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Indepth Arts News:

"Pictures in Private: British Portraiture in Domestic Spaces, 1680-1830"
2003-05-17 until 2003-09-28
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, CA, USA

Small-scale portraiture and its role in 18th-century British interior design and social customs will be examined in a new exhibition opened May 17 and continues through September 28 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Pictures in Private: British Portraiture in Domestic Spaces, 1680-1830 showcases over one hundred portrait drawings, mezzotint prints, and miniatures from The Huntington's collection. Through their subject matter, and an examination of the methods by which they were displayed, this exhibition provides an intimate glimpse into art collecting practices of the period, shedding light on important aspects of life in the 18th-century home.

Rather than the narrative painting celebrated on the Continent, portraiture was the most popular genre of art in eighteenth-century Britain. Collectors displayed not only large-scale painted portraits, but also portrait prints, drawings, and miniatures. These smaller images fulfilled many functions-as personal memorials, fashionable decorations, or expressions of political affiliation. While portraits of all sizes played an important public role during the period of 1680-1830, Pictures in Private focuses on the role of small-scale portraits within the personal spaces of those who purchased them. These smaller images suited the intimacy and privacy signaled by the domestic interior.

Small-scale portraits were displayed in a variety of different ways. The installation of this exhibition evokes several popular modes of presentation: print rooms, extra-illustrated books and miniature cabinets. An arrangement of prints on one gallery wall evokes the idea of a print room, a fashionable form of 18th-century interior decoration. Portrait prints and drawings were also placed in albums or in extra-illustrated books, as displayed in a case in the exhibition. While portrait miniatures could be worn as jewelry, hung on walls singly or arranged in groups, some collectors also created special display cabinets to focus attention on these tiny objects. A miniature cabinet, reconstructed in this exhibition, allowed owners to show their most prized miniatures, often collected for the historical or artistic value they represented rather than for their personal connection with the sitter.

Without relying on the complex compositions and somber plots typical of most large-scale narrative painting, small portraits could illuminate elevated notions of beauty and nationalism; celebrate fame or notoriety; express sentiment; or make historical or literary allusions. The subjects featured in Pictures in Private range from celebrities such as the famous actor David Garrick, whose likeness was widely collected, to noted beauties of the day, as well as respected members of aristocratic society, including the Duke of Marlborough, hero of the Battle of Blenheim. Small-scale images of such figures were valued for their ability to commemorate the ideals of virtue as well as to evoke the thrill of vice. One example is Edward Fisher's 18th-century mezzotint print made after Sir Joshua Reynolds's 1759 painting of Kitty Fisher. A well-known courtesan, she is shown in the character of Cleopatra, poised to dissolve a large pearl in a chalice of wine as a demonstration of her vast wealth. The picture immortalizes Fisher as an icon of decadence; but it is the emphasis on her exceptional beauty that made this notorious woman's likeness particularly attractive as a collectable print, and a highly decorative ornament for a domestic interior.

Pictures in Private is curated by Melinda McCurdy, Research Associate for British and European Art; Diane Waggoner, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Fellow; and Elizabeth Mitchell, UCSB-Huntington Intern.

Valentine Green after Joshua Reynolds
Lady Charlotte Maria Waldegrave, Lady Elizabeth Laura
Waldegrave, and Lady Anna Horatia Waldegrave 1781,

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