For example, the following anecdote happened to a Prince of Wales, the future King of England George IV. At 21 this famous dandy and playboy secretly married Mrs. Fitzgerbert – a widow and, moreover, a Catholic. His father, King George III, did not acknowledge his son’s marriage, for otherwise he would have lost an heir, because the English law prohibited the enthronement of any person related to a Catholic. Without a formal acknowledgement, however, the Prince’s marriage was considered invalid, and so George III continued to persuade his son to make a decorous match, refusing to pay his then enormous debts until he would have yielded. There is even an English cartoon, preserved to this day, which captures this story – it depicts a 32-year old Prince of Wales proposing to a 65-year old Russian Empress Catherine II, who was the richest made in Europe after the death of Peter III, and also, like Mrs. Fitzgerbert, a widow.
Nevertheless, the whole great world was well aware of the Prince’s secret marriage. The Countess of Devonshire has described in a letter to her daughter a scene where the Prince, visiting an Opera with his spouse, deliberately displayed a miniature, presented to him by Mrs. Fitzgerbert, with a portraiture of an eye of his beloved. To everyone around this gesture could only mean that the couple was definitely married.
It’s easy to deduce that the symbolic meaning of eye miniatures coincided largely with that of a tradition of exchanging wedding rings. It was a reminder, an evidence of marital faithfulness, but the analogy doesn’t explain the peculiar choice of an eye as an object of depiction. Why else were those miniatures created? Why didn’t the usual miniature portraits, replacing a beloved person in his or her absence (much like the photos of spouses and children that we carry today in our wallets), suffice for the lovers of those days? A seeming quickness and ease of portraying an eye compared to a whole face is, of course, a false impression. On the contrary, it is much easier to catch an absolute likeness if a painter can portray a whole face, not just an eye.
A scholar of English miniatures Hanneke Grootenboer writes that eye miniatures, as well as portraits, were included in the so-called gazing games in the high society. But their functions in the game were different. Unlike a portrait, which was always an object of contemplation, an eye miniature was regarded as a contemplating subject in itself. This means that not only did the viewer watch the miniature, but the miniature, being a “portrait” of a gaze, seemed to watch the viewer.
Not accidentally do the framings of eye miniatures resemble those of various optical scopes (monocles, pince-nez). The men of the world loved using such scopes for other purposes than the direct one, for example, for peeping at pretty girls in the theatre and other such places. Apparently, this occupation was so thrilling and so widespread that the monocle was otherwise called a «quizzing glass» or «spyglass». The satirical cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson shows an elderly gentleman staring through a monocle at a young girl sitting nearby. When one watches a miniature, the comparison seems most apparent.
According to Hanneke Grootenboer, the eye miniatures have the same function: it is not the viewer who is watching the miniature, but the image, which is a portrait of a gaze, seems to watch the viewer. Here is another example: the Duchess of Leuchtenberg before marrying off her daughter to the Prince of Sweden gave her a miniature with an image of her own eye, which her daughter would always carry on her wrist. Thus, the young Queen would always feel the presence of her mother and conduct herself as if she stood in front of her.
A more complex reaction to the gaze of an eye miniature would appear if the person depicted was already dead. You can recognize such images by an inscription and a drawn tear. In this case, a portrait wasn’t supposed to remind of a living gaze, but to express a late person’s own grief. Eternal mourning of one’s own death was meant to incur the suffering of the living, relief their pain, but at the same time, an image was an eternal reminder of the dead, making the bearer relive the loss over and over again.
All these examples reflect a common idea of the culture at the turn of the XIX century about the limits of the body. The fashion for eye miniatures coincided with a burst of sentimental culture, which placed high value on souvenirs and gifts, incorporating the depictions of various body parts. Even the real locks of hair would be used in jewelry or added to a lake pigment by an artist.
The border between the body and its depiction was being blurred; therefore, a gaze could easily be materialized and presented as a gift. Moreover, the function of eye miniatures, apart from this practical use, is unclear. As opposed to the later eye images, for example, in the works of Odilon Redon and the surrealists, the eye miniatures must be understood not only as symbols of “All-Seeing Eye”, “Wisdom” or “Destiny”. They were the subjects of contemplation rather than its objects, and in this respect, they are closer to the modern media than to the traditional art. They could be tentatively considered predecessors of a photo camera: as a camera influences the behavior of the person it’s looking at, so did an eye miniature create an illusion of surveillance.
Today the stories of eye miniature exchange may be seen as a beautiful and sophisticated, if slightly naïve tradition, but isn’t it the common desire to overcome the limits of the body that brought to live both these remarkable accessories and various modern technologies?