Make way for Minis: My Summer with the Miniature Portrait Collection

James Butler Campbell, Jr., 1845, by Charles Fraser    Eliza Huger Dunkin (Mrs. Percy Gamble Kammerer), 1923, by Leila Waring    Nathaniel Russel, 1818, by Charles Fraser
As this summer’s curatorial and collections intern I could not believe my luck when I found out I would be spending part of the summer getting acquainted with the Gibbes’ miniature portrait collection—the highly esteemed collection is the third largest in the country and I was getting the opportunity to see every single piece. I knew that part of my summer internship would be focused on collections inventory and, for some, the prospect of inventory may seem dull, but I found myself excited by the prospect of spending time in painting storage, surrounded by so much art, methodically inspecting miniature after miniature. I loved looking at the individual details of each portrait, getting to study the different historical outfits and hairstyles while imagining the personality of the subjects. Like looking through an album of old photographs, these small faces gave me a glimpse into another time, a time before digital cameras or Facebook albums—if someone wanted a portable image of their mother, father, spouse, child, or even themselves, these portraits were it!

Intern Allison Murphy examines miniatures from the Gibbes collection.

Intern Allison Murphy examines miniatures from the Gibbes collection.

The sizes of the works were captivating. Some of the portraits are small enough to have been worn as jewelry, a fact that gives the works an additional layer of allure: I couldn’t help but think “who wore these” and “for what occasion?” Handling the portraits also gave me an opportunity to see the backs of each one where intricately braided locks of hair are sometimes framed.

With the upcoming renovations and expansions to the Gibbes Museum, a large portion of the miniature portrait collection is going to be moving out of storage and into the public eye, so viewers will be able to experience, in greater volume, the charm of these small works. Especially built open storage cases are going to be designed for each work in the collection—a fact that has given me even more face time with these little guys. It has been part of my job this summer to re-measure certain portraits in the collection—ones with larger frames or cases so those measurements can be updated in our records. I have been entrusted with the handling of these works—taking them out of storage and to our prep area where I re-measure and photograph each one.

Once the Museum renovations are complete, visitors will be able to spend more time getting to know the miniatures, so they, too, can discover what I have this summer—that the Gibbes’ smallest works have some of the biggest personalities!

Allison Murphy, curatorial intern and guest blogger

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