Treasuring the gaze: eye miniature portraits and the intimacy of vision.

Author:Grootenboer, Hanneke
Position:Essay - Maria Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales - Britain, 1784 - Critical essay - Cover story

Which eye can see itself?--Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard (1) In March 1784, shortly after his first meeting with the recently widowed Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert at the opera in London, the smitten twenty-one-year-old Prince of Wales declared his wish to marry his new acquaintance. Unfortunately for him, the Royal Marriage Act stipulated that until he reached the age of twenty-five, he could not be married without his father's consent. It was highly unlikely that King George III would consent to his son marrying a Catholic widow, and it was equally improbable that the strictly observant Mrs. Fitzherbert would become the prince's mistress. In despair, the prince stabbed himself and was found covered in blood. He had staged a suicide attempt hoping to force a promise of marriage from his beloved Maria. Under such severe pressure, Mrs. Fitzherbert's resolution yielded and she agreed to marry the prince. Coming to her senses the next day, she left England for the Continent and remained there for more than a year, hoping that the love of the prince would fade. But the prince persisted, and in his famous letter of November 3, 1785, he again proposed marriage, begging Mrs. Fitzherbert to return to England. Instead of a wedding ring, he sent along an "eye": "P.S. I send you a Parcel ... and I send you at the same time an Eye, if you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance. I think the likeness will strike you." (2)

This "Eye" was a very small miniature painting of the prince's right eye created by his friend the celebrated miniaturist Richard Cosway (Fig. 1). (3) Whether or not the eye's likeness struck Mrs. Fitzherbert, it must have bolstered the prince's marriage proposal, because she returned to England and married the prince in a secret ceremony on December 15, 1785. Shortly after the clandestine wedding, Cosway painted the eye of Mrs. Fitzherbert in an oval setting for the prince (Fig. 2). (4) This romantic exchange of eye portraits initiated a fashion for such trinkets among the British nobility, a trend that slowly spread over Europe, reaching its peak in the first decades of the nineteenth century. (5)

Suddenly popular, this unusual type of portraiture soon appeared in a variety of settings. Rendered in watercolor on ivory, or sometimes in gouache on board, ad vivum eye portraits were mounted in pins or in brooches encrusted with half pearls or brilliants, set in rings or gold bracelet clasps, or framed on the lids of snuffboxes, toothpick cases, dance programs, book covers, and other containers (Fig. 3). (6) Lockets adorned with eye portraits, like those holding portrait miniatures, sometimes contained neatly braided or woven hair with ciphers behind crystal or glass. Participating in the same economy of gift giving as sentimental jewelry, these trinkets were exchanged between lovers, friends, and relatives. In addition, as evident from inscriptions on the reverse side of these objects, many eye portraits mounted in jewelry were worn in memory of deceased loved ones. Records show-that entire families had their eyes painted, though it remains unclear as to how the portraits were distributed among various family members. (7) One rare case, a birthday gift from Queen Luise of Prussia to her husband, shows an ocular family portrait composed of her eye along with four eyes of their children. (8) The vogue for these curiosities was relatively short-lived. With the notable exception of Queen Victoria, who developed a fondness for old-fashioned (mourning) jewelry and commissioned several eyes from her court miniaturist Sir William Ross in the 1840s and 1850s, the eye portrait as a stylish accessory disappeared from view even before the 1830s. (9) It was definitely passe by 1848, (10) if we are to believe Charles Dickens. In his novel Dombey and Son a "fishy old eye" worn by Miss Tox in "the barrenest of lockets" serves as an emblem of the spinster's plainness and limited independence. (11)

Eye miniature portraits, I argue, imply a reversal of the object and subject of seeing and should be considered as (prephotographic) instances of "being seen" rather than of seeing. As such, they stand at the foundation of an alternative, reciprocal model of vision, exemplified by the camera. In the twentieth century, the theoretical consequences of such a reciprocal model of vision have been developed most prominently by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan, and recently by Gerard Wajcman. Following Wajcman's book Fenelre: Chroniques de regard et de l'intime (2004), I shall put forward the idea that an eye miniature, as a depiction of a point of view, initiates a transformation of the spectator into a spectacle through its fixating stare. As representations of a point of view, eye pictures reply to the classical Albertian dyad of looking as described by Wajcman. Moreover, in their double investment as representation and agent of vision, eye miniatures may illuminate current art historical debates on visual theory. As eye portraits have never been systematically studied and literature on the topic is scarce, these images confront art historians with a methodological quandary. (12) Attempts to place eye miniatures in the iconographic tradition, for instance, by seeing them as precursors of late-nineteenth-century or Surrealist depictions of eyes, have largely ignored the particularity of these images, which in most cases were commissioned as gifts for specific individuals. (13) Naturally partaking in the history of single eye representations, eye pictures transcend the realm of mere symbolism. Differing from the disembodied eye that can refer to the all-seeing God, wisdom, fame, Masonry, or Enlightenment, to name a few possibilities, eye miniatures are not primarily symbols, but rather portraits. (14) Their meaning, therefore, does not develop within iconography but seems to lie elsewhere.

Yet if we study eye miniatures as portraits rather than as mere symbols, our attempt is frustrated by the image's conspicuous lack of mimetic signs. No doubt, intimates of the sitter would have been able to identify the eye in an instant; the Prince of Wales speaks of his eye portrait as a "likeness" that may "strike" Mrs. Fitzherbert. But a stranger, let alone a twenty-first-century scholar, has no inkling of the identity of the sitter. The tiny colored dots fail to give us information beyond obvious indications of hair color, the hue of the iris, and the sitter's gender conveyed through a fashionable curl or a hint of a sideburn.

Eye portraits offer little to remind us of the genre of portraiture; we may wonder what is left here of painting as such. Lack of visual signs makes attribution highly problematic as well. An eye picture must have served as an intensely private object that, recognizable and meaningful only to the intended recipient of the gift, remained obscure to all others. Therefore, it should be approached as an object that produced specific meanings unaccounted for by iconographic or mimetic readings.

Nonetheless, I consider the eye miniature not as a mere picture of someone's eye, but rather as a portrayal of an individual's gaze. In most cases, the gaze portrayed looks directly at the beholder, causing confusion as to who exactly is doing the scrutinizing. This double investment in the visual is unique in the history of art. Paintings that engage viewers by actively confronting their gaze (or, contrarily, by negating their presence through the dynamics of an absorptive state, as described by Michael Fried) similarly make viewers aware of their viewing position. (15) In such paintings, however, representation and "interpellation" balance each other: the beholder becomes aware of his or her viewing position but nonetheless enjoys the image. With eye pictures, in contrast, the confrontation with the viewer outweighs the representation. A gazing eye, or rather the return of the beholder's gaze, is the sole event of the painting. The eye miniature's subject matter, in fact, is intimate vision.

The art historical task of describing the eye picture's particularity as a hybrid type of image (partly painting, partly jewel, not quite a portrait, not a mere symbol) leads us to a more theoretical question as to whether the kind of seeing represented exceeds the sphere of the personal and resonates in a larger, philosophical context as a reflection of visual perception. These peculiar artifacts possess the rare effect of confronting us, as art historians, with an unfamiliar way of dealing with visual perception. Therefore, I would like to consider eye miniatures as contributions to a history of vision as much as to a history of art. In Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wolfflin wrote that "vision has its own history, and the revelation of visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history." (16) Following Wolfflin (without, however, adopting his formalist approach), I propose that the sudden popularity for tiny portraits of single eyes, and their subsequent fall into oblivion, may point to a dense moment in the unfolding of vision's history, a knot, so to speak, that when unraveled may reveal patterns of looking, or strategies for showing, that were previously unseen. (17)

To that extent, I will concentrate first on what eye portraits may impart to a greater understanding of the gaze within a larger social field of vision. Here, I follow Marcia Pointon, who in her writings on British miniature portraiture has coined the term "gazing games" to describe a social network of looking that emerged in the late eighteenth century in England. (18) In the context of such games, eye portraits articulate a specific mode of looking--namely, of being subjected to someone's painted gaze. Such playful gazing in both public and private spheres had its effects, as revealed by further investigation of the role of eye miniatures in the affair of the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzherbert.



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