The symbolism of flowers and plants has a special place in the cemetery landscape. The appearance of a flower offers its own particular aesthetic, while suggesting a larger theme: loyalty, faith, or a life cut short, for example. The origin and popularity of floral symbolism has roots in ancient Greece and flourished in the nineteenth century.
New Orleans stonecutters utilized flowers prolifically during this period. Craftsmen from Paul Hyppolyte Monsseaux to Joseph Callico to Albert Weiblen included them in their tablets. But one stonecutter’s use of floral iconography stands out even among his contemporaries. The work of Florville Foy, whose work spanned from the 1840s to the turn of the twentieth century, can be distinguished for its floral work. For this researcher, the appearance of a pansy on a tablet almost guarantees a Florville Foy signature. In this post, we examine Florville’s flowers.
Among all the stonecutters of New Orleans, Florville Foy has probably been most studied. This is almost entirely due to the work of historian Patricia Brady in the 1990s. Her diligence in learning the personal and professional details of Foy’s life and documenting them through academic publication is one reason Foy is seen as one of the most prominent of nineteenth century New Orleans stonecutters. Her research is synopsized here, but we encourage a thorough reading of her original article in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter 1993.
Florville Foy was a free person of color; the son of French plantation owner and sculptor Prosper Foy (1787-1854) and Azelie Aubry (c. 1795-1870), a free woman of color. Florville was not the only free man of color to work in New Orleans cemeteries in the nineteenth century. Joseph Frederick Callico (~1828-1885), who worked primarily in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 with a brief stint as the sexton of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, was also a free man of color working in New Orleans cemeteries prior to the abolition of slavery. Stonecutter Daniel Warburg (1836-1911) was the son of an enslaved Cuban woman and a German Jewish father. Florville, however, was likely the only man of color working in New Orleans cemeteries who was trained in France in the craft of sculpture.
Prosper Foy was himself a stonecutter in New Orleans cemeteries up until the 1830s. His signature is found with the very few remaining pre-1830s examples of New Orleans cemetery stonework, among his contemporaries, Lucas and Jean-Jacques Isnard (1798-1859).
Over his nearly sixty-year career, Florville Foy worked across the spectrum of New Orleans cemetery architecture. He carved simple headstones and decorated tombs of the highest style and designed by J.N.B. de Pouilly. His work is found throughout Louisiana (as far as Natchitoches) and in Gulf Coast cemeteries in Mississippi and Florida.
Florville Foy’s work was of course influenced by his French training as well. And while that may have contributed to his usage of floral motifs, they were more broadly a sign of their times. Florville’s career, it just so happened, fit perfectly within the Victorian Era.
The Victorian Language of Flowers
The Victorian era was named for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, who assumed the throne in 1837 and reigned until her death in 1901. In a broader sense, the period refers to a cultural era in both Europe and North America that embraced certain trends in fashion, culture, literature, and science. For funerary and cemetery traditions, it meant the rise of rural cemeteries, romanticism, and the “beautification of death.”
Cemetery architecture in Europe revolutionized between the end of the eighteenth century and through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The Enlightenment understanding of individuality and memorialization in death pushed popular culture away from the graveyard and into the cemetery – from austere, utilitarian landscapes to those of landscaped gardens and dramatic stonework. These broader cultural changes to death culture were kicked into high gear by Queen Victoria herself, who lost her husband Prince Albert in 1861 and dressed in mourning garb for the rest of her life. Indeed, intimacy with and formality around death is a central tenet of Victorian culture.
Alongside the birth of romantic, garden-style cemeteries and high cemetery architecture grew a virulent interest in botany and the symbolism of flowers, known as floriography. Beginning in the 1820s, the “language of flowers” was de rigeur in customarily buttoned-up Victorian society. Communicating feelings of romance, sympathy, and friendship by the symbolism of flowers in gifts or on one’s person was common.
To be clear, the meanings of individual flowers in the Victorian Era was by no means broad or vague. They were explicitly defined by floral dictionaries kept by Victorian women. It stands to reason that such books were also consulted by stonecutters in New Orleans and elsewhere in order to communicate certain sentiments. While many stonecutters utilized these symbols, Florville Foy’s language of flowers may have been the most prolific.
The floral symbols present on cemetery tablets signed by Florville Foy typically appeared as relief carvings in circular fields at the top of closure tablets. Florville was not the only stonecutter to utilize this motif: his contemporaries Paul Hyppolyte Monsseaux and Joseph Frederick Callico utilized the same circular relief motif, although often with other symbols like crosses and ivy wreaths. Across town in St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery on Louisa Street, stonecutter Americo Marozzi carved dozens of tablets with the circular-relief motif, although most often depicting the symbolic urn-and-willow design.
PANSY: Among all of the flowers attributed to Florville Foy, none is less mistakable than the pansy. Foy’s bouquets nearly always utilized them. Each is carved with a distinctive slope of the lower petal into the center of the flower, always facing forward.
The French word for pansy is pensée, which means “thought.” While the flower symbolizes the wish that the receiver “think of me” in all languages, this may have explained Florville’s heavy use of them.
ROSE: In period floral dictionaries, to simply define the rose is impossible. A rose sent monthly signified “beauty ever new,” a wild rose signified “simplicity,” while a white rose meant “silence.” In cemeteries, the rose is most often attributed to the burial of a woman and indicates, in general, beauty and love.
ROSEBUDS: Rosebuds indicate youth and are often depicted as broken or snapped, symbolizing a budding life cut short. Alternately, a rose in full bloom, ready to drop its petals, represented a life well lived.
FORGET-ME-NOT: “Forget-me-not” refers to plants in the genus Mysotis – meaning “mouse’s ear” in Greek. This is presumably because the small flowers of Mysotis plants have petals that resemble a mouse’s ear. The name “forget-me-not” was borrowed from the German name for the plant, Vergissmeinnicht, meaning also “forget-me-not,” in the 1400s, according to most sources. The French name for the plant is known as “souvenez-vous-de-moi.”
The German name Vergissmeinnicht derives from a Medieval legend of a pair of lovers walking beside a river. When the woman saw a lovely blue patch of flowers she admired, the young man walked to the bank to retrieve them, but instead fell in and was rushed away in the current. As he drowned, he cried to his lover to “forget-me-not.” Nineteenth century floral dictionaries included this legend, which would have been well-known to people of the day.
The symbolism of the forget-me-not is obvious. It begs the viewer to remember the deceased.
BELLFLOWER: Florville Foy’s carved floral arrangements often include small buds of forget-me-nots and bellflowers at their edges. Their small size and stylized shape frame the customary pansies, roses, and lilies nicely.
Said one 1839 floral dictionary of the bellflower, which appears to have also called the harebell and some varieties of bluebells, “The name of Bell-flower was never more appropriately bestowed than on this pretty, delicate plant, which has been imagined by some fanciful poets to ring out a peal of fairy music.”
As there are several varieties of bellflower and nineteenth-century floral dictionaries are extraordinarily specific, the bellflower could mean constancy, fidelity, or gratitude.
MORNING GLORY: Plants among the more than one thousand species commonly called “morning glory” have two symbolic behaviors in common: they bloom early in the morning and whither by mid-day, and they are vines that cling tightly to anything they bind to. Historic floral dictionaries refer to these flowers as symbolic of “affectionate attachment” and the impermanence of beauty.
PALM LEAVES: In his marble arrangements, Florville Foy often included several types of palm leaves to frame his larger floral images. Like many non-floral plant symbols, the palm reaches back far beyond Victorian floriography to Classical Greece and Rome. In Florville Foy’s and other cemetery contexts, the palm leave represents victory.
IVY: Several Florville Foy tablets depict ivy, including the tablets of his own family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 (where was buried in 1903) and the tomb of his wife, Louise Whittaker-Foy, who died in 1901 and is buried in Metairie Cemetery. Like palm, oak, and laurel, ivy has represented fidelity and immortality for centuries.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880 (National Records and Archives Administration), Roll 461, Page 234C, Enumeration District 36; State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management, and History, Vital Records Indices; Gardner’s New Orleans Directory for 1861 (New Orleans: Charles Gardner), 89.
 Brady, Patricia. “Black Artists in Antebellum New Orleans.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 32, no. 1, 1991, pp. 5–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4232862.
 Patricia Brady, “Florville Foy, F.M.C.: Master Marble Cutter and Tomb Builder,” Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 2 (Winter 1993), 11.
 Mandy Kirkby, A Victorian Flower Dictionary: The Language of Flowers Companion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2011), 113; Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2004), 52.
 John B. Newman, M.D., Illustrated Botany Containing a Floral Dictionary and a Glossary of Scientific Terms (New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1850), 192.
 Keister, Stories in Stone, 54.
 Newman, M.D., Illustrated Botany Containing a Floral Dictionary and a Glossary of Scientific Terms, 46-47; Kirkby, Victorian Flower Dictionary, 49.
 Catherine H. Waterman, Flora’s Lexicon: An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers (Philadelphia: Herman Hooker, 1839), 41.
 Ibid.; Newman, M.D., 186, 192; Keister, 43; Kirkby, 164.
 Keister, 44; Newman, M.D., 189; Waterman, 126;
 Beverly Seaton, The Language of Flowers: A History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 41; Hermon Bourne, Flores Poetici: The Florist’s Manual (New York: Charles S. Francis, 1833), 86.
 Bourne, 124.
 Waterman, 194.
 Newman, M.D., 194.
 Keister, 54.