Small Wonders

Cory Korkow Paintings Research Fellow

 

The small but formidable collection of portrait miniatures left to the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of the estate of Muriel Butkin came as a wonderful surprise. No one knew that Muriel or her husband, Noah, had collected miniatures. Discovery of their significance unfolded over the course of months of assembling, researching, and consulting. Bringing the objects together for evaluation was itself a challenge. Several were locked in a case for which the key was missing, and the last was found in an old shoebox. As is often true of nascent collections, the quality was uneven, and the collection had been preserved in a state of arrested development for three decades. When the dust settled, eight miniatures from a group of around two dozen were determined to be of outstanding quality, and they entered the museum’s collection late in 2008. 

 

Three Portraits

Portrait of a Woman in a Brown Dress 1795. François Dumont (French, 1751–1831). 2008.294

Portrait of a Lady in a White Dress Seated in a Landscape 1803. Pierre Louis Bouvier (Swiss, 1765–1836). 2008.285  

Portrait of a Young Woman in White c. 1805. Jean-Urbain Guérin (French, 1761–1836). 2008.293a

 

Many of the Butkins’ miniatures had not been correctly identified by artist or sitter when they arrived at the museum. While Muriel and Noah were astute collectors who shrewdly understood aesthetic and financial value in the artworks they purchased (as their renowned collections of French drawings and Dutch paintings can attest), it seems clear that when it came to collecting miniatures, the Butkins were guided primarily by an attraction to individual portraits. All but one of the eight miniatures retained by the museum were purchased from the Norton Galleries in New York in February 1975. Six miniatures formerly in the collection of Feodora Reinhardt were sent by Norton to Cleveland on approval early in the month and paid for days later. Noah was fond of indulging Muriel’s love of art and jewelry in the form of gifts, and it is possible that these miniatures were a Valentine’s Day present. Three of these works (by Rosalba Carriera, François Dumont, and Pierre Louis Bouvier) were formerly part of the famous early 20th-century Parisian collection of Edouard Warneck. Despite the fine quality and illustrious provenance of what could have been the germ of a budding collection, the Butkins stopped purchasing miniatures almost as quickly as they had begun. But they had already acquired some treasures.

The majority of the Butkins’ finest miniatures were French, including a wonderful portrait of Antoine Roy painted in 1820 by Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin at the height of his career. This portrait joined four other fine miniatures by Augustin already in the CMA collection, but eclipses them as an example of the artist’s later classical style and in its virtuoso blending of hues to create vivid flesh tones. Another remarkable discovery was François Dumont’s stunning portrait of an unknown woman wearing a turban and brown dress, painted during the fraught artistic climate of the French Revolution. The miniature was included in the catalogue raisonné of the artist by Dr. Bodo Hofstetter, but had been missing for many decades. In remarkably fine condition, this miniature is an important addition to the museum’s strong collection of works by this artist, and with its quiet austerity provides a fascinating counterpoint to Dumont’s pre-revolutionary miniature portraits of women portrayed in the opulent trappings of aristocratic ancien régime society.

 

Two Portraits

Portrait of Antoine Roy 1820. Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin (French, 1759–1832). 2008.295

Portrait of a Woman c. 1820. Anna Claypoole Peale (American, 1791–1878). 2008.229

 

The museum’s collection of French miniatures was further enhanced by Muriel Butkin’s gift of two boxes, significant primarily for their miniatures by Pierre Louis Bouvier and Jean-Urbain Guérin. The sensitive portrait of an unknown woman by Guérin adds depth to the museum’s collection of works by that artist, who previously was represented by two miniature portraits of men, one on ivory and one on card. The Swiss artist Bouvier is new to Cleveland’s collection. Though the diaphanous drapery is among the great attractions of this miniature, it is the refined treatment of the lush forest landscape that makes it so distinctive, since the nature of miniatures as an art form usually called for lavishing more attention on the sitter than the background.

My personal favorite of the group, however, is an exquisite portrait of Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna as a child. As was often the case with miniatures, this portrait was based on an original full-scale oil painting. In the 1790s the artist Dimitry Livitsky had painted the four eldest daughters of Tsar Paul I as part of a series now in the Pavlovsk Palace in Russia. This miniature portrait of Catherine was painted more than 60 years later by the Russian court painter Alois Gustav Rokstuhl. The staggering volume of commissions and reproductions required of this artist stifled his imagination, so his works often appear rote and overworked, but the beautiful delicacy of this miniature is a reminder of the artist’s capacity for subtlety. Among the types of miniatures that have not been well represented in the CMA’s fine collection of miniatures are portraits of children.The gift of this portrait of the grand duchess (who rejected the hand of Napoleon and eventually became Queen of Württemberg) as a little girl is an important contribution, reinvigorating the museum’s commitment to seek out miniatures in this area.

 

Two Portraits

Portrait of Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, later Queen of Württemberg c. 1860. Alois Gustav Rokstuhl (Russian, 1798–1877). 2008.296

Portrait of a Woman with a Dog c. 1710. Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1675–1757). 2008.291

 

The museum was also delighted to discover among the Butkin miniatures works by Rosalba Carriera and Anna Claypoole Peale, which help to enhance our small but growing collection of important female miniature painters. The charming portrait by Anna Claypoole Peale, an artist of the Peale family dynasty that included the more famous Charles Willson, Rembrandt, and James Peale, is regarded as among the finest of her female portraits. Rosalba Carriera’s portrait of a woman with a little dog is typical of her early work, which is colorful, highly detailed, and playful in spirit. As the first artist to paint miniature portraits on ivory rather than vellum, Carriera’s work is highly desirable, particularly when as finely preserved as this miniature, where the colors and even the (often fugitive) flesh tones remain bright.

Six of the eight portrait miniatures from the Butkin bequest are on display in the miniatures cabinet in gallery 202 from January 17 until mid-July. Please stop by, open the cabinet, and take a closer look. 

 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2011