Friday, October 14, 2016

Monumental Tokens

Copyright © Edward Riojas

To the bosom of Sarah be this Image confin'd
An Emblem of Love and Esteem:
Bestow'd by a friend desirous to find;
A place in that bosom unseen

It was June 1, 1824, in Charleston, S.C., yet 192 years hence we know Thomas Robson had butterflies in his stomach. His eye was set on Sarah, as was his heart. They might have been strolling down a wooded path that day. She might have slipped her hand into his. Perhaps it was then that he reached into a breast pocket of his waistcoat to retrieve the miniature token of his affection.
“Thomas Robson” [front, left, and verso, right]
Henry Bounetheau. 1824. 2 x 2.375 inches.
(Courtesy, The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C.)

Perhaps they met months before, by chance, at a society ball – he paying a compliment and she demurely blushing. Or perhaps he was the gentleman who happened to guide her up the granite, street-side step and into a waiting carriage. She would have slipped had he not bolted from a knot of friends and rushed to her aid.

We may surmise details of the romance, but one thing is sure: In spite of its size, Mr. Robson’s token of love for Sarah was no small thing. The suitor commissioned Henry Bounetheau, a leading artist living in Charleston, to create a portrait in miniature. The artist did so using watercolor on ivory, a common medium for the genre. The painting was set into a watch-like case, and on the verso a sentiment and the pre-determined date were engraved around a bezelled glass compartment holding an artfully-braided lock of his hair.

Miniatures had long been used in Europe as a means of taking along fond likenesses when travelling. As the craft developed, the portraits changed from being something displayed on a table to something worn as jewelry; an adornment worn close to the heart.
“Eliza Izard” [front, left, and verso, right]
Edward Greene Malbone. 1801. 2.375 x 2.875 inches.
(Courtesy, The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C.)

Charleston became the epicenter of the miniaturist phenomenon in America, where high society and European taste could support artists with enormous talent. Unlike much of early American portraiture, Robson’s likeness was executed with great sensitivity to the sitter’s features. It must be assumed magnifying lenses were employed in the 2 3/8 inch-tall painting, or else miniaturists surely went blind at an early age.

Another miniaturist master, Edward Greene Malbone, created a tiny portrait of Eliza Izard almost 20 years earlier than the Robson likeness. Eliza was, at the time of the sitting, yet unmarried. The portrait, along with several others, were commissioned by her parents at the price of $275. Her portrait was executed in watercolor on ivory, set in a case, with its verso containing a delicately arranged lock of hair. That wisp of hair is a work of art in itself, especially the filigree knotting at its base.

Her portrait is slightly more romanticized than that of Robson’s, but the intent was clearly to make the most of her femininity and not promote the frankness of a masculine counterpart who would be master of a household. The gentleman who might receive Eliza’s miniature would be enviable, indeed.

As in other examples of the genre, these two show an extremely intimate part of the sitter. Engraved sentiments and faithful likenesses are one thing, but locks of hair are real enough to make us regret looking at a thing intended for none, save one so dearly loved. In the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, a large collection of these miniatures creates a compounded sense of invasion into the most intimate thoughts of those whose heartaches are long forgotten. The lace has since faded; the stiff collars carefully put in boxes. But even in this we are consoled, for we know Thomas Robson wasted neither time, nor money when he commissioned the artist. Sarah became Mrs. Robson the same year she was given the miniature.

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