Portrait of a Lady (On the Smallest Canvas You’ve Ever Seen)

While you may already know of Martha Jane Starr as a local philanthropist, advocate for women and families, and significant contributor to the development of UMKC from the 1950s-2000s (for more on that, see this), you may not have known that she and her husband, John W. Starr, were avid collectors of portrait miniatures.

Richard Cosway's "Portrait of a Lady," from the mid-18th- early 19th century. Part of The Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures, and currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Richard Cosway’s “Portrait of a Lady,” from the mid-18th- early 19th century. Part of The Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures, and currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The portrait miniature, developed in the 16th century, gained popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the days before photography, the portrait miniature served a similar function to the snapshot. Lovers carried portrait miniatures of their beloved; fathers sent portrait miniatures of their daughters to potential suitors; and mothers kept portrait miniatures of their children. Portrait miniatures were often affixed to jewelry, such as rings and lockets, or were used to decorate the tops of snuff boxes.

During their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Starr amassed The Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures, a collection of over 250 portrait miniatures, which they donated to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through an initial gift in 1958, and subsequent donation in 1965. The collection represents portrait miniatures from the 16th through through the 19th centuries, and remains on rotating permanent display in gallery P27 at the museum.

Although easy to overlook, the portrait miniatures in the Starr Collection merit closer attention. (As in, you may want to bring your magnifying glass with you.) It’s easy to take the portraits for granted, until you begin to notice the tiny details within each one: a miniature pearl necklace, the ruffles on the front of a gentleman’s shirt, or the folds in a blue satin sash looped over a lady’s shoulder. (And, keep in mind that most of these miniatures are little more than 2”x2”.) Each individual face in the collection has a story and a history of its own. The collection even includes a series of “eye miniatures,” close-up miniature paintings of a beloved’s eye, which were popular tokens of affection in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

VandA

A letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from a Nelson-Atkins curator, written on behalf of Mrs. Starr.

To enrich a historical understanding of the Starrs’ collection of portrait miniatures, LaBudde Special Collections possesses a series of correspondence between the Starrs and the Nelson-Atkins (along with several other museums). The letters document the debut of the collection at the Nelson, as well as the Starrs’ correspondence, with the aid of the Nelson-Atkins’ curators, to organize donations and collections with other museums around the world. Correspondences include letters to and from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Huntington Gallery, and the Saint Louis Art Museum. The letters document not only the relationships that the Starrs built with museums and collectors around the world, but also serve as a testament to their desire to curate a life and legacy together.

letterfromsaintlouis

A letter from a fan of the newly donated collection at the Nelson-Atkins, addressed to Mr. Starr.

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