1780s to 1860s - Portrait of an Eye

Over the decades and centuries, our ancestors have done and produced some very unusual artifacts, many handed down over the generations. Here is one from the 1700s, if you have such an heirloom, it is a rarity.

A very popular keepsake were miniature portraits (in lockets, watches) especially in eighteenth-century England and then America, they were often private objects viewed solely by the wearer. Another popular personal item was to have locks of hair of someone dear to the wearer.

Yet an eye portrait which was very different became popular in England and America and could be worn boldly on a bracelet, ring, stickpin, pendant, or brooch, with the identity of the subject a mystery. It was just a painting of a person’s single eye.

The eye portraits helped keep a person close, even when separated by distance or the decorum of Georgian courtship, which limited public romantic gestures. They also channeled a desire to be seen. So the eye miniatures are not only standing in for an absent person like a miniature portrait would, they’re evoking that charged act of looking. Painted with incredible detail in watercolor on ivory, they also evoked a vigilant stare to remind the wearer to be faithful while their beloved was away.

These eye portraits were known as “lover’s eyes” for this fad in courtship, sometimes both eyes were painted. The eye paintings later became part of Victorian mourning jewelry. Sometimes the eye representing the departed would be adorned with pearl or diamond teardrops as if the deceased were weeping for their own death. The main problem, unless a name was written on the back of the jewelry, you could not identify whose eye it was.

In the 1800s such eye portraits were not limited to lovers, but could be of a mother, grandmother, sister or dear friend.

This once-popular miniature of an eye ran from about 1780s to 1860s. Today these are collectible artifacts and their value runs from $500 to $2,000.

To help find one, check with other relatives.

Photos: Various styles of eye portraits done as brooches, pins, earrings, and rings.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

Mourning Jewelry

Hair Art

Family Heirlooms

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