Reviewed | Heidi Strobel on ‘The Look of Love’

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on May 29, 2012

Graham Boettcher, ed., with essays by Graham Boettcher, Elle Shushan, and Jo Manning, The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection (London: D. Giles Limited in association with the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama, 2012), 208 pages, ISBN: 9781907804014, $35.

Reviewed for Enlade by Heidi Strobel

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine.
– Ben Jonson, “Song to Celia” (1616)

In the sumptuously illustrated catalogue for The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection (on at the Birmingham Museum of Art from 7 February to 10 June 2012 ), Graham Boettcher, Elle Shushan, and Jo Manning highlight the world’s largest collection of eye pictures: small, often jewel-encrusted, paintings of individual eyes of lovers or beloved family members. These synecdochal portraits enjoyed a brief heydey between 1790 and 1850, in large part due to the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) who famously commissioned several lover’s eye portraits for his forbidden amour, Maria Fitzherbert. Although the best known of such commissions, these were not the first. In antiquity, the Romans and Etruscans produced similar images and, more recently, according to Horace Walpole, the French did so in the eighteenth century (18).

In “The Artist’s Eye,” Elle Shushan describes the evolution of the eye miniature and introduces its practitioners, portraitists such as Richard Cosway, who produced the aforementioned miniatures in his role as Miniature Painter to the Prince of Wales, and George Engleheart, Miniature Painter to the prince’s father, George III. In addition to the latter’s prolific output (4853 portrait miniatures between 1775 and 1813), Engleheart trained several relatives to paint eye miniatures, including his cousin Thomas Richmond and nephew John Cox Dillman Engleheart, whose work is also included in the catalogue. Shushan explains the initial modern popularity of the genre (in England and on the Continent) and describes patrons who later resuscitated the genre, including Queen Victoria who requested eye pictures of her closest friends and relatives from her Royal Miniaturist, Sir William Charles Ross. In closing, Shushan attributes the genre’s demise to its hybrid status — “part portrait, part jewelry, and part decoration” (27).

In “Symbol & Sentiment: Lover’s Eyes and the Language of Gemstones,” Graham Boettcher demonstrates how the jewels that often surrounded an eye portrait provided additional information about the qualities and features of the sitter and its wearer. Since many of these portraits were memorials to a deceased loved one, Boettcher’s discussion of these items as mourning jewelry is particularly useful.

In the third section of the catalogue, Jo Manning contributes five fictional vignettes inspired by items in the Skier Collection, an inclusion stimulated by the lost identities of most of the sitters and artists. Interspersed amid the catalogue entries are brief biographies of specialists George Engleheart and his family protégés, Cosway, Richmond, William Grimaldi, as well as George IV. Some of the entries also supply information about inscriptions and particular sitters.

Although most recent publications on miniatures include a section on eye miniatures, The Look of Love is the first publication devoted to this fleeting genre. While the liminal status of the eye miniature as part jewelry, part decoration, and part portrait may have contributed to the genre’s transience, we might ask whether such images should be considered portraits at all, a point made by Hanneke Grootenboer in her 2006 Art Bulletin article, “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision.”[1] Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe these small paintings as ‘eye pictures’ (rather than portraits) since they work so differently from traditional portrait conventions grounded in personal identification. And, given that more typical portrait miniatures were also commonly hybrids (part portrait, part jewelry, and part decoration), why was their popularity more enduring than that of the eye pictures? Were eye pictures – often profusely decorated – more expensive than standard portrait miniatures? And if so, did this factor contribute to the genre’s demise?

Notwithstanding such questions, this generously illustrated catalogue marks a significant addition to the study of miniatures and should appeal to a broad audience with its combination of scholarly scrutiny and fictional narratives.

[1] Hanneke Grootenboer, “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision,” The Art Bulletin 88 (September 2006): 496-507; also see her forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press, Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures (November 2012).

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Heidi Strobel is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Evansville, in Indiana. Her dissertation research, focused on the promotion of eighteenth-century female artists by female patrons such as Charlotte, wife of King George III of England, is published as The Artistic Matronage of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011). Other recent publications include articles on twentieth-century topics such as British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, American folklore artist Howard Finster, World War II icon Rosie the Riveter, and women’s scholarship on women.

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