Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 21, 2014
Hanneke Grootenboer Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 300 pp.; 24 color ills.; 53 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226309668)

Social media networks like Facebook make us anticipate the moment we turn into objects under another person’s gaze. Yet this experience of becoming a spectacle, and organizing our lives accordingly, is hardly new. Nor is the very small size that our portraits will usually take in these types of media: as Hanneke Grootenboer points out in Treasuring the Gaze, the format of a photo on a smartphone screen is remarkably similar to that of the pre-photographic portrait miniature. In her new book, Grootenboer focuses on a short-lived subgenre of the portrait miniature, the so-called eye miniature or eye portrait, which suddenly became popular around 1800. Grootenboer examines and problematizes the ways these objects—jewelry and painting at the same time—destabilized and broke the boundaries between the viewing subject and viewed object.

On the topic of eye portraits, Grootenboer explores a truly marginalized genre. The vogue for exchanging eye miniatures as gifts existed between roughly 1785 and 1830, spreading from Britain to continental Europe and America, but disappearing as rapidly as it had arisen. Eye miniatures were meant to be worn on or very close to the body, and were often set in elaborately decorated frames or lockets. An eye miniature usually portrayed a single eye, looking out at the beholder, framed by an eyebrow and sometimes by a curl of hair. No other part of the face was typically visible, not even the nose. Thus, although eye miniatures purportedly depicted the eye of an individual, the identity of the individual remained elusive if identification depended on the image alone. Possibly because of this elusiveness—Is the eye miniature a portrait? Is it even painting? Grootenboer asks—the genre has almost gone unnoticed by scholarship. It is the author’s aim to make the gap in art-historical writing that the eye miniature represents productive.

Rather than an aim in itself, for Grootenboer the study of eye portraits is a means to rethink worn-out theoretical concepts like “the gaze” and “voyeurism,” and to write what she calls “a chapter of the history of vision” (7). Eye portraits become theoretical objects in the way that Mieke Bal has used the term: they invite critical reflection (9; see Mieke Bal, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider: The Architecture of Art-Writing, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 5 and chapter 6). While Grootenboer situates the images within an iconography of the eye and reconstructs the late eighteenth-century practices of exchanging, looking, and disguising that surrounded these miniatures, this book is perhaps less a study in the history of art than it is a contribution to the study of critical theory and, in particular, the theory of vision. The author uses and further develops ideas of thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot, Jürgen Habermas, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Gaston Bachelard, Gérard Wajcman, and Jacques Lacan, among others. At the same time, Treasuring the Gaze adds to the reader’s understanding of portraiture, its history and theory, and even painting at large.

At the heart of the book’s argument is the observation that eye miniatures encourage the viewer to question the subject-object relationship common in art, because eye portraits place the viewer in a position of being seen. Taking Aloïs Riegl’s exploration of the seventeenth-century Dutch group portrait as a starting point, Grootenboer uses eye portraits to examine a reciprocal model of vision that originates in the exchange between the gazes of the viewer and the painting, a process through which the subject ultimately comes into its own. Important to Grootenboer’s understanding of this exchange of gazes is Wajcman’s Fenêtre: Chroniques du regard et de l’intime (Paris: Verdier, 2004). Wajcman argues that Albertian history painting, based on the system of linear perspective, provides us with an intimate space in which our gaze can safely retreat because it will be met by no other. Although they give the illusion of being windows that open onto the world, paintings in this sense thus effectively close the viewer off by creating a space in which our gaze will not be seen. Within this framework, eye miniatures present an anomaly, because they exactly and exclusively depict a gaze directed at the viewer (those eye portraits depicting a gaze in three-quarter or profile view are not part of Grootenboer’s discussion, as their relation to the viewer is less out of the ordinary, according to the author). We may look at them, but we cannot deny that they are simultaneously looking at us. Eye miniatures put the spectator in the position of viewed object, and present us with a “painted point of view” (155).

After the introduction, which explains the book’s conceptual framework, the book consists of five chapters, which each take a single eye miniature as a point of departure and discuss a particular theme. The first chapter is the exception to this model: here, Grootenboer contextualizes the cultural practice of exchanging eye miniatures by comparing these objects to other small-scale items exchanged as gifts, such as the wider category of portrait miniatures, but also letters. Critically adapting anthropological theories of gift-giving, Grootenboer argues that the beholder of an eye miniature (who is also its addressee) and the miniature’s sitter (who is also its sender) are locked into a “short circuit of vision” (44) in which the beholder’s gaze will always be reciprocated, and will always be seen. In a sense, the book seems to only really begin with the second chapter, which, as Grootenboer notes in her acknowledgments, originated in an article published in The Art Bulletin (Hanneke Grootenboer, “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision,” The Art Bulletin 88, no. 3 [September 2006]: 496–507), and is the part of the book most strongly grounded in historical analysis. This chapter and the three that follow it each start with a case study, a concrete object, from which Grootenboer develops more general themes like the relationship between the living and the dead (chapter 3) and the relationship between the body and the world (chapter 4). By discussing the way that eye portraits functioned within a discourse of mourning, or eye portraits exchanged between mother and child, each chapter presents another look at the opposition between subject and object. In the book’s interesting conclusion, Grootenboer reflects on the eye miniature’s relationship to early (portrait) photography, suggesting that the latter provides the sitter with the possibility to control “both sides of the gaze” (177), becoming subject and object at the same time. Following this line of reasoning, if photographic portraits are attempts to portray the gaze, eye portraits can be considered as pre-photographic, non-mechanized instances of the same.

One way that eye portraits break down the boundaries between subject and object is exemplified by images of weeping eyes, the topic of chapter 3. Grootenboer’s starting point is a miniature identified on the reverse as representing the eye of Thomas Purvis who, according to the inscription, died in 1792 at only twenty-four years old. The blue eye and brow have been painted on ivory and are set in an octagonal, golden frame. Unlike most other eye portraits discussed in the book, this one has an extra feature: two small crystals have been attached to the ivory surface, suggesting that the eye is weeping. Representing the gaze of a dead person, Purvis’s eye miniature and others like it confront us with a paradox: the gaze entails an invitation as it does in non-crying eye portraits, but what kind of invitation could this be when the eye is crying over its own death? Within the late eighteenth-century culture of sentimentality, which venerated weeping and tears, the crystal or diamond teardrops are not just a representation but rather are performative and are literally a gift of tears intended to elicit the same response in the eyes of the beholder.

Taking her analysis to yet another level, Grootenboer then asks how the seemingly alive gaze of the crying eye portrait relates to the dead body. This problem has a more general dimension, which is developed throughout the book, namely the connection between the eye portrait and its sitter. Disagreeing here with Marcia Pointon, whose work serves as a formative influence upon Treasuring the Gaze, Grootenboer convincingly insists that the eye portrait is not a condensed form of a “normal” portrait miniature and does not metonymically stand for the beloved face or even for her or his eye. The eye miniature does not make a sitter present in the way a “regular” miniature can. Rather, it stands in for the sitter’s gaze. But how is a living, crying gaze connected to a dead body? Grootenboer uses other objects with gazes from beyond the grave such as wax portraits and death masks, as well as ideas from Heidegger and Nancy about the withdrawal of the gaze, to ultimately argue that weeping eyes like the one of Purvis depict a gaze’s afterlife or Nachleben, something not quite present nor quite absent, something that traditional art-historical methodologies cannot fully account for.

Treasuring the Gaze contains plenty of illustrations that will be completely new to many readers, and provides a rich account of the material that is quite literally fascinating. First and foremost, the book is a challenging contribution to the theory of vision and to psychoanalytical aesthetics in particular, which will be of interest to scholars of visual culture, of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, of portraiture, and far beyond.

Elsje van Kessel
Lecturer, School of Art History, University of St. Andrews