look of love: secrets, intimate gazes, & miniature lover’s eyes

Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier CollectionJust in time for Valentine’s month, the Birmingham Museum of Art is exhibiting one of the largest collections of  “lover’s eyes” in The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection, through June 10, 2012.

Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)
Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)

According to the Birmingham Museum of Art, “this stunning exhibition explores the little-known subject of “lover’s eyes,” hand-painted miniatures of single human eyes set in jewelry and given as tokens of affection or remembrance. In 1785, when the Prince of Wales secretly proposed to Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert with a miniature of his own eye, he inspired an aristocratic fad for exchanging eye portraits mounted in a wide variety of settings including brooches, rings, lockets, and toothpick cases.” More information, images, and a detailed history of lover’s eyes, written by Graham C. Boettcher, BMA’s William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art, can be found here as well as an article by Jo Manning in Part I and Part II.

Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)
Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)

“With over 100 examples, the collection of Dr. and Mrs. David A. Skier of Birmingham is the largest in the world.  This exhibition offers an unprecedented look at these unusual and intriguing works of art.” A collector by passion, it makes sense that Dr. Skier was initially drawn to the eyes because of his professional interest: ophthalmology.

Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)
Lovers Eyes (Photo: M. Sean Pathasema, courtesy of the Skier Collection)

Most of the intimate eye portraits are typically painted in watercolor on ivory, and are not attributed to specific painters nor known who they are meant to depict. They were usually given as keepsakes to secret lovers, after all. This makes me wonder how a piece could have been worn as jewelry and therefore seen by others. Although an eye is very expressive and identifiable, the fragmented detail of a portrait without other contextual facial elements makes the identification of the subject difficult to determine. Alternatively, on some eyes, tears are depicted signifying a mourning jewel, and commonly in this case surrounded by pearls (a symbol for tears) instead of garnets or amethysts, which were popular gemstones of the time.

Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier CollectionWhat looks to be a fabulous full-color hardbound catalog of the same title accompanies this exhibition, edited by Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, with essays by Elle Shushan and Jo Manning, and published by Giles Ltd., London in association with the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama.

You can see a preview of the catalog here.

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Also, if you happen to be in Florence, Italy, be sure to visit the Pitti Palace’s Museo degli Argenti. Upstairs, winding back around the jewelry collection, is a new display room highlighting miniature portraits from the XVI to XX centuries. These incredibly detailed paintings can sometimes be very creepy in style and verging on surreal. Not to miss!

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2 thoughts on “look of love: secrets, intimate gazes, & miniature lover’s eyes

  1. we just saw it today. good thing they have ipads to see them close up! some of them are so teeny! amazing. so enjoyed it! and i picked out the onei want =)

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