Though small in size, the “American Miniatures of Children” exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery is a significant contribution to the history of the family in 18th century American society. The selection of small paintings is pulled from the gallery’s greater collection of tiny American art which the gallery hopes to exhibit at a later date.
The gallery is an imposing structure independent of its formidable collection of contemporary and classic art. The winding iron staircase leads to a similarly winding cavern of rooms, some large and brilliant, and others tiny and dark. So vast is the collection that the recent “American Miniatures of Children” exhibit now on display in the Trumbull Gallery can go virtually unnoticed by passersby. However, those who appreciate art as it connotes aspects of history should definitely stop to look at these intriguing emblems of Americana.
The miniatures, as their name implies, are difficult to view because of their size and also because they are housed in two covered display cases of a non-descript gray color. Rolling up the lid of one of the cases simultaneously lights up the background of display and illuminates the small details of the tiny portraits. Still, one must use the provided magnified glasses in order to inspect any close details of the miniatures or to be able to read the tiny writing printed on some of the works.
Each piece, though distinct, is a particular representation of an American sentiment during the late 18th century. Prior to this period, children were viewed as evil, devilish and sometimes even arbiters of Satan himself. One only has to think of the Puritan hysteria of Miller’s “The Crucible,” where children were accused of witchcraft in order to imagine adults’ attitude toward adolescents. With the passage of time however, America began to see children as benevolent and even angelic creatures. The miniatures of the exhibit are mementos from this time period, in which the high child mortality rate made children even more valued. Some of the works are tributes to children who had died, others are simply fond keepsakes of a beloved child.
Amy Kurtz Lansing, the Marcia Brady Tucker Curatorial Research Assistant who organized the exhibit, points out that the miniatures mark an important era of American culture where children began to be viewed as people in their own right.
“These miniatures chronicle a new chapter in American history, where people began to realize that children were good and worthy of affection,” Lansing said.
Some miniatures served as mourning tokens, depicting a picture of the child in mourning clothes or with an angelic halo. Other works are simply mementos of affection such as portraits for hanging on the parlor wall. The exhibit is organized chronologically from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th. Viewers can see the evolution of tools, from oil on wood to watercolor on ivory, as well as the evolution of the artists’ perspective of children. Earlier portraits are darker, depicting death more often during the era of high mortality rates; later works are lighter and focused on the ephemeral stages of child development.
Notable works include an unknown artist’s portrait of Mary Stiles, relative of Ezra Stiles, and Eliza Goodridge’s portrait of Julia Porter Dwight, the grandniece of Yale President Timothy Dwight.
All of the works are intriguing in their chronicling of a part of American history as well as for artistic value. Good things don’t just come in small packages; they also come in small frames.
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