The Eyes Have It
The most fascinating form of jewelry created as a love token started as what we would describe as a “fad” in the late 18th century. Today we might consider these disembodied eye portraits as bizarre or jarring. But they get at the heart of the very private nature of the intensity of feelings between two people, by means of an individualized portrait of a beloved’s eye. The idea was that a sweetheart would be reminded of their lover’s watchfulness. Throughout human history eyes have always symbolized mirrors to the soul. They are as intimate a token as two people could find.
The story begins with British royalty. In 1784, George, the Prince of Wales, son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, eventually George IV, became enamored of a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father. Against her wishes, he pursued her. Recognizing the impossibility of the match, she fled to France for a year, believing that her absence would lessen the Prince’s amorous feelings. To the contrary, the Prince became more infatuated and more determined to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. At the end of the year he sent her a marriage proposal. Instead of including a ring, he sent a miniature portrait of his eye. Apparently, she was so taken with his gift that she immediately returned and married the Prince in a secret ceremony, late in 1785. Shortly after the marriage, Maria commissioned the same miniature artist to paint a portrait of her eye for her new husband. This created a fashion among British aristocrats for eye portraiture. Of course, when King George III discovered the illegal marriage, he immediately annulled it. Thus, the eye portraits became even more important as symbols of intimacy and perhaps, forbidden love. As a coda to the story, although forced to marry another, George remained in contact with Maria for the rest of his life. It is said that George is buried with Maria’s eye portrait.
The popularity of eye portraits extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. In France, they took on political connotations and were said to function as discreet symbols for meetings of revolutionaries. Few eye portraits were made for Americans – they were associated with the hated British monarchy in the decades following the Revolution. Today, scholars estimate that there are no more than 1,000 of these tiny pins extant.
This eye portrait, when magnified, appears to be a male. The carelessly drooping hair of the eyebrow appears to be a characteristic associated with a man. A lady would have presented herself in a much more genteel manner. We will never know the identity of this person. That is the essential enigma of the piece – and of eye portraits in general.
In the centuries before the development of modern medicine, death came quickly and often. Because of this fact, the line between tokens of affection and mourning pieces became blurred. In most cases, love tokens hold signs and symbols legible only to the couple. We will never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. Unlike mourning jewelry, they do not give us names, initials or dates of the deceased.
In all, The Henry Ford’s jewelry collection holds some remarkable tokens of affection, most notably the eye portrait, but also several enigmatic pieces of the early 19th century.
You can learn more about eye portraits in sources such as the recently published book, The Look of Love: Eye Portraits from the Skier Collection.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
decorative arts, by Charles Sable, jewelry, Valentine's Day, holidays