In the popular imagination, the Victorian era was a sentimental time when love was a lifelong commitment, children were idealized, marriage sanctified and the dead memorialized to the max. Britain’s Queen Victoria set the style by doting on her nine children and then falling into a 40-year funk after the premature death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, wearing mourning black until she too popped off in 1901.
In fact, as a curious show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts illustrates, Victorian sentiment pales in comparison with the emotional fetishes of the preceding Romantic era, when lovers, mourners and mere flirts literally wore their passions on their bosoms.
“The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures From the Skier Collection,” showcases 98 tiny paintings of eyes, all set into pretty jewelry and little boxes ornamented with precious gems — diamonds, garnets, pearls, turquoise, coral.
On view through Aug. 24, the show is charming but, unfortunately, almost impossible to see because the petite objects are displayed in bulky highboys that prevent close scrutiny. They’re better seen in the richly researched and lavishly illustrated catalog (Birmingham Museum, $35) whose high points are five fictional vignettes by Jo Manning that fetchingly imagine the back stories of several portraits.
Painted in watercolor on bits of ivory, the stamp-sized images depict single eyes of real people — right or left, never a pair. They come in the usual colors — gray, green, blue, brown — often with a bit of painted hair swirling coquettishly around the edge. Sometimes the frames also conceal snippets of braided or woven hair, engraved initials, dates or cryptic messages.
The eyes are all tokens of affection. They were given as keepsakes between lovers who most likely wanted to hide their passions from disapproving parents or a betrayed spouse, or worn by bereft mothers mourning a beloved child, or tucked into a lapel or neckline as a reminder of an absent companion. Most are brooches or lockets, but the show also includes eyes on collar pins, tie tacks, toothpick boxes, a watch key and in a leather wallet.
Some appear flirtatious, while others signal sorrow with surroundings of clouds or teardrops. One oval ring shows a tiny angel waving a palm branch from a cloud above a droopy pink-rimmed eye. An inscription on the back identifies the eye as that of “Marg. Wardlaw” who died Aug. 8, 1795, at age 9.
Besides providing pretty settings for the eyes, the gemstones had symbolic meaning, with diamonds referring to rarity and great value; pearls for innocence, purity and perfection; garnets for true friendship, and so on.
Victoria’s uncle George IV is credited with popularizing these eccentric bijoux when he was Prince of Wales, a man about town waiting for promotion to his father’s throne.
In about 1785 he fell in love with a totally inappropriate gal, “the twice-widowed, Catholic beauty, Maria Fitzherbert,” as the catalog describes her. Knowing that their relationship had no future, since English law forbade the Protestant royal to marry a Catholic, Ms. Fitzherbert high-tailed it off to France.
But the prince didn’t give up easily. He faked suicide to get her attention, lobbed marriage proposals across the Channel, and then started sending paintings of body parts: first an eye, then a second eye and later his mouth. It’s not clear that all the arty bonbons went to Maria, but they did launch a fad among the English aristocracy.
The show includes two miniature portraits of George IV, but none of his eyes alone. The largest, about 4 inches tall, is a 1789 oval locket featuring him in royal robes and sashes. The other, a head image less than 2 inches tall, dates to 1815 and shows him as Prince Regent in a dashing, high-collared military uniform.
Apparently single eyes had been painted in early Roman and Etruscan cultures and were revived in 18th-century France before going viral in England. By the time Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 they were fading from fashion, but she nevertheless commissioned eye portraits of her friends, her children and other relatives.
About 1,000 eye portraits are thought to have survived, with scattered examples in public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Among private holdings, Nan and David Skier of Birmingham, Ala., have assembled the largest collection of more than 100 examples. As David Skier is an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, their obsession is clearly an appropriate passion.