Size matters: YUAG’s miniatures delight

Visitors to the Yale University Art Gallery will find that the imposing full-sized portraits have some small neighbors this month.

“Private Faces of Public People: 1750-1900,” which opened Aug. 17, showcases a few outstanding pieces from Yale’s collection of portrait miniatures. The theme of the exhibit, as the title suggests, is well-known figures portrayed in pieces that were created for personal use. Depicted personalities include senators and representatives, artists and actors, and Revolutionary era figures and their families.

Amy Kurtz Lansing, a curatorial research assistant at the YUAG, said that the displayed pieces were chosen from this pool of nearly 300, and that some miniatures are being publicly exhibited for the first time since the museum acquired them.

“We definitely had to winnow it down,” Lansing said. “We have private several portraits made as personal mementos when the artists were away from their families. They were something by which to remember the artist while they were out on their itinerant paths.”

Yale has portraits of artists and actors by artists who had a role in the theater too, Lansing said. These objects functioned as “artistic calling cards,” he said.

Miniature portraiture was popular in the United States during the mid-18th and 19th centuries. Inspired by European techniques, artists often used watercolors in a delicate cross-hatching and stippling process to create an image on ivory. Miniatures were favored for their convenient size, and were often placed in lockets or on bracelets.

An information pamphlet is not currently available at the exhibit because the graphic layout for it has not yet been completed. However, each miniature was selected for the interesting or unusual details of its provenance.

“We picked out the ones that had the most evocative stories associated,” Lansing said. “For example, there is one by John Wood Dodge that he painted for his daughter. It is in a case that is inscribed ‘To Juliet,’ so that she could pin it onto her clothes when he was away in search of commission.”

While ten frames, holding five pictures each, hang on the wall of the Trumbull Gallery, about 30 smaller portrait miniatures from the collection are housed in two freestanding display cases.

The cases remain covered until a viewer lifts the lid on them, which simultaneously switches on a light inside the case. The unmounted miniature portraiture collection includes traditional pieces such as small ovular pictures, but also more unusual items such as bracelets and jewelry with tiny watch face-sized portraits embedded in them.

Though the cases are a permanent fixture of the Trumbull Gallery, the exhibits inside them change periodically. Because portrait miniatures are highly sensitive to light and susceptible to damage, the YUAG rotates its case displays.

In fact, Lansing said, some visitors got to watch the rotation of the exhibits.

“They installed the show right in the gallery so that people could watch what we were doing,” Lansing said. “It allowed for a behind the scenes look.”

The exhibit is scheduled to remain on display through 2006.

The Yale University Art Gallery’s “Private Faces of Public People” exhibit of miniatures may be small, but its subjects are big-name congressmen and artists.
Esther Quintana
The Yale University Art Gallery’s “Private Faces of Public People” exhibit of miniatures may be small, but its subjects are big-name congressmen and artists.

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