which involved white vinegar, baking soda, and seltzer poured from a height of six feet,” she writes. The visual equivalent is the carefully preserved linens and dishes Denny photographs. Says Denny, “I’m interested in various ideals placed on women. I’m interested in models for perfection, whether it is New England’s or Disney’s.” Exploring the history of female virtue by looking at her own roots, Denny sees the project as part of a broader set of questions. “Historically [virtue is] about chasteness, the preservation of virginity. But I wonder, what does it mean to live a moral life as a woman today?”

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