Portrait miniatures highlighted at Cleveland Museum of Art

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The Cleveland Museum of Art presents Disembodied: Portrait Miniatures and Their Contemporary Relatives, an exhibition showcasing the museum's entire collection of portrait miniatures for the first time in over half a century. The renowned collection of around 170 objects spans six centuries, bridges eight European countries as well as America, and is considered one of the finest in North America.

Disembodied presents the collection from a fresh perspective, including works by five prominent contemporary artists who explore issues of death, likeness, memory, identity, privacy and body-centered scale, themes that also deeply engaged miniature painters for over 500 years. The exhibition also features more than a dozen new acquisitions, many on view for the first time. Disembodied: Portrait Miniatures and Their Contemporary Relatives will be exhibited through Feb. 16 in the museum's prints and drawings gallery.

"Portrait miniatures have an amazing capacity to bring each new viewer into an intimate relationship with the sitter," said Cory Korkow, PhD, Cleveland Museum of Art assistant curator of European art and exhibition organizer. "They were meant to be worn and turned over in the hand while being gazed at, but even fixed on a wall they remind us of how we still keep little images of our loved ones close."

Portrait miniatures are usually small works painted in watercolor on vellum or on slivers of ivory, or executed in enamel, and first emerged at the courts of France and England in the 16th century. The objects were exchanged by friends, lovers and family members as tokens of affection and often commissioned on occasions of departure, marriage or death. They became popular because of the ease with which they could be made, paid for and transported compared to larger easel portraits. The objects might function as relics incorporating human hair, can be set in elaborate boxes or simple frames, and were worn on the body or tucked away in a pocket.

The contemporary works included in the exhibition are by Janine Antoni, Luis González Palma, Tony Oursler, Dario Robleto and Hiroshi Sugimoto. These present-day works are placed in an unprecedented, intimate dialogue with the historic portrait miniatures, revealing new relationships and uncovering hidden secrets. "It's an unorthodox installation," said Korkow "meant to encourage people to look at these objects in a different way, with hundreds of years of artists and sitters capturing the memories, romances, heartbreaks and vanities that engage us all."

Disembodied: Portrait Miniatures and Their Contemporary Relatives is accompanied by an 88-page, double gate-fold book written by Cory Korkow, with artist Dario Robleto. The exhibition catalog presents five Disembodied exhibition themes, anchored by works from contemporary artists Dario Robleto, Janine Antoni, Tony Oursler, Luis González Palma and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Each artist's work is placed in dialogue with a group of related miniatures. Between 1916 and 1926, the museum received around two dozen miniatures from the Wade collection, which formed the seed of the museum's holdings. Edward B. Greene (1878-1957), Jeptha Homer Wade's son-in-law, gave his distinguished European portrait miniatures collection to the museum in the 1940s, establishing it as one of the premier collections in the country.

Eight portraits were recently given in 2010 to the museum by bequest of Muriel Butkin (1915-2008) and the museum's commitment to building this part of the collection has also been evidenced by recent acquisitions by Anna Maria Carew, Joseph Daniel, John Linnell, Isaac Oliver and Henry Bone.

Related Program

Mini-Drama: The Real-Life Heartbreaks and Romances of CMA's Portrait Miniatures

Feb. 14, 7 p.m., Prints and Drawings Galleries

From star-crossed lovers and devoted husbands and wives to confirmed bachelors and merry widows, curator Cory Korkow will reveal the true stories of the people whose intimate portraits appear in the exhibition Disembodied: Portrait Miniatures and Their Contemporary Relatives. Meet in the exhibition.

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