“Two women came in and, when they were told the Trumbull Gallery was closed and wouldn’t be able to view the miniatures, they were nearly devastated,” Annabel Rhodeen, visitor services assistant at the Yale University Art Gallery, said. “One was from California and was leaving before it reopened, and was practically in tears.”
This seems quite the testament to the popularity of the Gallery’s collection of miniatures. Two grown women, reduced to wrecks by a few unavailable business card-sized paintings? Those must be some paintings. (Or crazy women. Come on — they left California for New Haven.)
These miniatures are situated in two rooms within the gallery; one case, holding 16, is part of the “Art for Yale: Collecting for a New Century” exhibit, and the third-floor Trumbull Gallery houses 20 or so. But though the Gallery is completely stoked on its collection — “We encourage everyone to come and see them, because they really are beautiful,” Rhodeen said — they are easy to miss. Very, very easy. These extremely tiny works of art are overpowered by the grand-scale paintings around them and the grand-scale benefactors of “Art for Yale” (the exhibit’s unifying theme is Money Spent On Shit Students Don’t Know We Have). It’s also hard to walk by the masterpieces of Rothko, van Gogh, Pollack and Hopper (all on the way to the Trumbull Gallery) and choose, instead, to spend some time with a few renderings of stodgy 19th century husbands and wives.
“We have one of the most outstanding collections of American miniatures,” said Robin Jaffee Frank GRD ’94, senior associate curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Gallery. “And once you learn the stories behind the miniatures, you find they are unique and have highly personal associations of love and loss.”
The Trumbull Gallery is a rather grand room — painted in rich red tones, featurin’ formal portraits of George Washington and important-looking battle scenes from the Revolutionary War. But off to the right stands a grayish case: metal, completely opaque and looking out of place. A sign above reads: “To view miniatures, slide lid up until interior light turns on.” Ah! The miniatures! Having them gradually revealed and illuminated makes it a theatrical, suspenseful prelude to viewing.
They’re small. A magnifying glass is provided, which makes the whole viewing experience a bit odd. The miniatures tend to come in pairs: in the 1800s, husbands and wives would commission portraits of one another to keep (and obsess over) during periods of separation. There is some variation — a miniature will occasionally depict a deceased child, or an allegorical scene of love and betrayal — but, for the most part, they show sad-looking middle-aged men and women. It was a common social convention, so much so that one of the miniatures shows a woman who wears a miniature around her neck. (How meta!) In many cases, the minis included locks of hair stowed in the back of the frame — one of their, as Jaffee Frank called them, most appealing qualities.
“Hair survives time and decay, so throughout history and across cultures, hair has been used in ritualistic objects of love and loss. I think that sense of purpose is why everyone is attracted to them,” Jaffee Frank said. For the owners, the hair imbued the miniatures with a strong sense of the personal and intimate — but other people’s hair, when not on their head, is gross. It’s too personal and intimate to be displayed in a museum, and so the miniatures, when not depicting someone the casual and detached viewer loves, will perhaps go a little underappreciated.
This is really too bad; from an objective point of view, miniatures are aesthetic wonders. The skill (and tiny paintbrushes, which must be made of, like, mouse hair!) required to create such works isn’t come by everyday. Rhodeen, in describing miniatures as stand-ins for photographs, praised their intricacy: “The watercolor on ivory makes the tiny detail really pop. They’re beautiful, and the portraits are amazing because they’re so specific.”
The Gallery employees love their miniatures — or, at the very least, like them. And Jaffee Frank, who wrote a book entitled “Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures” is an expert on the subject. The gospel of the tiny is being disseminated at all levels; museum guard Fred Slater insisted he was more than happy to answer any questions about the miniatures. But does anyone ever ask specifically about these little paintings?
“Not really. A few. A lot of people don’t even realize they are here,” Slater admitted.