The Eye-Miniature Fad: 1905-1916

Eye miniature with tear, anonymous, c. 1790-1820 Usually the tear is a feature of later revival pieces http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1067812/eye-miniature-unknown/

Of all the odd fads that have reached New York via London, the latest captures the palm. What do you think miladi is presenting her true love with nowadays? A miniature of her beautiful eyes—eye, rather, for only one eye is pictured. The fad is just now raging in London, and a few smart New York women, just over from a season in the world’s metropolis, brought the fad with them. The Duchess of Manchester is one of them….

Now that the fad has hit Gotham inside of a year—the way fashions travel—it should be raging in San Francisco. Of course the photographers will take it up, and eye photos as well as miniatures will be possible. The frames, jeweled or merely of gold or silver, will be another item. If every man cannot write a sonnet to his mistress’ eyebrow, he can at least present her with a photo of his best orb….

Eyebrows are not necessarily a part of the eye miniature, but eyelids and lashes are. Half-closed lids are significant of indulgence and are a great “give-away” in an eye picture. Dark circles under the eyes are by the Parisian demi-mondaines considered a beauty and they cultivate them to make themselves of an effréné [frantic] appearance, but the bud of 20 or less would not like to see her eye miniature with one of these borders.

The white of the eye should be pure and pearly, which in the fashionable devotee of the cigarette it never is. “Pink eyes” and “red eyes” would be tabu to the eye miniaturist. The eye that gives way to grief is never lovely…. The San Francisco [CA] Call 9 April 1905: p. 6

Many distinguished ladies had their eyes “done.”

In the eye miniatures of today the eye is painted life size and the color of the iris, the shade and curl of the eye-lashes, the form of the lid and the shape of the brown, are all indicated. Queen Alexandra, the Princess Henry of Pless, her sister; the Duchess of Westminster and the Countess of Warwick are among the women who have given orders for eye pictures, it is said. The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 14 March 1905: p. 7

Miniature artists found themselves back in fashion:

[The miniature artist] Mr Williams has “an eye for an eye,” so to speak, in a special and most interesting way. That is in his successful introduction, or revival, of the poetic art of painting miniatures of eyes-eyes alone, as if shining out of the sky or the imagination-to be set and worn as jewels on cuff-links, brooches, scarf-pins, in watch-cases, and the like.

Tie-pin with lady’s weeping eye, c. 1900-10, painted during the eye-miniature revival https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/2/collection/43600/tiepin-with-a-miniature-of-a-ladys-eye

It is in line with the pretty conceit of Count Robert de Montesquieu, who gave a series of ‘‘conferences” in New York one season, and in his discourse on “Jewels” led up triumphantly to the demonstration that the most varied, wondrous, and beautiful of all gems or jewels are-eyes.

A famous eye-picture, perhaps the earliest, was that of Mrs. Fitzherbert, the morganatic wife of King George IV, who sat for it to the great Cosway himself, and had the tiny miniature set in a gold bracelet, which the king wore upon his wrist.

The eyes of Mrs. George Gould and those of her daughter Marjorie, painted from life by Alyn Williams, are worn by Mr. Gould on cuff-links. The same artist has done a marvelously expressive miniature of the prom-lidded, yet keen and kindly eye of the late King Edward. This was what probably gave a new start to the fashionable fad.

A truly royal pair of cuff-links. The one at the left has a painted eye of Queen Mary (top) and of King George; the other one shows an eye of Queen Alexandra (top) and of King Edward VII

At a recent miniature-show in London, many paintings of eyes were shown, including some dating back more than a century, to the time of Cosway. One of the most interesting curios in the collection was an exquisite bracelet containing seven diamond-set miniatures depicting the eyes of the seven children, of a Scotch laird. There was also the melting dark eye of the lovely Lady Blessington.

We have no specific record of the prices commanded by the early English miniaturists. Those of their present day successors are decidedly “fancy,” and Alyn Williams undoubtedly heads the list. His uniform price for painting a pair of eyes is two hundred dollars.

Cosmopolitan, Volume 53, 1912: pp. 667-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  As the commentary on an eye miniature from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection says:

Eye miniatures came into fashion at the end of the 18th century. They seem to have originated in France, and were a curious but brief anomaly in painting in miniature. They represented an extremely intense manifestation of an already emotionally charged art, apparently an attempt to capture ‘the window of the soul’, the supposed reflection of a person’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. Often, as here, the result was a compelling piece of jewellery. But sometimes the result was merely anatomical and unpleasing, or uncanny and disturbing.

Mrs Daffodil concurs that the result is often disturbing. One fancies that the lover’s eye miniature might be a sort of witchery, the all-seeing eye watching the Beloved’s every movement… Not a pleasant thought.

The fad continued through the War and even into the 1930s.

An eye miniature by Emily Drayton Taylor after 18th-century miniaturist Edward Greene Malbone, c. 1930 http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/2904?sortBy=Relevance&ft=eye+miniature&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=11

Since the present war began [miniature artist] Ernest Lloyd has been sojourning in Southern California and has introduced the eye miniature among society folk there. It is the claim of the artists that they paint the eyes because they reveal more than any part of the face. “It is a wonderful thing to know how to read one’s character through the window of one’s soul,” declared Mr. Lloyd.

The eyes of Napoleon and Josephine, herewith reproduced, are the work of Miss Minnie Taylor, a well-known artist in San Francisco. Miss Taylor is such a rare soul herself that she is always seeking to find the soul of those with whom she comes into contact; hence this painting of the eyes has had a special appeal for her. She copied the eyes of the great conqueror and his wife from the originals in the famous Wallace collection in London, the largest collection of miniatures in the world.

When the pictures were first introduced, they were then, as they are now, set in gold and jeweled frames and given to friends as little intimate and secret presents, meant to convey a sweet and delicate sentiment. When the fad shall have reached San Francisco, Miss Taylor’s service doubtless will be in great demand for she probably is the only artist in the city who has made a study of eye miniatures.

California’s Magazine, 1916: p. 184

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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