Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures

Overview


The end of the eighteenth century saw the start of a new craze in Europe: tiny portraits of single eyes that were exchanged by lovers or family members. Worn as brooches or pendants, these minuscule eyes served the same emotional need as more conventional mementoes, such as lockets containing a coil of a loved one’s hair. The fashion lasted only a few decades, and by the early 1800s eye miniatures had faded into oblivion. Unearthing these portraits in Treasuring the Gaze, Hanneke Grootenboer proposes that the ...
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Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures

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Overview


The end of the eighteenth century saw the start of a new craze in Europe: tiny portraits of single eyes that were exchanged by lovers or family members. Worn as brooches or pendants, these minuscule eyes served the same emotional need as more conventional mementoes, such as lockets containing a coil of a loved one’s hair. The fashion lasted only a few decades, and by the early 1800s eye miniatures had faded into oblivion. Unearthing these portraits in Treasuring the Gaze, Hanneke Grootenboer proposes that the rage for eye miniatures—and their abrupt disappearance—reveals a knot in the unfolding of the history of vision.
 
Drawing on Alois Riegl, Jean-Luc Nancy, Marcia Pointon, Melanie Klein, and others, Grootenboer unravels this knot, discovering previously unseen patterns of looking and strategies for showing. She shows that eye miniatures portray the subject’s gaze rather than his or her eye, making the recipient of the keepsake an exclusive beholder who is perpetually watched. These treasured portraits always return the looks they receive and, as such, they create a reciprocal mode of viewing that Grootenboer calls intimate vision. Recounting stories about eye miniatures—including the role one played in the scandalous affair of Mrs. Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales, a portrait of the mesmerizing eye of Lord Byron, and the loss and longing incorporated in crying eye miniatures—Grootenboer shows that intimate vision brings the gaze of another deep into the heart of private experience.
 
With a host of fascinating imagery from this eccentric and mostly forgotten yet deeply private keepsake, Treasuring the Gaze provides new insights into the art of miniature painting and the genre of portraiture.
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Editorial Reviews

Lisa Salzman

“Hanneke Grootenboer has fixed her art-historical gaze on a largely overlooked category of visual representation: the late eighteenth-century miniature eye portrait. Precious gifts of love and mementos of loss, the tiny portraits of individual eyes open onto a cultural archive of affective behaviors and practices of seeing that would otherwise remain largely invisible. Treasuring the Gaze stands as a revelatory new chapter in the history of visuality and visual culture.”

Garrett Stewart

Treasuring the Gaze is a major contribution not just to a curious corner of art history but to a broad spectrum of visual theory. A thrilling blend of museum finds and conceptual findings, the argument that unfolds makes for one of the most steadily interesting works on visual practice and image culture I have read in many years. The dialectical reversals and counterintuitive surprises of the projected and introjected look are handled with full sophistication, rare clarity, and rich assurance. With an appealing modesty and a gathering magisterial force, Treasuring the Gaze achieves what it ventures:  the revisionary foundation for a psychoanalytical aesthetics.”

Bryn Mawr College Lisa Saltzman

“Hanneke Grootenboer has fixed her art-historical gaze on a largely overlooked category of visual representation: the late eighteenth-century miniature eye portrait. Precious gifts of love and mementos of loss, the tiny portraits of individual eyes open onto a cultural archive of affective behaviors and practices of seeing that would otherwise remain largely invisible. Treasuring the Gaze stands as a revelatory new chapter in the history of visuality and visual culture.”
University of Iowa Garrett Stewart

Treasuring the Gaze is a major contribution not just to a curious corner of art history but to a broad spectrum of visual theory. A thrilling blend of museum finds and conceptual findings, the argument that unfolds makes for one of the most steadily interesting works on visual practice and image culture I have read in many years. The dialectical reversals and counterintuitive surprises of the projected and introjected look are handled with full sophistication, rare clarity, and rich assurance. With an appealing modesty and a gathering magisterial force, Treasuring the Gaze achieves what it ventures:  the revisionary foundation for a psychoanalytical aesthetics.”
Apollo Magazine

 “Grootenboer argues cohesively and persuasively for understanding the intimate gaze through visual perception and psychological analysis. Her case is built on a highly original investigation of the eye miniature. . . . Grootenboer deftly charts the gazing games played out by artists, lovers and mourners in this period of sentiment and Romanticism.”
Choice

“The selection of illustrations, including a set of fine color plates, is most enlightening. . . . Recommended.”
Choice

“The selection of illustrations, including a set of fine color plates, is most enlightening. . . . Recommended.”
CAA Reviews - Elsje van Kessel

“[P]rovides a rich account of the material that is quite literally fascinating. First and foremost, the book is a challenging contribution to the theory of vision and to psychoanalytical aesthetics in particular, which will be of interest to scholars of visual culture, of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, of portraiture, and far beyond.”
West 86th - Freya Gowrley

“[C]ompelling. . . . By examining the eye portrait miniature, Grootenboer is able to raise questions over issues of public and private display, to examine the eighteenth-century cultures of mourning, to trouble the divide between subject and object, to probe theoretical frameworks such as gift giving, and finally, to develop a new theory of ‘intimate vision.’ These various aims . . . come together to provide an innovative interpretation of an emotional object that, until now, had been all but out of sight.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226309668
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/5/2013
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 1,317,727
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Hanneke Grootenboer is university lecturer in the history of art and a fellow and tutor at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. She is the author of The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Still Life Painting, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Read an Excerpt

TREASURING THE GAZE

Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures
By HANNEKE GROOTENBOER

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30966-8


Chapter One

INTIMATE VISION

The Portrait Miniature's Structure of Address

Writing the history of a visual paradigm amounts, then, to writing the history of a phenomenology of gazes and touches. —georges didi-huberman

An Intimate Object

Around 1790, an anonymous artist created a miniature portrait of an individual's left eye (plate 1), mounted as a pendant. The eye calmly looks out at its beholder. The dreamy stare of its blue-gray iris reveals little about the face from which it has been detached. Compared to the eye in a similar ocular portrait, which is arched by a heavy brow and framed on the side by a hint of a sideburn (plate 2), the eye in plate 1 is most certainly a woman's; slightly visible is a fine feminine curl hanging over its lid. Marginal as elements such as a curl, a sideburn, or part of a nose-bone may seem, they nonetheless give the eye a certain expression and thus imbue it with a sense of individuality. Although it may be difficult to identify the sitter (or, for that matter, the artist), the motif of the curl or brow, often replaced to fit the composition, guarantees that these tiny images carry the status of portrait, rather than mere symbol.

Making up part of a relatively small corpus that was created roughly between 1785 and 1830, reaching their apogee as a fashion in the last decade of the eighteenth century, eye pictures like these were considered portraits due to their usage. Suddenly popular in England, eye portraits spread slowly over Europe within a decade of their emergence and reached the United States a little later. This unusual type of portraiture soon appeared in a variety of settings. Rendered in watercolor on ivory, or sometimes in gouache on card, eye portraits were mounted in pins or brooches encrusted with half-pearls or brilliants, set in rings or gold bracelet clasps, or occasionally framed on the lids of snuffboxes, toothpick cases, dance programs, book covers, and other containers (figs. 1 and 2). Whereas most eyes look straight at the beholder, there are several instances in which the eye is portrayed in three-quarter or profile view (fig. 2).

Considered to be a whim derived from regular portrait miniatures, the depicted eyes are never life-size but were always rendered "in the little," in the same proportion as portrait miniatures. On average, the size of the depicted eye falls somewhere between the size of a lentil and that of a penny, while its support usually measures about 2–5 cm in diameter (with certain exceptions). Like portrait miniatures, eye miniatures were often placed in richly adorned lockets also containing neatly braided or woven hair with ciphers behind crystal or glass.

Mounted as jewels, eye portraits were worn on the body. Whereas in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a wide variety of portraits are known in which sitters wear or hold portrait miniatures, there is not a single instance of a sitter carrying an eye miniature. We could conclude from such a lack of images that eye pictures were never prominently worn; however, it is more plausible that sitters did not wish to make their wearing of eye portraits "public" in a painting. Owners of eye portraits either preferred to keep them to themselves or, perhaps, attached them to their clothes in an unseen spot. This sense of privacy is also apparent in containers other than those for jewels, such as a snuffbox in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (plate 3). The rather large box (8.9×6.7 cm), made of gold sheathed in tortoiseshell, is richly decorated with a double foliate bordered medallion displaying plaited hair on its lid. If the secret and virtually invisible spring mechanism was pressed with a needle or pin, the medallion would swing open to reveal a woman's right eye, painted in grays and browns, accompanied by a lock of dark brown hair. This eye was once believed to be Marie Antoinette's, smuggled out of France by one of her loyal subjects: by pressing the spring mechanism, her supporters abroad could treasure their queen's gaze even after her beheading. However, Marie Antoinette's eyes were not brown but light blue, as Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's portraits clearly show. The snuffbox does not yield its final secret; exposed or not, the dark eye withholds the mystery of its sitter's identity. For most if not all eye portraits, the tiny support does not allow further parts of the face to be included, which makes it virtually impossible to know whose eye is depicted. The lack of even the most basic information needed to discriminate between faces greatly enhances the sense of privacy that surrounds these trinkets. Intimates would doubtless perceive the eye of their loved one in a flash of recognition, but to all others these eyes remain anonymous.

Indeed, if we look again at the eyes in plates 1 and 2, we must admit that there is little to see. The sumptuous frame seems even to compensate for the lack of imagery, distracting us from the minimal depiction and drawing attention to the monetary value of its borders. Nonetheless, our eyes pause when glancing over the miniature irises, arrested by the slightly uncanny stare back at us. There is so little to go on in terms of the eye portrait's nature as a picture, and yet plenty of seeing is going on—but on the side of the tiny picture rather than the beholder. The eye portrait is not merely an object of sight, a representation to look at, but appears to be exercising a kind of vision as well. We wonder who exactly does the looking here. Is it us, examining the tiny pictures, or are these spooky eyes exclusively there to watch us?

Being a tiny image that looks back, the eye portrait is unique in the history of art. Arguably, there are countless portraits in which a sitter looks back at the viewer, but the argument can be made that his or her look is somehow balanced by the representation as a whole. For the viewer, the sitter's pair of eyes, no matter how hard they look, would still be but one part of the larger painting, and the viewer's attention would easily drift elsewhere in the work. For eye portraits, however, such distracted, circuitous viewing is impossible: the only thing to see is an eye, and the only action to examine in these tiny representations is the return of our gaze. There is a clear sense of "interpellation" or calling, precisely because there is nothing else to see but the "look." The degree of interpellation that these eye portraits can achieve becomes even clearer when we compare an eye depicted in frontal view (as most are) with one painted in profile (fig. 2). In terms of viewing positions, the eye in profile invites us to contemplate it as if we, as viewers, blended in with a larger audience, whereas the eye in frontal view seems to single us out, so to speak. We are called upon as a "you" in a situation that closely resembles a dialogue. The eye is an "I" that somehow seems to know us as it turns to us directly. In contrast, the eye in profile is depicted not as an "I" but as a she or he, and in grammatical terms occupies the third-person position: we hear "about" him or her, or look "with" the person within a larger narrative. This positioning differs greatly from the way we are addressed in a (visual) dialogue.

We will be focusing on eyes confronting the viewer directly, as this kind of confrontation remains unprecedented in the history of images. If we assume that this eye indeed looks at the beholder, for what purpose is this looking carried out? What exactly is the structure of address implied by these eye portraits? It can be articulated by comparing the subcategory of eye pictures to that of their close relative, the miniature portrait, and reflect on the late-eighteenth-century economy of exchange in which they participated. As inscriptions on their reverse sides sometimes indicate, eye portraits were exchanged among lovers, friends, and family members; they took part in the system of gift giving that included hair jewelry as well. As we will see, the analogy between portrait miniatures' economy of exchange and the intimacy of letter writing (as observed by Marcia Pointon) is particularly helpful to further articulate the structure of address of eye pictures.

The fundamental difference between eye and miniature portraits is essential. In contrast to a miniature portrait, which can be stared at, held, pressed to a bosom, and kissed, eye portraits do not seem to invite such affectionate reactions, and yet they seem to "do" something to their beholder. If these eyes are so private as to be kept from view, what do they look at, or rather, what do they intend to see? There is a presumed reciprocity (of the gift, of a letter, of looking at someone) in the way miniatures in general, and eye portraits in particular, invite a special and exclusive response. What kind of meaning is implied or message exchanged in the gift of an eye picture? As we will see, the response implied by eye portraits is closely linked with the effect of miniatures in general on our perception of space. Starting from Susan Stewart's idea that the miniature unfolds in space rather than in time, creating a kind of private life outside of life, I suggest that the eye's structure of address dictates a set of deeply private viewing conditions for its beholder. Compared to the relatively public sphere invoked by life-size oil portraits and the more personal use of its miniature counterpart, the eye portrait should be seen as an object of intense confidentiality or even secrecy, around which unfolds a space of intimacy rather than privacy.

My hypothesis is that the eye portrait is a highly intensified kind of portrait miniature, indeed the most extreme iteration of this pictorial category, and as such provides a mode of private looking that goes beyond voyeurism or peeping. This mode has been virtually unexplored in the history of art and visual culture. Taking Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space as my framework, I suggest that eye portraits, by means of their tiny scale as well as their depiction of an active gaze, create a specific kind of space, a sort of exclusive scopic circuit, which I propose to call "intimate vision."

The Eye as Gift

In his classic study The Gift (1950), Marcel Mauss famously defines the gift as something given with the obligation that the favor be returned. Giving and receiving are reciprocal obligations, and it is in this exchange of material objects that social relations are established. Mauss suggests that gift giving is an ongoing process of exchange mapped out by the circulation of objects. In light of Mauss's definition, we might ask to what extent the eye portrait, as a highly invested gift, must be understood not only as an autonomous artifact but also as a response to a previous gift. Following the idea of gift exchange as ongoing circulation, such picture-jewels invite a reply; or rather, they insist that the recipient take such action. Mauss's theory of the gift suggests that the eye portrait must have entailed a set of actions and reactions; it was meant to set in motion a circulation of responses. The question arises whether we should understand these responses as ongoing actions, exclusively dictated by the gift, to be undertaken by its recipient, who in the course of the actions would be transformed into a gift giver. The gift of an eye miniature sets in motion a certain kind of reciprocity, yet not the ongoing gift giving that Mauss implies.

In her article "'Surrounded with Brilliants': Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England," Marcia Pointon reassesses the value of theories of gift giving by Mauss and others for understanding the meaning and use of portrait miniatures in the eighteenth century. She acknowledges the usefulness of placing what she calls the portrait-object in the economy of gift giving as an exchangeable consumer artifact. However, she notes that practices surrounding the gift of the portrait miniature seem to have diverged from the ongoing chain of reciprocal gestures established by Mauss and other anthropologists. Pointon proposes replacing Mauss's theory of the gift as an approach to portrait miniatures. Starting from psychoanalytic notions of play, and taking into consideration the essential quality of tactility of portrait-objects (which, after all, need to be held to be viewed), Pointon considers how the giving of miniature portraits is culturally linked to the intimacy of letter writing. Not only does she see how the miniature and the letter as motifs in portraits or other representations are interchangeable (evidence of which can be found in Francis Wheatley's well-known images in which women—sometimes in a state of undress, sometimes not—stare at miniatures while seated in boudoirs or reclining on beds [fig. 3]), but she also argues that the miniature could serve as an autograph, an idea that she sees further confirmed by evidence that in some cases portrait miniatures were used as letters of introduction.

I would like to expand Pointon's analogy between miniatures and letters (upon which she does not elaborate), as it may assist me in further analyzing what kinds of response the eye miniatures solicit. If indeed there is a relation between portrait miniatures and letters, could this relation be extended to include eye portraits? Can an eye have a specific message that requires a response exceeding the reciprocity presupposed in the gift in Mauss's definition of the term? Could these portraits, in fact, be termed "speaking eyes"?

Let's look for a moment at Pompeo Batoni's portrait of Sir Sampson Gideon awaiting a response, to get a better understanding of the exact relations among portraits, letters, and the role of the miniature as response. We see Gideon with an unidentified friend while visiting Rome on his Grand Tour (1767, plate 4). Seated at a desk on which rests a bust of Minerva, Gideon holds up for his friend's inspection a locket containing a miniature portrait of a woman in his right hand. His friend, preparing to take the keepsake from him, gazes intensely at the likeness as if deep in thought. A dog tries in vain to attract his attention. The female sitter of the small picture is likely to be Maria Eardley Wilmot, Gideon's fiancée. We see how Gideon's friend, his head already slightly bent, is about to bring the trinket to his eyes to study the future bride more closely. His hand will raise the object toward his eyes to serve as its background, much as Gideon's hand now functions as its exhibition space. Though we see the item literally changing hands in this portrait, it is interesting to note that the locket had not been given to Gideon personally by his bride-to-be. As the portrait demonstrates, the trinket has (just) arrived by post, sealed in the letter that Gideon holds in his left hand.

Pointon observes that Batoni's painting is further evidence for the way in which the portrait-object's tactility enters affective discourse. She understands the central position of the miniature here as an instance of female presence as sentimental discourse, by which the homosocial relations between the two men become even more closely linked. Pointon's observation is very apt; however, it is equally important to focus on another aspect of the relation between miniature and letter, especially as Batoni has made so much of recording that the miniature arrived through the mail: the letter on bottom left and the companion's head are at equal distances from the locket, framing it, as it were. In addition, there is a clear dynamic of calling here, a tension even, between Wilmot and Gideon, between Gideon and his friend, and between his friend and the dog. The serious faces of the two sitters, Gideon's anxious look directed toward his friend, and the sculpted Minerva's averted gaze all suggest a narrative denouement. The clue for this miniature portrait's quintessential position in the narrative it conveys, and the particular contrast between its private nature and its general exposure, must be found in its relation to the letter. By opening the locket to show its concealed portrait to his friend, Gideon has made this moment of private sharing public to the intended audience of this painting. Indeed, the practice of close-up viewing in relative isolation solicited by the miniature stands in sharp contrast with the excessive visibility Batoni has given to the locket by placing it in the center of his large composition for everyone to see. Whereas Wheatley's erotically tinged image of a female figure obviously appeals to an anonymous, general audience, this double portrait must have been commissioned by Gideon with a clear acknowledgment of a particular group of beholders. Except for the protagonists of this gift-story, who, one wonders, would care to see the handing over of the locket on such a grand scale?

It is likely that the locket containing Maria Eardley Wilmot's picture as well as a lock of her hair has been presented to Gideon as a confirmation of their engagement. In contrast to what the locket means for the couple, the point of the painting is less the exchange of the miniature between them than its visibility for the portrait's anticipated beholders. To the intended audience it is demonstrated that the locket has been mailed as an enclosure to a letter. The miniature serves here as a meaningful addition to the letter, its supplement. We may even say that the miniature, precisely because it has not been given to Gideon in person, is addressed rather than presented to him.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from TREASURING THE GAZE by HANNEKE GROOTENBOER Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments

Introduction An Overlooked Episode of Vision’s History

Chapter 1 Intimate Vision: The Portrait Miniature’s Structure of Address
Chapter 2 Gazing Games: Eye Portraits and the Two Sexes of Sight
Chapter 3 The Crying Image: The Withdrawal of the Gaze
Chapter 4 Intimate as Extimate: The Gaze as Part-Object
Chapter 5 The Face Becoming Eye: Portraiture’s Minimum
Conclusion The Eye Portrait’s Afterlife

Notes
Bibliography
Index

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