A miniature world is deemed easily controlled by its God-like creator. This assumption naturally applies to all forms of art where reality can be transcended and, often, compensated. It enables us to imagine doing things we cannot actually do by inventing worlds where these actions can take place. For example, when Artemisia Gentileschi paints Judith savagely murdering Holofernes [two versions of the painting can be seen at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and at the Uffizi in Florence], she takes her revenge on Agostino Tass who had brutally raped her, then falsely denounced her and caused her to be imprisoned and tortured. Those who knew them were not fooled by the artistic aliases of Judith and Holofernes.
Art allows the artist to take control–––and even more so when its scale is one inch to the foot and it can be held in the palm of one’s hand. This last year has confirmed how little control we actually have over our condition, so it is a relief to turn to the empowering world of tiny people moving about tiny rooms over which we can loom, full-scale. Four women (among a very large assembly of gifted miniaturists and collectors) are remarkable through their engagement to illustrate the everyday life and social responsibilities of a seventeenth-century Dutch wife of the prosperous merchant class (Petronella Oortman, 1656-1716), the technical perfection and historical accuracy that great wealth and devotion permit (Mrs James Ward Thorne, 1882-1966), the detailed reconstitution of crime scenes as teaching tools (Frances Glessner Lee, 1878-1962), and the empathetic depiction through dioramas of everyday harsh living conditions all over the world (Karine Giboulo, b.1980). Their creations can be seen (in the same order) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and various art galleries in Canada and the United States.
What is, at first glance, child’s play is actually to be taken far more seriously. Originally, miniatures were never intended for children, particularly in an age where childhood as we conceive it today did not exist and children were merely seen as small adults. It is only within the last century or so that doll houses for girls and toy soldiers for boys became common toys to train them for their presumed future occupations or merely develop maternal or martial traits suitable for their genders. There were other, more practical reasons for miniaturizing objects. The nomadic nature of human groups or the difficulty of transporting bigger artifacts, for instance, dictated the small scale of this form of craftsmanship. Such were the Egyptians’ clay representations of objects placed in tombs to accompany and sustain the dead on their journey, the early Inuit models carved out of bone, or the European and American travelling salesmen’s samples of wares or furniture.
Whole miniature households and their accoutrements are, naturally, another matter, one that can only be considered in the context of social stability, sophisticated artistry, and public presentation. Renowned manufacturers of furniture and household utensils often reproduced for aristocratic families the miniaturized perfection of their residences, as did miniaturists entirely devoted to their art. They used the same care and the same materials (sterling silver, precious woods, embroidered silks, Limoges porcelain, crystal and ivory) as for their life-size counterparts. The small objects and compositions were intended to cause their viewers to marvel and wonder how such precision and delicacy could be achieved.
Many ladies were well known for their marvellous doll houses intended to record daily life in their own time and place. These houses and rooms (whether contemporary or later reconstituted) went beyond being objects of artistic admiration: they also reflected the household’s standing and wealth and provide us today with accurate illustrations of the artifacts and realities of daily life, of particular interest to historians, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists.
It should also be noted that, while the women’s inspiration and tenacity were at the source of the miniatures’ creation, it was the fortunes of husbands or fathers that usually helped realize them, as women of their class were not meant to earn a living. The male relatives were not always complicit in the women’s endeavours (Glessner Lee used her inheritance from her father) but those who were must have found some social benefit in the recognition of their wives’ outstanding creations: at the very least, they confirmed the men’s wealth, a tremendous social and business advantage. Finally, without the extraordinary and dedicated craftsmen employed by these women, few if any of these masterpieces could have been achieved.
Petronella Oortman’s Doll House
Petronella Oortman’s French-made cabinet of tortoiseshell with pewter inlay housed the most detailed illustration of a wealthy Dutch merchant’s life in the late 1680s. It was then the fashionable thing for women of her class to have the best artists and craftsmen produce replica of their living accommodations. No money was spared (in fact, their cost was often in line with the value of real houses) and the little houses drew as much attention at social gatherings as the gentlemen’s “cabinets of curiosities.”
The Oortman’s nine-room house reveals the most intimate details of life, notably the nursery and lying-in room where the new mother could entertain her friends; the size of the laundry and linen room, of significance since household linen was normally sent out for washing only once or twice a year, thus demonstrating the amount of linens required and stored; the beautifully appointed kitchen ornate with Delftware, while others might in fact have two kitchens: one for display, the other where the dirty work was actually done. While strictly Petronella Oortman’s creation to represent and idealize her life, the house is also both a work of art and a social historical document.
Her remarkable cabinet house is not the only one of its kind, and I could have chosen Sara Ploos van Amstel’s (now at the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem), as both are exemplars of excellence and rated among the most magnificent of their time.
The Thorne Rooms
Sixty-eight lighted boxes constitute the favourite exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Designed and financed by wealthy socialite Mrs. James Ward Thorne (née Narcissa Niblack) and usually inspired by actual settings, they are historical highlights of fashions in architecture and interior design covering the extended period between 1600 and 1940. She used elements of her vast collection of miniatures gathered world-wide, her own creations, and the expertise of the English firm of cabinet makers and antique dealers, Arthur Punt. None of her rooms are occupied, as the presence of doll/people might have had a jarring effect against the perfection of the static rooms.
As with the two seventeenth-century Dutch ladies, I hesitated between the American Mrs. Thorne and the British Mrs. Carlisle––to some extent, it was a choice between Thorne’s cold eye and Carlisle’s warm heart. Both were avid collectors of miniatures, both employed the finest craftsmen of their time, both banned distracting dolls from their scenes. Mrs. Thorne won the toss up, even if Mrs. Carlisle’s magnificent petit point should have given her the edge. Her rooms, now managed under the National Trust, can be seen at Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire.
The Nutshell Studies
Upon inheriting her father’s fortune, Frances Glessner Lee could devote her time and attention to recreating exactingly correct reconstitution of real crime scenes––through her own handicraft and skills, her vast collection of miniaturized objects, and the help of her carpenter, Alton Mosher.
Her fascination with crime caused her to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936, while being appointed captain in the New Hampshire police department. She also improved the training of medical examiners from their previous status of coroners, positions often filled by former undertakers. Finally, she developed week-long training seminars in the 1950s where detectives were to observe real crime scenes in her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” with every accurate detail being deemed a potential clue. From their observation, they would conclude whether the crime scene was that of a suicide, accident, or murder. Today’s precise protocol of photography of crime scenes has replaced her little museums of horror but the focus on details has contributed to opening the investigators’ minds and still constitute a major element in their panoply of crime-solving tools.
The Giboulo Dioramas
Through her “Small Strange World[s]” exhibitions, Quebecoise Karine Giboulo currently creates clay models of dioramas featuring the various constraints of everyday life among workers across the world. There, she illustrates the themes that concern her: poverty and hunger, environmentalism, urbanization, globalization, the pursuit of wealth and power, the obsession with consumer goods, the dreariness of work on assembly lines, etc. Ordinary people, ones she actually met on her extensive travels, are shown participating in the drudgery of their working lives. Her work is not propaganda but an honest attempt at revealing other aspects of the human condition than the ones we hold familiar. Her sympathy for her subjects transcends her work: those are not interchangeable figurines put in different settings as each seems to reflect a particular identity, a personage that might have in fact existed and whose reality and nearness are as close as we permit them to be.
Boys and men are not indifferent to miniatures. They build balsa wood planes, wonderful replica of ships with breathtakingly delicate riggings, miniature battlefields where to replay the same historically accurate battles; they once decorated little lead soldiers with impeccably detailed uniforms; they still collect trains whistling their way through imaginative countrysides; and many are involved in manufacturing artifacts to furnish women’s miniature houses. But I think there is a remarkable difference in the way both sexes approach their creation of miniatures. The men tend to emphasize technique and accuracy, rather than imagination and dream. Women, certainly no strangers themselves to technique and accuracy, impart their creations with more heart and imagination. While men wish to control the materials, women hope to control the environment. Often deprived of real power, they use miniatures to infuse order into their scenes and control the histories they narrate.
Naturally, it is not as clear cut as I seem to imply. The men’s hills and vales and tiny stations of their miniature trains’ journeys are “feminine” in that sense. The women’s reliance on scale and historical accuracy in the construction and appointments of the rooms are similarly “masculine.” But I think the possession or lack of power and control in the real world is reflected in the handling of the controllable universe of small things.
Seeing the world in miniature and recreating it tests human creativity: we tinker, transform, and create metaphors in the process. It forces us to see opportunities, alternatives, and be alert to possibilities where none had previously been self-evident. It also confounds categories and causes us to transgress the rigorous perception of our environment. Glessner Lee used pussy willow catkins for the bodies of mice. I used the thumb of an orphan grey leather glove to make that Victorian abomination, the elephant-foot cane and umbrella stand.
A prosecutor, who dealt with murder, rape, and child abuse on a daily basis, justified her interest in miniatures by saying, “I create perfect worlds.” These worlds need not always be perfect, but they may compensate for the deficiencies of everyday life. The elegant Regency library where tea is served only awaits the refined and erudite guests who might (otherwise) grace my life–– but creating the setting for their improbable visit is enough to satisfy me. The stress of their actual visit might not. As well, my real kitchen is ineffably uninteresting –––a small galley-type room, with a large window looking onto the building across and the usual modern appliances not built to last. Our building does not allow dogs so there are no pets in my real kitchen.
My miniature kitchen, on the other hand, is the kingdom of excess. Shelves are almost sagging under the weight of platters, canisters, heavy pots, milk jugs, copper kettles, and even a small butter churn above the stove. Pies and cakes are served, beside teacups waiting to be filled. Kittens are, as usual, playing with the wool of the knitting basket beside the rocking chair on which someone was recently grinding coffee beans. The door must have been accidentally left opened and unsolicited visitors have invaded the room, for there is a rooster perched on the table beside a green cabbage and a large red pepper, and a frisky little goat that must have followed the dog in…
Naturally, the real me could not live or work in such a kitchen, but in the concocted world in which such kitchens could exist, my own narrow personality might have undergone a similar transformation and be at peace with lively chaos and open-hearted disorder in the kingdom of make-believe–––for what we reveal is not merely a room but a personality and a way of life. Having made the rounds of who we are, perhaps we all aspire sometimes to becoming our very opposites, particularly in a world of apparently little consequence. Every woman who has seen it has smiled and said she wished she could have such a kitchen, yet aware that such chaos would drive her to distraction or despair.
The fashion for creating works of major architectural and stylistic scope is no longer sustainable and only seems to exist today in museums and, at an infinitely more modest level of excellence, in individual backrooms. These are the miniature rooms and houses with which we are most familiar. They are often animated by dolls performing ordinary tasks and most exude an air of obsolescence underlined by their Victorian attire and trappings.
Although they still have their aficionados––perhaps the last generation to be absorbed in their static fiction––they are on the way to being overtaken by the far more exciting and participatory worlds of computerized make-believe. These new worlds, more complex and dynamic than the miniature worlds of little houses, are created with different and more abstract tools than those used in the past. Single creators can bring them to life, unassisted–––and then cross the line and enter these worlds themselves as avatars with imaginary powers and facing an uncertain fate. While the avatars may lead far more exciting lives than the poor antiquated dolls only shown pouring tea, listening to music, or baking bread (when they were allowed at all on the scene), the dangers they face as the game develops and their unknown prospects take us to an entirely different dimension – where scale and verisimilitude are no longer constraints. Perhaps we crave the more escapist worlds technology now permits us to enter. One thing is certain, though: their only resemblance with the doll houses and rooms of old is that neither are really intended as children’s playthings.
Sources:The Art Institute of Chicago. Miniature Rooms. The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (1983), Corinne May Boetz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (2004), Faith Eaton, Classic Dolls’ Houses (1990), Karine Giboulo’s Small Strange World(s) and Arnait (2018).
PetronellaOortman’s Doll House
The Thorne Rooms
The Nutshell Studies
The Giboulo Dioramas
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.