With their carefully-scaled furniture and exacting details, Mrs. James Ward Thorne's miniature rooms make up one of the most treasured collections at the Art Institute of Chicago. While they range from medieval European church interiors to a 1940s San Francisco penthouse complete with contemporary artworks, none of them include people. Miniaturizing the human figure proved too difficult, and would have disrupted the way viewers find themselves inexorably drawn into the rooms.
But a recent gift to the Department of Prints and Drawings of six shadowboxes created by Mrs. Thorne turns this notion on its head.
These shallow, glazed shadowboxes (or dioramas) are inset into the lids of other boxes. They consist of layered collages of cut-out prints and drawings, many of them hand colored. And unlike the full-blown miniature rooms, all of these include images of people. Mrs. Thorne produced them for charity auctions in the 1930s or 1940s, likely with the help of Eugene Kupjack and other skilled miniature makers connected to her workshop. Two of the most intricate shadowboxes include tiny three-dimensional objects made of other materials (such as a metal chandelier and urns), as well as separately standing paper figures that were glued to the background on small pieces of wood. A number of these components have temporarily come loose in the first box (above), lending a Monty Python-like quality to the scene of bewigged gentlemen bowing at each other. The better-preserved second box (below) shows two couples conversing in front of an elaborate archway.
The men appear in regimental outfits, which are comparatively unchanging, and so, difficult to date, but the women appear in trendy ensembles from the early 1810s that were meant for just such a promenade. Eugene Kupjack's son, Henry, is still in the business of making miniature rooms, and retains some of his father's materials that Mrs. Thorne used. Henry suggested that the sources for the prints could be an early nineteenth-century British periodical called Ackermann's Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (below), which Mrs. Thorne had cut apart with relish for use in her charity projects. Interestingly, the figures in these boxes turn out to be several centimeters shorter than the fashion plates in that magazine. And, on closer inspection, they are not printed at all, but are colored drawings! Did Mrs. Thorne continue to be concerned about using proper scale in these boxes so that the figures did not dwarf the architecture? Or did she simply need male characters for her scenes that the magazine lacked? (In the first six years, only half a dozen images of men's fashion appeared, compared to the requisite two to four female outfits per monthly issue.)
Where then, did these lovely ladies come from? They may still have been inspired by Ackermann's, even to the point of the color and texture of their dresses. Indeed, this publication was a mixed-media artwork in its own right. Including meteorological and political reports as well as stock tips, each issue also presented British-made fabric samples corresponding to the fashion plates so that women could recreate them. In fact, the Art Institute's Ryerson Library holds many issues with the fabric samples still intact.
Perhaps Mrs. Thorne used this lovely promenade outfit from June 1814 (above) as a jumping-off point for the frill on the woman on the left, perhaps even imagining one confected from the recommended striped lace muslin. Perhaps these fabric swatches inspired the use of tiny textiles in Mrs. Thorne's other boxes, including the rugs and microscopic bits of knitting. Indeed, the Repository's other offerings of fancy work papers and embroidery patterns must have been equally appealing to the architect of the Thorne Rooms in all their meticulous, if strikingly un-peopled glory.
2 hours 52 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago “Painting depends on ink, ink depends on brush, brush depends on wrist, and wrist depends on the heart and mind.” —Tao Chi
The Inspired Chinese Brush is an installation of traditional Chinese ink paintings showcasing the rich variety of textural effects that could be achieved through careful control of the combination of ink and brushes used in their creation. Tang Yin’s painting Drinking at Night portrays the prominent 11th–century Chinese poet, calligrapher, and governmental official Su Shi drinking alone in a pavilion on a moonlit night. The work gets its name from Su Shi’s poem “Drinking on an Evening in Spring,” which is quoted on the scroll following the painting.
See this painting and the rest of the exhibition on view now in Gallery 134.
19 hours 12 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago The Museum Shop’s new fall collection has arrived online! Spend $75 or more by August 31 and receive free standard shipping on your order. Enter promo code FALL75 at checkout.
22 hours 43 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago Yesomi Umolu, exhibitions curator at Logan Center Exhibitions, will be taking over our Instagram feed tomorrow.
Follow along to learn more about Yesomi’s work and see art from our collection that inspires her.