The Cleveland Museum of Art recently compiled its vast collection of approximately 170 portrait miniatures into an exhibition, “Disembodied: Portrait Miniatures and Their Contemporary Relatives.” Although miniatures may not seem like very monumental works, these tiny beauties pack a startling amount of expression.
Miniatures first emerged during the 16th century in English and French courts. They are usually painted in watercolor on silver, vellum, ivory or enamel. Miniatures are typically portable pieces that can be lovingly hung as necklaces or tucked carefully into pockets as keepsakes.
The first thing one may notice about a miniature is the impressive amount of detail bursting out of such a small piece. Clearly, the degree of resemblance was important to a patron, but miniatures manage to go beyond mere appearances.
Cory Korkow, CMA assistant curator of European art and exhibition organizer, says this collection of miniatures contains “hundreds of years of artists and sitters capturing the memories, romances, heartbreaks and vanities that engage us all.”
There is an undeniably human aspect behind our connection to these pieces, one that allows for these works, which span from 1576 to 2013, to seize our hearts. They capture us not only because of their craftsmanship, but also because of the thinly veiled sentiment hidden in each piece.
For instance, one of the portraits depicts a woman by the name of Mary Frances Swinburne. In the miniature, Frances is impeccably dressed, adorned with fine pearls and a mountain of precisely curled, powdered hair.
Frances appears as a typical gentlewoman of the 18th century, showcasing an almost disturbingly composed and regal disposition. However, the artist, Richard Cosway, managed to capture something similar to apprehension in her deep blue eyes.
Cosway was a close friend of Frances’ fiancé, Paul Benfield, and stayed with the couple briefly to attend their wedding, during which he painted Frances’ portrait. Benfield, a man described as an “adventurer,” would soon bring about Frances’ financial ruin. Whether Cosway predicted this drastic turn of events will forever remain unknown, but any trace hints of this prediction are captured in Frances’ miniature.
It is incredible to think how these miniatures manage to embody much more than each sitter’s aspect. Each piece has an individual history, an individual story, just like Frances’ portrait. Each miniature, regardless of how aged it may be, captures a special moment in an individual’s life, be it the beginning of a downfall or the commencement of a new love.
If you want to take some time to delve into an exhibition that showcases beauty and artistic ability, and delves into over 100 lives, make sure to stop by the miniature exhibition at CMA. Viewing the exhibition is free of charge.
Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about the specific stories behind the miniatures, be sure to visit the talk with contemporary artist Dario Robelto, which will be held this Friday at 7 p.m. in the Prints and Drawings Galleries.
EDIT 11/20 10:20p: There was an error in printing regarding the date of the Mini-Drama talk. The talk is on February 14, 2014; this Friday is a talk with contemporary artist Dario Robleto, whose work appears in the exhibition. –Kyle Patterson, Director of Web & Multimedia