Portrait miniatures from the Met debut at the Winter Antiques Show

Editorial Staff Art

American art aficionados packed into the Tiffany Room at the Park Avenue Armory last night as part of a series of special lectures hosted by the Winter Antiques Show to listen in as Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate director for collections and administration and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Lori Zabar, an independent scholar and researcher, spoke on the subject of their new book—the Metropolitan’s collection of nearly 600 American portrait miniatures. The history of these most intimate objects from the earliest days of the nation’s founding up through the early 20th century was surveyed, and a number of surprises revealed.

Barratt spoke about how, with the aid of conservators, miniature cases were carefully opened to examine their contents. Most contained waxed playing cards cut as supports for the ivory, while some also held descriptions written on paper, and others exposed painting on the reverse side of the portrait. She also proudly showed the only two examples of American lover’s eyes from the collection—tiny (less than a half-inch in diameter) miniatures depicting a single eye or pair of eyes that were meant to be worn on the inside of a coat near one’s heart. While the form had been immensely popular in England, very few were made by artists in America, and to date the Met has more than any other museum. Though a number of artists included in the book are well-known—Peale, Copley, and Ramage—Barratt reminded the audience that many who have never been heard of were also immensely talented.

Zabar, whose article on the subject appears in our current issue, examined the casework of the miniatures in great detail, and discussed the fashions for engraved decorations, mounted gemstones, hairwork, and frames. Zabar also showed fascinating examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the colonial and handcraft revivals that demonstrated how artists adapted new styles and techniques of painting to the traditional form, pushing the genre into the contemporary sphere.

Before concluding the event, Barratt and Zabar moved to the booth of portrait miniature expert and dealer Elle Shushan where they signed copies of their catalogue. Shushan’s shrine to the small and beloved artworks—a replica of the dining room of the Harrison Gray Otis House—made the perfect backdrop for celebrating this new and important publication.

Images: The cover of the book which includes: a Self-portrait by John Singeton Copley, 1769; a Portrait of a Lady by Henry Inman and Thomas Seir Cummings, c. 1827; and The Artist’s Family by Pierre Henri. Eye of Maria Miles Heyward by Edward Greene Malbone, c. 1802. Portrait of a Lady by John Robinson, 1822. The Dodge Children of Detroit by Mira Edgerly, 1926. (All images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art).  Lori Zabar (left) and Carrie Rebora Barratt (right) signing books in Elle Shushan’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show.