Published: October 10, 2000
American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – A major exhibition of American portrait miniatures, an art form that flourished from the mid-Eighteenth to the mid-Nineteenth Centuries, will be at the Yale University Art Gallery through December 30. “: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures,” includes close to 140 of these exquisite works of art, most of them small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, as well as a few large easel paintings that show how these intensely personal images were worn as jewelry. Visitors will be able to examine their construction and learn the engaging, often poignant, stories behind them.
Works are from Yale’s collection of American portrait miniatures, along with a promised bequest and some important loans. After its showing at Yale, the exhibition travels to the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C. (February 10-April 8, 2001) and the Addison Gallery, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. (April 27-July 31, 2001).
A young bride on her deathbed, George Washington as President, Martha Washington in widowhood, an alluring seductress, ships’ captains, their lonely wives, and children separated from their parents by distance or death are some of the individuals portrayed in miniature in this exhibition. These intimate portraits were painted on commission to commemorate births, engagements, marriages, deaths and other unions or separations. Combining painting and decorative arts, portrait miniatures were most often painted in watercolor on thin disks of ivory, housed under glass in finely worked gold lockets, brooches or bracelets. A decoratively arranged lock of the sitter’s hair might be displayed on the reverse side, frequently intermingled with the hair of the person who commissioned the portrait. Indeed, hair, which survives time and decay, was often chopped up or dissolved to paint mourning miniatures.
At the entrance to the exhibition are the miniaturist’s tools – a work desk, brushes, paint box, a reducing glass, component parts and cases. A video projection shows rotating miniatures enabling the viewer to see all sides of magnified works. From there, the exhibition is installed chronologically, beginning with “The First American Miniaturists: Experiments in a Secret Art,” which focuses on Benjamin West’s sole effort, accompanied by a video presentation, and works by Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley.
After the peace of 1783 portrait miniatures of military leaders and statesmen were extremely popular and in the section “Miniatures and the Young Republic” are small, crisply modeled images produced for this growing audience. A particular focus here is “The Cult of Washington,” where likenesses of the Founding Father, both as a public figure and private man, are displayed in all manner of cases from pendants to a snuff box.
The turn of the Nineteenth Century saw a burgeoning demand for miniatures of all kinds and scores of miniaturists came to America to satisfy it. “The Flourishing of the American Miniature” focuses particularly on the romantic tokens that served as surrogates for the absent loved one, as well as to express a secret passion. Here are numerous miniatures by members of the Peale dynasty – James, Raphaelle, Anna Claypoole and Charles Willson – and double portraits of married couples. Particularly delightful are William Doyle’s alluring “Young Lady in a Sheer White Dress” and the provocative “Beauty Revealed (Self-Portrait),” miniaturist Sarah Goodridge’s limning of her own breasts, a secret gift to statesman Daniel Webster.
A great transformation came with the invention of photography at the end of the 1830s. Miniaturists met the competition by mirroring the meticulous qualities of the photograph in watercolor-on-ivory portraits, painted from or aided by a photographic image. It was not long before the photograph eclipsed the miniature as the primary means of expressing in portable form.
The exhibition closes with a group of mourning miniatures – rings, brooches and lockets – in a section titled “Not Lost but Gone Before.” A highlight in this section is the miniature “Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride) the subject of one of several video commentaries.
A beautifully illustrated, 362-page book, : American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures accompanies the exhibition. It traces the development of this exquisite art form revealing its close ties with the history of American social and private life. It is published by the Yale University Press and is available in the museum store for $35.
Programs offered in conjunction with the exhibit include the following:
Wednesday, October 18, 12:20 pm – Art a la carte: “A Private Eye Looks at Private Lives: Researching American Miniatures,” Amu Kurtz, doctoral candidate, history of art.
Saturday, October 28 – Symposium “Facing the Past and Present: the Portrait in American Art.” 10 am-noon, : American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures – moderated by Jules D. Prown, Paul Mellon Professor Emeritus, History of Art.
Thursday, November 2, – 4 pm, Art at Four, “American Photography,” Alan Trachtenberg, the Neil Gray, Jr. Professor of English and Professor of American studies.
Tuesday, November 7 – 2 pm, Gallery Talk, “: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures,” Dennis Carr, graduate student, history of art, and Diane Waggoner, Fellow, American paintings and sculpture.
Thursday, November 9 – noon, Gallery Talk, “: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures,” Dennis Car, graduate student, history of art, and Diane Waggoner, Fellow, American paintings and sculpture.
Friday, November 10, 5:30 pm, The Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Lecture Series “Raised to an Art: Photography in Portraiture,” Alan Fern, Director Emeritus, The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, November 15 – 12:20, Art a la carte, “Secrets Revealed: Love in Miniature,” Robin Jaffee Frank, associate curator of American paintings and sculpture and organizer of : American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures.
Wednesday, December 6 – 12:20, Art a la carte, “American Miniature in Detail: A Conservator’s View,” Katherine Eirk, conservator.
Friday, December 15 – 5:30 pm, The Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Lecture Series: “The Eidos in the Hand,” Susan Stewart, the Regan Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania.
The gallery is at Chapel Street at York. For information, 20¾32-0611.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm