One Fine Show: ‘Eternal Love and Loss’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

This exhibition of striking miniatures offers a portal into the contemporary romance of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

A collage of rings and brooches featuring paintings of eyes
Eye miniatures from the Nelson-Atkins’ collection. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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Growing up you may have heard, as I did, that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a fit of passion. The real story is much stranger. He most likely cut it off as part of his falling out with Paul Gauguin—touched upon in last year’s ridiculously good “Cypresses” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art— and then gave the ear to a woman sweeping up a nearby brothel. Even in Van Gogh’s time, it turns out that ears were just not the kind of thing you give a lover.

Hair and eyes are another matter. A fascinating new show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, “Eternal Love and Loss: Hairwork and Eye Miniatures in the Nelson-Atkins Collection,” examines the vogue in European society, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, for giving your lover a small portrait of yourself, or just your eyeball, sometimes with a side of real hair. And you thought Eurovision was bad.

Only joking—we love Eurovision, and these lockets are not just a portal into the contemporary romance of the time but also art objects worthy of modern-day appreciation. George Engleheart’s Portrait of Miss Bashingfeld (ca. 1785) captures her coiffure with a level of elaboration that probably brought much joy to the person who glanced at it with a stiff upper lip. Andrew Plimer’s Portrait of a Woman (1787) smiles with a knowing look.

SEE ALSO: Lee Cavaliere Explains How VOLTA Is Breaking the Art Fair Mold

The men outnumber the women in this show, and Thomas H. Hull’s Portrait of an Officer in the 14th Light Dragoons (1798-1799) offers the greatest look into a male sitter’s psychology, but only because his uniform is so outre. Similarly, Gervase Spencer’s Portrait of a Woman (1747) must be mentioned because it is attached to an entire bracelet woven from human hair.

All of these artists were widely known due to their work in this remarkable medium. When it comes to the eyes, the work is unattributed, which is a shame because it tends to be even stronger. These eyes are fearful, coy, knowing and awestruck. One is not looking at the viewer at all, a curious decision that still works. This whole trend apparently started when the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, gave his recently widowed mistress Maria Fitzherbert a portrait of his eye in 1785. I would like to believe this consoled her.

The eye fad petered out after fifty years, which makes this excellent collection all the more impressive. The Nelson-Atkins has nearly 300 portrait miniatures from all the major schools of British, European and American art, the bulk of which came as a gift from Martha Jane and John W. Starr of Kansas City in 1958 and 1965. Non-coastal museums have a wealth of such unique material, and I wish they would all do more shows like this.

Eternal Love and Loss: Hairwork and Eye Miniatures in the Nelson-Atkins Collection” is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through April 6, 2025.

One Fine Show: ‘Eternal Love and Loss’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art