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.


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.


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

When Are We Ready For Going Steady?

howdoyouknowitsloveHappy Valentine’s Day, folks! Do you know it’s love?

These late-1950s leaflets, many of which were produced by the Christian Education Service, can help you answer your  puzzling  love questions. Titles of pamphlets include “Going Steady: Pros and Cons,” “SEX In Your Life,”  “How Do I Know It’s Love?”  and “Now You are Engaged.”

The pamphlets were originally written to address teenagers’  questions about premarital sex, relationships, and marriage. What is most interesting about them is their  tone of relative openness, especially  considering the time period in which they were written.  While the leaflets  undeniably discourage premarital sex, the tone of the writing is not  damning or bombastic. Lines such as “There is no reason to have had these guilts if we properly understand that this discovery of sex and self is part of growing up” and “now is the time we should know the facts of life  very clearly and begin to call a spade a spade” show that the writers , and the Christian Education Service itself, maintained the stance that sex should be talked about instead of ignored.

The ten leaflets (part of the Martha Jane Starr Collection, available at LaBudde Special Collections) serve as a testimonial to Mrs. Starr’s advocacy for women and families, and her attitude of open communication about issues such as sex and family planning. Mrs. Starr, who gifted her collection to LSC in 2010, dedicated her life to serving women and families in the Kansas City community.

Born on November 27, 1906, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, she was the daughter of L.E. Phillips, a co-founder of Phillips Petroleum. She moved to Kansas City soon after marrying John Wilbur “Twink” Starr in 1929. Mr. and Mrs. Starr worked as active community leaders in Kansas City. Mrs. Starr was the first woman to be elected to the UMKC Board of Trustees, after the University of Kansas City merged with the UM system in 1963. She was also on the board of the Kansas City Planned Parenthood chapter, and even served as the local organization’s president.

In addition to her many other philanthropic contributions, she founded the UMKC Women’s Council, was the first woman to be honored with the Chancellor’s Medal, and, in 1971, spearheaded the creation of the UMKC Graduate Assistance Fund , which continues to assist women graduate students at UMKC. Mrs. Starr passed away on November 14, 2011, just weeks before her 105th birthday.

Thanks to artifacts such as these historical leaflets, which represent a small fraction of her collection,  her message of open dialogue on issues affecting women and families continues to resonate with us today.