Published: December 12, 2000
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – Call it serendipity, but it was almost by chance that Yale University Art Gallery recently received one of the best private collections of American portrait and mourning miniatures in the country. Davida Deutsch, the well-known collector and scholar, had called Robin Frank, associate curator of American sculpture and paintings, to discuss an article she was working on.
Robin responded by inviting Davida to speak to Yale students about women’s needlework and mourning art, a subject on which Deutsch is an expert. “Over lunch, Davida mentioned that she had miniatures and asked if I’d like to see them,” the curator recalled.
A satisfying lunch it was. As a result, 95 miniatures are now the promised bequest of the collector and her husband, Alvin Deutsch, a 1958 graduate of Yale Law School. Along with the holdings of former Yale curator John Hill Morgan and his wife, Leila, acquired by the art gallery in the 1940s, and miniatures given to Yale by Francis P. Garvan in the 1930s, the Deutsch collection forms the backbone of “Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures.”
Organized by Frank, this outstanding show continues at Yale through December 30. Next year, it will travel to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C. (February 10-April 8, 2001) and to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. (April 27-July 31, 2001).
Until July, the tiny personages were practically members of the Deutsch family. “I had no idea how many I had. They were all over the house – in drawers, in cubby holes,” said the collector, who frequently displayed them as they were meant to be seen, suspended on a ribbon around her neck. “We had planned to divide them among different institutions. Now that they are all at Yale, it’s satisfying to know that they will be used to teach,” the collector said.
Yale’s already fine group included such icons as the first miniature painted by a native-born American, Benjamin West’s self-portrait of 1758 or 1759. The piece was a love token to Elizabeth Steele of Philadelphia, who broke the young painter’s heart when she declined his offer of marriage. The Deutsch gift included two later portraits by Raphaelle Peale, both superb, which enable the museum to show the entirety of the Philadelphia painter’s career. Rich in mourning art, the Deutsch assemblage also included miniatures by artists not previously represented at Yale, among them Thomas Birch, William Doyle, and David Bradley.
Davida Deutsch’s interest in miniatures developed gradually. In 1977, she published her first article in The Magazine Antiques on mourning prints for George Washington. A fascination with Washington’s death as a cultural phenomenon led her also to study needlework, portrait miniatures, and artifacts of mourning. “Young women began stitching mourning pieces. This took me into the area of women’s education,” Deutsch explained. “The silk embroideries had figures with beautifully painted faces, which had to have been done by professionals. That led me to portrait miniatures. It all sounds like an odd combination, but there was a connection.” The connection is clearly drawn in Deutsch’s forthcoming book, The Polite Lady: Or A Course of Female Education. In it, the author considers the many artistic genres – needlework, painting, drawing, wax work, shell work and filigree work – familiar to an educated woman of the early Nineteenth Century.
Methodical in her research, Deutsch says her collection grew by happenstance. “I bought my first miniature in the 1970s, in Raleigh, N.C.,” she recalled. “It was a little girl and she cost me $40. The dealer apologized for the price.”
“I never really consciously thought about buying miniatures. I didn’t feel I had to find one of each. I just bought them when they moved me. Sometimes I was moved but didn’t buy them because they were too much money,” she said with a laugh. “I never cared about getting things beyond 1830, and I don’t like anything sappy.”
Portrait miniatures have a distinguished history as personal art and portable keepsakes. In this country, the genre flourished between 1740 and 1840, gaining momentum after the Revolutionary War and declining with the introduction of photography. Most American miniatures were painted in watercolor on thin disks of ivory and housed under glass in finely worked gold lockets, brooches or bracelets. A lock of the sitter’s hair was sometimes enclosed on the reverse.
Behind every miniature is story of love and, sometimes, loss. It was the emotion embedded in these tiny visages that Frank hoped to recover, and that is what makes “Love and Loss” different than past displays. “In some cases we have been able to give back to these objects the ties of family and friends that brought them into being. I’m sure that behind other miniatures there are wonderful secrets that we haven’t yet ferreted out. I hope that in hearing and seeing the details, visitors will understand that behind every object there is a private history worth knowing,” the curator said.
Frank discovered miniatures as a graduate student at Yale. “In many ways these objects were orphans. I would go down to storage, open drawers and find them lying there. At Yale, we consider them paintings, but you can’t understand them without a strong background in the decorative arts.” The trade has been similarly confused about their status. “Miniatures get put in Americana auctions here in the states, but are shoved into Silver and Vertu sales in London,” said Elle Shusan, the only antiques dealer in the country who exclusively specializes in these jewel-like marvels. “I consider them art. Why should Charles Willson Peale go from painting big in the art department to painting little in the decorative arts department?”
Perhaps the disagreement over nomenclature discouraged scholarship, which got off to an early start with Anna Hollingsworth Wharton’s research in 1898, continued with Early Portrait Painters in Miniature by Theodore Bolton in 1921, but nearly disappeared until the 1980s, when Robin Bolton-Smith published Portrait Miniatures in the National Museum of American Art. Dale Johnson followed with American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection in 1990.
“You always wonder why another scholar didn’t get there first,” admitted Frank. That was until she discovered how difficult it is to research miniatures, which are usually unsigned and often unidentified. “One obstacle to study is that there are only a few conservators of miniatures in the entire country.”
Conservation, in fact, was a key component of the Yale project. With funds from the Getty Grant Program, the museum engaged Katherine G. Eirk. The independent conservator worked closely with Theresa Fairbanks, chief conservator for works on paper at Yale. “Second only to the joy of holding these objects in our hands was the insight we were able to get from examining them. It was a very rich and layered experience,” Frank recalled. “In Theresa’s lab at the Yale Center for British Art, a microscope attached to a video camera allowed us to have a scholarly dialogue about what we saw.”
The findings are presented in Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures by Robin Frank. What started as a straightforward project to catalogue the museum’s collection became, through the enthusiasm of both its author and its publisher, Yale University Press, a volume that is as beautiful as it is scholarly. Within days of being published, this bijou of a book, which is reduced in size but shows miniatures to scale, had found its way to the recommended table in the bookstore of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Perhaps because of their small scale and intimate nature, portrait miniatures remain undervalued. Folk art collectors have bid up the works of Mrs Moses B. Russell, whose charmingly naive likenesses can sell for $30,000 or more. In general, however, most American miniatures sell for $10,000 or less. In January, Christie’s will offer a huge exception, a portrait of George Washington by the preeminent American miniaturist, John Ramage. From the collection of Eddy Nicholson, it last fetched a record $623,000 at auction in 1988.
Elle Shushan has one piece of advice for would-be collectors: “Don’t buy a miniature unless you love the sitter. Beyond that, every collector has his own view. I have clients who collect only American examples, others cut off at 1825. I even have a client who buys only officers in red coats of identified regiments.” One good place to look at portrait miniatures – American, English, and Continental – is on Shushan’s Web site, www.portrait-miniatures.com.
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