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  • Secret Sweethearts and Memento Mori

    Author: Aubrey Minshew, Museum Specialist, Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye® 

    To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, I pulled together a collection of songs about love and eyes on the museum’s Spotify account. As it turns out, writing about a loved one’s eyes is a very popular thing to do! Since eyes are so common in music, I also became interested in eyes in the visual arts. After more research, I discovered that painting a loved one’s eyes was just as popular during the 1700s and 1800s as iris photography is today! The history of painting a loved one’s eyes takes us on an interesting journey from miniature portraits to Protestant/Catholic intrigue in England, and all the way to Victorian hair jewelry.

    An almond-shaped portrait of a woman's eye and eyebrow incased in a gold piece of jewelry bordered in white pearls. The woman's face has light skin, dark hair, and one blue eye.

    Painting of Ann Fryer’s Eye, by Richard Cosway, 1787

    It all starts with miniature portraiture, which began appearing in the royal courts of Europe around the 16th century. These portraits were originally watercolor paintings on vellum (prepared sheep’s skin) or ivory. By the 18th century, portraits were made on enamel. While most portraits were of the whole body, or at least the torso, there was a surprising fad for miniature portraits of just someone’s eye (or eyes) that swept through Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    An oval-shaped portrait of a young man in a red military uniform. The portrait is set in a gold pendant, and the young man has light skin, brown hair, and light eyes. He wears a bright red uniform with a gold collar and one gold shoulder piece, and the uniform has many medals on the breast.

    George IV as Prince Regent, by Henry Bone, 1816

    According to a popular story, the fad of lover’s eyes began with George IV of the United Kingdom (1762–1830), son of George III, the well-known king during the American Revolution.

    While still a prince, George IV was besotted with a woman named Maria Fitzherbert (1756–1837). Fitzherbert had been married twice before, and to make matters worse for George, she was a Catholic. According to an act of Parliament in 1701, English monarchs were forbidden from either being Catholic or being married to a Catholic, so George would have had to renounce his claim to the throne to marry her.

    Throwing caution to the wind, George was so committed to marrying Fitzherbert that they had a secret marriage ceremony in 1785. While very romantic, this ceremony was deemed illegal since it occurred without the king’s permission. During this intense love affair, George IV would wear a miniature portrait of Maria Fitzherbert, but only of her eye, eyebrow, and a small wisp of her hair. This way, their clandestine marriage was less obvious and only those close to the couple would recognize the image.

    In 1795, George IV was officially, but unhappily, married to another woman, but his sentimental gesture continued and started a fad for these “lover’s eye” portraits both in Europe and eventually the Americas.

    A red-lined drawing of a young woman wearing a large, curly wig and 18th-century style dress. She is wearing a dress with a large ruff collar, and she also wears a necklace with a large portrait pendant hanging from it. She is surrounded by an oval-shaped frame with leaf-like decorations. The red text under the illustration reads: Mrs Fitzherbert.

    Maria Fitzherbert, wearing a miniature portrait around her neck (could it be George IV?)

    Lover’s eye portraits were popular throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, also called the Georgian era (1790–1820). They were often exchanged between sweethearts from a distance or carried by wealthy merchants going on long voyages. Eye portraits were mounted in ornately decorated frames with gold, gemstones, or pearls. They were also set in jewelry such as lockets, pins, or rings, much like this Lover’s Eye in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

    A circular portrait of a woman's eye and eyebrow set into a gold ring. The woman has light skin, black hair, and one blue eye.

    Eye of Maria Miles Heyward, by Edward Green Malbone, c1802

    Jewelry and accessories decorated with eyes were also popular during the Victorian era (1837–1901), but these pieces stemmed from the desire to remember the dead, not to disguise the identity of a lover. In the U.K., the Victorian era was known for its emphasis on strict public mourning rituals. After the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria famously only dressed in black mourning garments for the rest of her life. 

    Mourning rituals also took on new forms in the United States during the 1860s, following the American Civil War (1861–1864). Since this war was the first American war after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, young men died at a higher scale, more violently, and much farther from their families than in years past. Many American families had no headstone to visit in the family plot, so they sought out new ways to memorialize the dead in art and personal mementos. These accessories served as both a remembrance of a specific loved one, and as a “memento mori,” or a reminder that everyone, eventually, will die.

    A black and white photograph of Queen Victoria, an older white woman wearing all-black formal mourning clothing. She wears a black dress, a black shawl, and a white lace bonnet. She holds a white handkerchief and sits in a wooden chair.

    Queen Victoria in black mourning dress, 1863

    Mourning jewelry often featured images of a loved one’s eyes paired with other “memento mori” trends, like pieces of their clothing or locks of the deceased’s hair. In fact, hair jewelry became a thriving cottage industry in this time period, and it grew to feature intricately woven hair patterns. Queen Victoria herself was known to wear jewelry with woven hair from some of her children who predeceased her. This combination of mourning jewelry styles is exemplified in this mourning brooch, also from the collection at The Met, which features not only a portrait of an anonymous woman’s eyes, but also a lock of her hair.

    The front and back of a gold oval-shaped pin. The front features a portrait of a young woman's eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. Only her light eyes and light forehead are visible. The back of the pin features a physical lock of brown hair behind a clear cover of some sort.

    Mourning jewelry, c1840

    Carrying our loved ones with us, whether they be secret sweethearts or deceased family members, is a very human impulse. And if “the eyes are the window to the soul,” as the popular adage goes, miniature eye portraiture was a sweet and meaningful way to preserve that feeling in the days before photography.

    Create your own sweet ocular keepsake this Valentine’s Day at our Craft & Learn workshop on Feb. 10 and Feb. 11. RSVP for this workshop, or learn more about upcoming events on our “Current Events” page.