Since the publication of Arjun Appadurai’s seminal collection The Social Life of Things in 1986, it is fair to say that the field of material culture has been preoccupied with the idea that “commodities, like persons, have social lives” (3). Yet, despite the seemingly obvious supposition that objects both constitute and reflect their owners’ personal histories, it is only recently that the idea of the “emotional object” has been championed in publications and scholarly colloquia. A new crop of books is advancing a view of material culture that focuses on the biographical, the emotive, and the commemorative, texts that acknowledge Appadurai’s “commodity state” but do not see it as the only social process in the “life of things.” The two volumes reviewed here demonstrate the fertility of this area of inquiry, in terms of understanding not merely what objects can tell us about emotions, but what our interactions with emotional things tells us about material culture as both object and academic discipline alike.
Hanneke Grootenboer’s Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures exemplifies the innovative approach to material culture employed by such studies, focusing on a single type of emotional object: the eye portrait miniature. A subset of the wider eighteenth-century vogue for portrait miniatures, the fleeting fashion for such tiny portraits arose in Britain, Europe, and North America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Much like their larger and more inclusive counterparts, full-size and miniature portraits, eye portrait miniatures (depicting just the eye of the sitter, usually in watercolor on ivory) were given or exchanged for a range of emotional motivations, functioning variously as tokens of love or mourning or even, as Grootenboer’s illuminating discussion of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Mrs Maria Fitzherbert highlights, as a kind of wedding ring (45–48). However, Grootenboer’s text is not simply an attempt to rewrite the history of eighteenth-century portraiture so that it includes this rather eccentric episode in its history. Instead, the author convincingly proposes that the eye portrait heralds an understudied moment in the history of vision itself. Grootenboer argues that the eye portrait miniature is more than a passive depiction of its sitter or even his or her eye, noting that “one sees not so much the other person, or one’s requited love, but oneself, as being seen,” that is to say, a portrait of gaze itself (43). According to Grootenboer, as we look at the eye portrait miniature, so too does it look back at us, creating “an exchange of gazes, painted and real,” which the author designates “intimate vision” (4). Following the introduction, which sets out Grootenboer’s understanding of vision in relation to the work of other, well-established art historians such as Alois Riegl, each of the book’s five chapters examines a specific eye portrait miniature to advance a much broader discussion of themes relevant in establishing this history of “intimate vision.”
The first chapter concentrates on introducing the eye portrait both historically and conceptually, with individual sections treating it as gift, as miniature, as letter, and finally as message or reply. Serving somewhat like the obligatory research review in a thesis, this chapter indicates Grootenboer’s command of various scholarly approaches, introducing us to her use of ideas from Susan Stewart (On Longing, 1991), Gaston Bachelard (Poetics of Space, 1958), Marcel Mauss (The Gift, 1954), and disciplines such as Lacanian psychoanalysis. The second chapter centers on the exchange of eye portraits by the Prince of Wales and his then mistress, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, who in 1785 agreed to marry the prince in a clandestine ceremony. Throughout this chapter, Grootenboer locates the eye portrait miniature within the eighteenth-century culture of intense looking—what the author calls “a visual culture obsessed with seeing, being seen, and seeing without being seen” (7), demonstrating that its meaning was directly implicated in its wearing and display.
Chapter 3 focuses on the “Crying Image,” Grootenboer’s term for a subset of eye portraits embellished with crystals in order to create the illusion of tears. Discussing these crying miniatures in relation to the sentimental novel and to mourning jewelry, Grootenboer demonstrates how the emotive potential of the medium works in relation to her theory of intimate vision, key to which is the idea that intimate vision was spatially transformative, permitting an interiority that allowed one to be alone with oneself. The state of mourning captured by the crying eye portrait miniature emphasizes the reflexivity of the genre as a prompt for the beholder’s own reactions and mourning gaze. Grootenboer argues that rather than acting as a portrait record of the deceased, these objects functioned more as a meditation upon, or portrait of, the state of mourning itself, as felt by the miniature’s possessor. Chapter 4 develops this idea of the object’s agency with regard to Lacanian concepts such as the “part-object,” which is discussed in relation to an eye portrait miniature embedded within a hair bracelet given by Auguste Amalia, Duchess von Leuchtenberg, to her daughter in 1823.
As this broad range of scholarly perspectives and methodologies suggests, Grootenboer’s text is by no means straightforward. A deft interweaving of several complex theoretical frameworks was presumably felt necessary, given the paucity of primary and secondary source material on eye portrait miniatures themselves. Despite this methodological baggage, Grootenboer’s argument that eye portrait miniatures should be understood “as veins in the clusters of microhistory, as epistemological obstacles that, if we allow them to take the lead, may direct us to alternative routes of seeing and thinking” is entirely convincing, partly because of the careful attention paid to the objects she discusses (14). In that sense, chapter 5 is exemplary, revealing Grootenboer’s deep understanding of objects and the issues that surround them through close examination of an alleged eye portrait miniature of Lord Byron. Here, the author subverts the concerns of scholarship on “normal” forms of portraiture, such as identification of the sitter and authentication, in order to interpret eye portrait miniatures in relation to portraiture as a whole and beyond. In fact, she goes so far as to ask if such objects are portraits at all, and if they are, what are the consequences of this for both eye portrait miniatures and the genre more broadly?
Ultimately this text serves as an ambitious attempt to rewrite the history of vision, and it has broad implications for the way we understand images and objects as functioning agents among social and more restricted groups. Yet this wider aim of the text sometimes leads the author to neglect how exactly these objects mediated social, familial, and romantic identities. Grootenboer herself admits that “eye miniatures must have served as intensely private objects that were recognisable and meaningful only to the intended recipient,” highlighting the difficulty in interpreting meaning in any such emotive object, which would have held highly personal narratives for its possessor (47). Nevertheless, this book is a compelling model for the treatment of apparently difficult material objects, ones that, perhaps for reasons of fashion or taste, have been neglected by scholars. By examining the eye portrait miniature, Grootenboer is able to raise questions over issues of public and private display, to examine the eighteenth-century cultures of mourning, to trouble the divide between subject and object, to probe theoretical frameworks such as gift giving, and finally, to develop a new theory of “intimate vision.” These various aims do come together to provide an innovative interpretation of an emotional object that, until now, had been all but out of sight.
The nineteen essays in Women and the Material Culture of Death proffer such a formidable range of material and approaches that it would be difficult to embrace its entirety in a review. However, this diversity definitely contributes to the book’s success overall. This collection marks a welcome addition to the already strong Ashgate series examining women and material culture that is edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin (including Material Women, 1750–1950: Consuming Desires and Collecting Practices; Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750–1950; and Women and Things, 1750–1950: Gendered Material Strategies, all 2009). The current volume expands upon the chronological timeframe of the previous texts in the series, with essays addressing the theme of women and the material culture of death in Britain, North America, and Continental Europe from the Renaissance to the present day. The volume showcases diverse approaches to the topic, including essays by scholars from disciplines such as English literature, gender studies, dress history, and art history. Objects ranging from jewelry, paper, needlework, domestic crafts, literature, poetry, grave markers, funeral programs, waxworks, and taxidermy are all examined, with even the human body itself considered as material culture. Achieving cohesion in any such thematic volume is a challenging project, and this is no exception. Yet the diversity of its methodologies and the broad array of objects selected is to the volume’s advantage, allowing the reader to chart stasis and change in women’s relationships with the material culture of death in its many manifestations over time. Furthermore, a number of recurring themes serve to unify its individual chapters, giving the text real import to both material cultural studies and beyond.
The volume is organized into three parts: Mourning Practices, Memorializing, and Bodily Practices. The first part, which examines the material practices of mourning, discusses forms of dress, jewelry, embroidered samplers, and poetry and literature either created or worn by women as part of the mourning process. In so doing, the six chapters in this part highlight the significance of the visual and material language of mourning, a language that both its participants and its onlookers could understand, and from which intimations about class, status, wealth, and identity could be inferred. Part 2, “Memorializing,” advances themes beyond the initial primary reaction to death, focusing instead on longer-term forms of commemoration. The chapters here examine grave sites, funereal monuments, memoirs, and sculpture, demonstrating how women have historically traversed what the editors call the “province of men” in order to produce honorific and commemorative works which seem to collapse the divide between the public and the private spheres. Finally, part 3, “Bodily Practices,” takes a slightly different tack, examining the physical treatment of bodily remains in objects and processes such as taxidermy, autopsy, the production of wax effigies, and the handling of the body. The chapters that compose this third part concern themselves with pre- and post-funeral practices, some of which were performed by those who had no connection at all with the deceased. Consequently, this section goes beyond a consideration of the emotional qualities of material culture—the primary concern of the earlier sections—in an attempt to intuit much broader attitudes toward death and its material remains, be they commercial or institutional. This rigid organization of the chapters, divided by the “type” of mourning, commemoration, or process enacted in relation to death, occasionally suggests that other, more crucial themes may be underplayed. In privileging the taxonomic resonances among the chapters, the editors let important conceptual connections that link the individual case studies to sometimes become elided. While Daly Goggin and Fowkes Tobin’s introductory chapter does well to pull the various essays together, a shorter introduction to each of the three sections would have allowed for these themes to be teased out more clearly in relation to the chapters that follow.
The question of exactly how the material culture of death is gendered is obviously essential to the volume’s aims, and this is explored through the uncompromising focus on “the objects women make, the images they keep, the practices they use or are responsible for, and the places they inhabit or construct through ritual or custom” (1). While this process of gendering is addressed implicitly throughout the volume, several essays take this as the main object of their inquiry because they address objects such as jewelry or embroidery that have historically been feminized, or at least viewed as feminine. Arianne Fennetaux’s chapter on mourning jewelry in Britain, for example, deftly charts the changing visual and material form that mourning jewelry took on over the course of the eighteenth century, positing this development as a decidedly gendered process that expressed not only the increasing sentimentalization of death but its role in the construction of female identities. As such, Fennetaux’s account of material culture is an entirely active one, where gender identities are not formed as a reflection of contemporary behavior surrounding death and its objects but are actually constituted by them.
Another issue that recurs throughout the volume is the relation between text and object. This collection is notable for its innovative treatment of textual sources, which are interrogated for what they say about objects and are also considered as objects in their own right. This blurring of the traditional divide between text and object allows the essays to question the primacy of textual over visual or material sources in historical inquiry, long a primary motivation for exponents of material cultural studies. Elizabeth McKnight’s chapter, “Emotions and Rituals: Responses to Death among the Nobility in Modern France,” is particularly self-reflexive, presenting itself as a “think-piece” on the use of material culture referring to death as preserved in the private archive. The textual objects that McKnight discovered within such repositories, such as lettres de faire part (black-edged cards sent out by widowed spouses or surviving children to alert relatives and friends of a death), are considered for their content and material form, but so are the materialities of archival practice itself. In particular, McKnight emphasizes the attention paid by archivists to preserving the original context of the archive, arguing that this “original order” is central to understanding its contents (53). As such, the archive itself is treated as a material object, whose various transformations, omissions, and sustained damage are as important as the documents that it contains in creating a historical narrative about mourning and its enactments.
Laura Patterson’s essay on Eudora Welty’s “The Wanderers” (1949) and The Optimist’s Daughter (1972) is yet another example of the volume’s lively treatment of textual source material, but here the author focuses on how material culture as written into Welty’s narratives is indicative of the social mores and expectations of the period in which they were produced. The subjects of Patterson’s attention are the wakes presented in each of Welty’s texts, which Patterson identifies as a cultural practice with an entirely emotive, yet strictly delineated, material form, including food, flowers, and even the manipulation of the deceased body by grieving family and relatives. By highlighting how the protagonists of each story are excluded from the preparation of the “ritual materialistic goods of the wake,” Patterson demonstrates how material culture helped both to construct and to buttress the complex social dynamics that dominated southern American society. This relationship between appropriate mourning practices and the establishment of social respectability is explored in a number of the other essays in the volume, including Maura Coughlin’s on women and death in modern Brittany. Here Coughlin examines the duality of memorial practices between women’s actual relationship with objects such as “skull boxes” and the depiction of these same practices in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and visual culture. Describing the ritualized maintenance of grave sites that was practiced by mourning Bretonnes, Coughlin highlights the social expectation that “women maintain the memory of the dead and properly display their piety in public” (200). Here, as in Patterson’s essay, mourning, a state that is traditionally thought of as commemorating personal loss, is presented as a social act that could engender the respect or castigation of others. By focusing on such mourning rites in Breton society, Coughlin is able to flag not only the conspicuously performative nature of material culture, but also the complex dynamic between private memorialization and the public presentation of the same. In outwardly signifying personal loss through public performance, physical and material aspects of mourning culture, such as artworks, clothing, and accessories, allow for the sharing or “consumption” of that loss by relatives, friends, and even complete strangers. This difficult dichotomy between public and private expressions of sentiment is a theme that runs through the collection, and it is usefully flagged in the volume’s introduction, as are all the themes discussed in this review.
Ultimately, the volume is more successful at suggesting many of the issues at stake in the relationship between women and the material culture of death than providing answers to the questions this interaction poses. For example, the issue of why this category of material cultural production should be gendered in this way is never truly addressed, merely tacitly reinforced by the content of its individual chapters. Reservations notwithstanding, the volume is a substantial contribution to the literature on gender and material culture, employing an exciting range of approaches to discuss a chronologically and temporally broad array of objects. As a whole, the essays are of a commendably high standard, and each of the contributions attests to the diverse and important ways that material culture mediates our connections with death. At the same time, the collection demonstrates how this interaction between people and objects shapes our understanding of much broader issues, such as materiality, identity, and history itself. In the end, the high quality of its contributions, its usefully meditative introduction, and the feminist persuasion of the volume more generally, make this text essential reading for those interested in the relation between women and things.
Freya Gowrley is a doctoral candidate and tutor at the University of Edinburgh. Her essay entitled “Taste à-la-mode: Consuming Foreignness, Picturing Gender” is forthcoming in the Ashgate title Enlightened Objects: Essays on Material Culture and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Europe, co-edited by Jennifer Germann and Heidi Strobel.