Grootenboer, an art historian specializing in portraiture and the art-historical gaze, has made it something of mission to fill in these blanks. Some answers, she knew, resided in late 18th-century British culture. It was a time before photography, when “people were desperate to give each other not just images of themselves, but part of themselves,” she told Artsy. Before the advent of lover’s eyes, miniature portraits depicting a loved one’s entire visage had also become popular. (Often, they came with a lock or braid of hair affixed behind the tiny canvas.) Their purpose was adoration. By looking upon the little likeness, which was typically small enough to cradle in one’s hand, the recipient could “evoke someone’s face,” Grootenboer said. The paintings acted as tiny proxies to be kissed, pressed to bosoms, and talked to when the subject was out of reach.
But lover’s eyes were different. Instead of standing in for the whole person, they depicted just a minute feature. What’s more, they embodied a specific action: the gaze. “It is the look of someone that the [lover’s eye] is a carrier of,” Grootenboer explained. “It is the look that someone wants to imagine, and wants to feel as resting upon themselves.”
The act of looking, and its importance in late 18th-century British society, is central to deciphering the mysteries of eye miniatures. At the time, British culture “was infatuated with with seeing and being seen,” Grootenboer explained. Because social codes limited public interaction between people of the opposite sex, looks could more easily be exchanged than words. (These limitations also triggered the more illicit phenomena of peeping or keyhole-spying.)