BY LILY BARNES
Five hundred years ago, the portrait miniature became one of the most popular luxury goods available within wealthy European courts. Previous generations had exchanged life-size portraits prior to a marriage or during courtship. However, the mid-sixteenth century saw the miniature become the preferred mode of exchange. While the guarantee of their realism was no more secure (with Henry VIII famously marrying Anne of Cleves on the basis on Holbein’s tiny likeness of her, but divorcing the ‘Flanders’ mare’ on sight of the real thing) they became a standard symbol of devotion and commemoration. While likenesses of blood relatives, particularly children, were common – becoming the early modern equivalent of the photo in the wallet – portrait miniatures in particular came to gain cultural capital as tokens of intense love.
This is not really surprising. Despite their small size, they epitomised the decadence of aristocratic giving. Their small scale – most being less than 8 or 9cm in diameter – meant that more expensive pigments and materials could be used in their creation. A patron might not be able to stretch to a life-size likeness of him or herself in ultramarine. However the small of amount needed to colour a miniature resulted in a particular zeal for the use of ultramarine in this medium. Likewise gold and jewels could be easily incorporated to increase value, where they could not be stitched into canvas or glued onto a bust.
Most of all however, the sheer symbolic resonance of handing over your entire person, to be worn thrillingly close to the rarely seen skin of your beloved – with ladies wearing them within their bodices, and men inside a jacket – seems to have had intense psychological currency. In 1575, the Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley made one last legendary (perhaps mythical) bid for the heart of the Queen of England. The pair of miniatures he had created by former goldsmith Hilliard survive to this day, testament to the strength of Robert’s feeling, and to the opposing resolve of the Virgin Queen.
As time went by, the content of miniatures came to focus less on their representation of the sitter, as they rather became a truncated fragment of the whole. The nineteenth century saw wealthy givers turning their backs on the body as a whole, and embracing instead detached parts which acted as coded reductions of it. These short-hand likenesses were most often in the form of realistic, full colour and usually near life-size renditions of the beloved’s eye. Rather than squinting at an inches-high face of your lover in a quiet moment, the real act of eye-to-eye contact, the clash of gazes is replicated in these objects. The focus of the view and the realistic scale increases the feeling of intimacy, as it suggests a proximity close enough to reveal these details. Looking at these objects, the supposedly sex-starved and passionless Victorians recreated the act of standing nose to nose, lips to lips with their absent loved ones, only to stow them back under their clothes when the looking was done.
The act of hiding seems crucial to the usability of these objects, particularly in this festishised form. One of the key features of the miniature is, of course, their small-size, easily concealed from prying eyes. By focussing on a part of a person rather than a full likeness, this effect is increased, as it introduces an anonymity surmounted only by the strength of intimacy between giver and receiver. On the occasion of their secret (illegal, unprecedented and unconstitutional) marriage, George IV and widowed, Catholic commoner Maria Fitzherbert exchanged a pair of eye miniatures. Their intimacy was compounded by their propensity for their illicit, making the eyes the perfect gift to express, not just a depth of devotion, but the immeasurable secrecy that even the most powerful matches required.
Aside from hiding, these miniatures also masquerade as something much less powerful than they truly are. Within Western culture, we’re inclined to equate ‘small’ as ‘insignificant.’ Such is the power of a miniature. Not only are they small, but their pairing within jewels and pearls, their containment in lockets and their suspension from ribbons makes them seem undeniably frivolous. Apparently harmless and secreted, they act as carriers of a host of dangerous feelings, navigating taboos to articulate unconventional understandings of sex and love. All this, and they can remain utterly secret.
There’s nothing very secret about a face. The face is one of the most potent symbols of the human condition. The human brain is hard-wired to recognise faces, even where there are none (that’s why there are so many ghosts at the back of blurry photos, and so many messiahs in slightly burnt toast). For the more taboo-defying relationships, a less conventional kind of miniature is needed.
What was more scandalous to nineteenth century America than an extra-marital affair? A decades long dalliance between a statesman and a female painter. This was exactly what happened in Boston in the early 1800s. For a relationship this piquant, however, devotion was articulated through the most secret of gifts. After falling from his horse in 1852, the deceased politician Daniel Webster was found to have in his possession a miniature now known as ‘Beauty Revealed’. Even today, the piece spends most of its time hidden in the stores of the Metropolitan Museum, because it’s a miniature like no-other. The likeness that artist Sarah Goodrich chose to present to her politician lover was, quite simply, a realistic self-portrait of her own bare breasts.
Even today, it’s a shocking image, if only because of the vulnerability and delicacy of the subject. Like Hilliard and countless others before her, Goodrich makes use of her impeccable technique with the finest materials available. ‘Beauty Revealed’ is painted on a disc of ivory so thin that it is transparent in the light, with the entire image measuring only a few centimetres across. It is a tour de force of artistic skill, a crescendo in a corset rather than a storm in a teacup.
To imagine such an object not only given, but created by a woman in nineteenth century Boston, when even male art academies outlawed drawing from nude models, is a revelation. While two centuries before, Stuart ladies might have thought nothing of a heaving breast or exposed nipple, the creation of such a work as a life-size portrait by Goodrich would certainly have been found out, and she would have been ruined. The specific nature of the miniature allowed both giver and receiver to break the rules, with Goodrich’s example adding the role of artist to this rebellious triumvirate.
We’ve moved on a little from lover’s eyes, and even from secret pearlescent bosoms. If you want to give a little of yourself away, artist Colin Christian has a new solution. Despite being a sculptor who works predominantly in the artificial medium of plastic, Christian’s J’adore pieces are blushingly real. Currently, a range of three skin tones is available, but the artist says he plans to make at least six colours as standard. For something a little more luxurious, a personal portrait can be commissioned, ‘featuring piercing, hair etc. [and] a few more labia shapes’. While being life-size, his framed vaginas are still the size of a compact mirror. What could be more culturally volatile than a portable vagina?
As with the miniatures of old, the power of ‘J’adore’ is compounded by its lack of practicality. Miniatures are, by definition, decorative. Making something purely decorative and then hiding it away is, in itself, subversive. Creating a sex organ which has no function as a subject object creates the same dichotomy. While Christian sees these objects functioning as gifts like traditional miniatures, they are not works which are designed to be hidden. They are intended to showcase ‘the beauty of female anatomy’. Christian hopes the pieces will be visibly displayed in the home with no shame.
These are artworks specifically designed to offer a challenge to the cultural and religious prohibition of the depiction of female genitalia. It’s not surprising that Christian has already found a client in headline queen, Miley Cyrus. It seems that the taboos of sex, love and bodily intimacy are still approached via the medium of the portrait miniature and they remain as potentially challenging and powerful as they have ever been. Now all you need to find is a heart shaped box.