Hand-painted individual eye miniatures were all the rage from 1790 to 1830 in aristocratic England. Barely an inch wide, the “lover’s eyes” were fragile watercolors meticulously dabbed on tiny pieces of ivory, with many adorned with lavish jewels. However, for the vast majority of the exquisite portrait miniatures the subject, artist, and owner are anonymous.
“The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection” opened September 21 2013, at Winterthur’s East Gallery and will be displayed through January 5, 2014. It features nearly 100 hand-painted miniature portraits of individual eyes ensconced in brooches, rings, chokers, pendants, and even toothpick cases. The miniatures were graciously donated from the private collection of David and Nan Skier.
These miniscule paintings very carefully delineated one eye, one eyebrow, and perhaps some wispy strands of hair falling to one side (one of the ways to differentiate between men and women), but never a nose.
“It’s a very luxurious and intimate exhibit,” says Catherine Dann Roeber, curatorial fellow at Winterthur. “It’s fun to imagine the past loves and lovers. This was a very private art form. Of all these miniatures there’s only a handful that are properly identified.”
It has been estimated that only a thousand of these pieces were ever made, therefore making them rare and collectible.
The tiny artworks were popularized by a scandalous affair between the Prince of Wales, later crowned King George IV of England, and a widowed commoner named Maria Fitzherbert. Despite disapproval from the court, the two wed in secret, and in 1785 commissioned portraits of their eyes as discreet and intimate tokens of affection. However, their story broke and lover’s eyes became en vogue among the privileged classes, and ordered by lovers and families alike.
The collection the Skiers have assembled is considered the largest of its kind. In 1993, the couple attended an antique show in Boston when they came across a peculiar relic: a ring displaying a detailed painting of a young man’s eye. In the early 1800s, they later learned that the item belonged to the director of the East India Company’s son, Theophilus Metcalfe.
David Skier, an eye surgeon and ophthalmologist from Birmingham, Alabama, was immediately taken by the tiny extraordinary artwork. He presented the piece to his wife, and over the past decade, they have quietly built the largest collection of lover’s eye miniatures in the world. “These rarities were once works of art, precious jewels, and fragments of history. How poignant it is that each eye represents an actual person and an actual story of a long-ago love or bereavement, which is now lost to the passage of time” said Nan Skier.
The exhibition was first presented at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) last year. Crates containing both the tiny objects and display cases arrived at Winterthur from the BMA on September 5. The specialty cases are outfitted with custom fiber optic lighting to highlight and spotlight the eye miniatures. In addition, each case has a space for a desiccant, or drying agent, to help maintain humidity control within the case itself. The display cases are mounted on striking aubergine (a rich purple) walls.
Eye miniatures were generally painted as a “lover’s eye,” or as a token for a loved one to view in secret and feel as if his or her lover was gazing right at the viewer. Those that were not tokens of a lover’s affection are recognized as sentimental or mourning jewelry. They are identified by a single diamond tear falling from the eye, or seed pearls. The pearls are a metaphor for tears or mourning. Eyes not surrounded by pearls were often framed in garnets, amethysts, and other popular gemstones of the period.
“Those with exquisite gems are valued in multiple thousands of dollars,” Roeber notes.
Due to the incredibly tiny nature of these eye miniatures, the BMA has loaned Winterthur iPads with an app allowing visitors to see the exhibition objects at up to 20 times their actual size.
“You can stand in front of these miniatures and pick an object, then blow it up,” Roeber relates. “You really get to look in-depth at it like the cross-hatching in the piece. It’s a wonderful component of the exhibit. People are really enjoying it.”
Winterthur Museum hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm Admission- Adults, $18; students/seniors, $16.