Small Talk Tag: Portrait Miniatures

The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection

eye miniatures skier collection

Before the widespread practice of photography, miniature portrait artists provided tiny, life-like representations for loved ones to carry with them or wear as a pendant. Often trained as jewelry makers, miniature portrait artists had the technical skill to work on a super-fine level of detail, resulting in these wearable pieces of art. One very special collection, the Skier Collection of Eye Miniatures, depicts only the eyes of loved ones painted on ivory. Disembodied eyes may seem a little macabre, but the works are quite romantic and mysterious in nature. After all, eyes are said to be the window to the soul.

Often referred to as “lover’s eyes,” eye miniatures are rooted in a 19th century code of chivalry in which symbols like gems and flowers held special meanings. For example, eye miniatures adorned with pearls may have symbolized mourning, garnets were used to adorn the eye of a friend, and coral warded off evil. The endless wealth of meanings within each piece was often left up to the recipient to decipher. It would sort of be like reading one of your friend’s “vaguebook” posts! The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection will be on view May 17 -August 24, 2014 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Photo: Rose gold oval brooch surrounded by seed pearls, ca. 1790. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. David Skier.

Come Mold The Menorah

william b. meyers silversmith

Between 1940 and 1947, silversmith William B. Meyers created two intricate menorahs. Lucky for us, his original plans and molds reside in The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures’s archives and give us insight into his process. Meyers started by sketching out his design.

Next, he created a model of the menorah from his sketches so he could construct a closed rubber mold. A closed mold has two halves that are pressed together. Molten metal is poured through a channel (located at the bottom of Meyers’s mold) to reach the mold cavity where the metal hardens. Once the menorah is removed from the mold, any excess metal would be filed away. We’re very fortunate that William B. Meyers left such a fantastic record of his process!

Pocket Portraiture: The Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures

portrait miniatures

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine not being able to text a photo to a friend, flip through the family scrapbook, or do a Google image search. Before the invention of photography, paintings were the best way (outside of taking a mental picture) to record a person’s image. But, paintings weren’t super portable. What if you wanted to lovingly gaze upon an image of your fiancée while sailing the high seas? Behold, miniature portraits!

The art form combining painting and jewelry making took off in the late 16th century. In fact, some of the earliest miniature portrait artists were trained as goldsmiths. The tiny portraits were painted on vellum until the early 18th century when artists began using ivory for a richer, more luminous look. The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is lucky to be just blocks away from the Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The collection contains over 250 paintings, with more than 50 by notable miniaturist John Smart. The miniatures are frequently rotated so you never know what tiny faces you’re going to see!

Photo: John Smart, English (1741/1742-1811). Portrait of General Keith MacAlister, 1810. Watercolor on ivory in copper mount, 3 3/8 x 2 ¾ inches (8.6 x 7 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of the Starr Foundation, Inc., F65-41/51. Photo: Robert Newcombe