The first eye miniatures were said to have been painted by the celebrated miniaturist Richard Cosway who, in 1786, was commissioned by the Prince of Wales (later George IV) to paint the eye of his morganatic wife, Mrs Fitzherbert. However his claim to being the first is now disputed.
The book, Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum, gives us this history of the Eye miniature:
Not only was the eye traditionally regarded as the “window of the soul” but in a more romantic vein, love was said to enter through the eyes, which first caressed and then possessed the object of desire.
While many eye miniatures were undoubtedly intended as love tokens others … were meant as memorials, as indicated by a black enamel border and a commemorative inscription to the back of the piece.
Engleheart’s book records several such commissions including a 1783 painting of “Mrs Quarrington, her eye” which would refute the claim that Cosway’s of Mrs Fitzherbert was the first of the genre.
George IV was buried wearing Mrs. Fitzherbert’s eye miniature-a fact verified by the Duke of Wellington who took a peek.
I’m particularly enamored of the fob pictured here that has (I think) five eye miniatures attached. Who shall we imagine wore this? A doting father? A much-widowed aristocrat? A gentleman with an active love life? What a story this would make.
For a quick look, here’s a YouTube video from The Georgia Museum of Modern Art and the University of Georgia for the exhibition “The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection,” organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art.