Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thesis: Portrait Miniatures of Edward Greene Malbone

Eliza Izard, Edward Greene Malbone, 1801

Tomorrow morning I'm going back to Charleston. I've had an appointment set for months with the Gibbes Museum of Art and can't believe that the day is finally here! I'm thrilled about the fact that I'm going to have the opportunity to hold in my hand and to view, in person, the pieces I've been studying for so long. Edward Greene Malbone painted these precious little watercolor portraits on ivory.  They were commissioned before the days of photography and provided those who possessed them the opportunity to gaze upon the face of their loved ones when they were apart or after the sitter had passed away. My thesis focuses on the portraits Malbone painted in Charleston.

Malbone was known (and still is) as one of the best artists in this genre. He was quite prolific in his output, especially when you consider that his career only lasted about twelve years due to the fact that he died at 29 years of age. He passed away right here in Savannah, in the home of his cousin, Robert Mackay.  Below is a picture of me at his grave in Colonial Park Cemetery (taken last November).

The irony for me is that I didn't remember something special until I had already picked my topic and started my research.  When I found out that his cousin was Robert Mackay, I remembered that name from a quartet of books that I read about 15 years ago.  It was the Savannah quartet by Eugenia Price. Price chose actual people for characters in her historical fiction novels and after reading all four books, I felt like I knew these people. So to find out that I had chosen an artist that had ties to a family that was featured in the books and who lived here in Savannah supplied one more piece of proof that this topic was meant for me. I loved those books and will read them again after I've finished writing my thesis.

I've only been here for a little over a week, but I have looked at the pictures of those who are special to me countless times.  It helps me to feel close to these people. Can you imagine how it would have felt to be separated from your loved ones without pictures, cell phones, the internet and all of the images we collect on our computers? These portrait miniatures served the very intimate purpose of keeping loved ones alive in the hearts of those who held them. They also provided evidence of wealth and an elite status, among other things, but for the purpose of this non-scholarly blog post, I'm going to stick to themes of love and affection.

The portrait of Eliza Izard (above) was painted in Charleston, South Carolina in 1801. At that time, she was around seventeen years old and still living at home with her parents. Eventually, in 1803, she would marry Col. Thomas Pinckney, Jr., who also had his portrait painted by Malbone. This is one of my favorites and the one I most look forward to seeing tomorrow. Malbone was known for capturing the beauty and even an emotional quality of his sitters, and this one is a great example of both. I'll share more of the stories behind the portraits later, but for now, I need to get some beauty rest! I'll be up EARLY tomorrow. I really can't wait. It feels a little like Christmas!

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