Yale University Art Gallery

New Haven, CT




Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures


Striking resemblances that will never fail to perpetuate the tenderness of friendship, to divert the cares of absence, and to aid affection in dwelling on those features and that image which death has forever wrested from us.

Charles Fraser, Charleston Times, May 27, 1807


A major exhibition of American portrait miniatures, an art form that flourished from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, was at the Yale University Art Gallery from October 3 through December 30, 2000. Love and Loss: 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 a few large easel paintings that show how these intensely personal images were worn as jewelry. Visitors will not only be able to appreciate the charm and beauty of the miniatures, but also to examine their construction and learn the engaging, often poignant, stories behind them. Works in the exhibition are selected from Yale's outstanding collection of American portrait miniatures, along with a promised bequest and some important loans, Robin Jaffee Frank, associate curator of American paintings and sculpture, organized the exhibition and wrote the related book. She and a team of diligent Fellows have been tenacious in their search for the identity and background of both sitters and portrait painters. They have rescued them from anonymity and, in the process, provided the viewer and reader with intriguing anecdotes and revealing historical information about private life and society in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.

After its showing at Yale the exhibition travels to the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC (February 10 - April 8, 2001) and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA (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.

"The miniature's rise in popularity in the North American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century," noted Ms. Frank, "coincided with a greater cultural emphasis on romantic love, marriage, and affection between parents and children. Depictions of people wearing miniatures," she continued, "eloquently testify to the personal and social significance of these tiny mementos." Portrait miniatures were so much a part of upper-, and later middle-, class American life that they became a specialty of such artists as James Peale,, John Ramage and Edward Greene Malbone as well as a number of anonymous journeyman miniaturists. The exhibition also includes miniatures by major easel painters, including the only one made by Benjamin West, as well as works by John Singleton Copley, and Charles Willson Peale.

At the entrance to the exhibition the visitor viewed the miniaturist's tools -- a work desk, brushes, paint box, a reducing glass, component parts and cases ·-- and learned how these skilled, frequently self-taught, artists constructed these tiny, fragile objects. A video projection showed rotating miniatures enabling the viewer to see all sides of magnified works. From there, the exhibition was installed chronologically, beginning with The First American Miniaturists: Experiments in a Secret Art, which focused 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 were small, crisply modeled images produced for this growing audience. A particular focus here was The Cult of Washington, where likenesses of the Founding Father, both as a public figure and-private man, were displayed in all manner of cases from pendants to a snuff box. The national grief at Washington's death inspired an unprecedented display of portrait and allegorical miniatures worn by men, women, and children well into the nineteenth century. This led to a wider market for mourning miniatures, met by artists like Samuel Folwell, who fashioned commemoratives for the expanding middle class market.

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. Exhibited were 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.

During the Jacksonian. era, members of the prospering middle class joined the market for portraits. By then, Americans were just as inclined to frame a miniature or hang it on the parlor wall as to wear it in a locket. Soon, a greater 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 love and loss in portable form.

The exhibition closed with a group of mourning miniatures -- rings, brooches and lockets -- in a section titled Not Lost but Gone Before. A highlight in this section was the miniature Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride) the subject of one of several video commentaries. "By revealing the story of her life and death, we return to this miniature, its power to move us," said Ms. Frank. "More than any other token of the time, the mourning miniature expressed the universal longing to keep the dead within the circle of the living."

A beautifully illustrated 362-page book, Love and Loss: 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. The book is published by the Yale University Press.

The exhibition and publication were made possible in part by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency. Additional support came from the Virginia and Leonard Marx Publication Fund and the Mrs. Lelia Wardwell Bequest. Conservation was supported by the Getty Grant Program. The Yale Art Gallery is indebted to Davida Tenenbaurn Deutsch and Alvin Deutsch Esq, Yale L.L.B. 1958, for the timely promised bequest of their distinguished collection of American miniatures, which significantly enriched the exhibition and publication. Crucial loans came from Gloria Manney, Leonard Hill, the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Maryland Historical Society, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and the New York Historical Association, Cooperstown. Artists' tools were lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the New-York Historical Society, the Stamford Historical Society, and the Winterthur Museum.


About the Curator

Robin Jaffee Frank, Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery since 1995, received her Ph.D. in the History of Art from Yale in 1994. She received her B.A., summa cum laude, with highest honors in both Fine Arts and English and American Literature, from Brandeis University in 1977. At Brandeis. she was named a Louis Dembitz Brandeis Scholar for the highest academic achievement in the Creative Arts, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and awarded a Thomas J. Watson Postgraduate Fellowship to study the production of documentaries on the visual arts under the direction of the BBC-TV in London.

Ms. Frank gained experience with exhibition organization by working in contemporary art galleries from 1979 to 1983 and as a researcher for a Lucas Samaras Photography Retrospective held at the International Center for Photography, New York, in 1983. As a graduate student at Yale, she was the recipient of a Marcia Brady Tucker Fellowship in 1986 and The Hcnry Luce Fellowship in American, Art in 1988-89. As a curatorial intern in the Art Gallery's department of Prints, Drawings, and Photography, she organized "The Good Old Summertime: American Prints and Drawings, 1850 to 1910" in 1986, and with Richard S. Field co-authored the exhibition catalogue American Daguerreotypes from the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection in 1989. Since she began curatorial work in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, she co-authored A Checklist of American Sculpture at Yale University in 1992; contributed essays on American Impressionists to A Private View: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection in 1993; and organized the exhibition and authored the catalogue, Charles Demuth Poster Portraits: 1923-1929, the subject of her doctoral dissertation, in 1994. In addition, Ms. Frank played a major role in the realization of many other exhibitions and publications, and temporarily assumed the role of department head from October 1997 to September 1998 while Helen .A. Cooper served as the Art Gallery's acting director. Ms. Frank has lectured on American art at Yale as well as at the National Museum of American History, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Frick Art Museum. and New York University. She recently organized the major exhibition, Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures. She also has authored two articles on miniatures. The Dead Bride (The Yale Journal of Criticism, Spring 1998) and Miniatures under the Microscope (Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Fall 1999).

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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