Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

11/20/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/20/2020 09:34

Looking Close and Finding Love

The dark blue-gray eye floats on the creamy white paper. It stares back, unblinking and life-sized. A reflected window arches over the iris, suggesting the human attached to this eye was indoors. Short, stubby eyelashes frame this reflected window and also this metaphorical window into the sitter's soul. Washes of pale peach surround the eye, giving way to deeper purples and mauves at the inner corner.

The disembodied eye is perplexing. The eye is painted so precisely and realistically that it is maddening there is not a firm identity attached to it. Above and slightly to the right, a mass of intertwined blood-red lines also rejects an easy interpretation. At first glance, the bold lines with their arching pattern, small tendrils, and little leaf shapes resemble the arteries in an eyeball. Closer examination, however, reveals the red lines are actually a monogram: C B.

Charles De Wolf Brownell, Eye, ca. 1870, 3 5/8 x 4 1/8 in. (9.2 x 10.5 cm), watercolor and graphite on paper, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2007.37.

These two letters and the drawing's history of ownership suggest the artist was Charles DeWolf Brownell (American, 1822-1909). Brownell is better known for his landscapes of Cuba where his mother's family, the DeWolfs, owned extensive sugar plantations. The DeWolfs were the largest slave-trading family in the present-day United States, and this wealth enabled Brownell to pursue a career as an artist. Brownell first traveled to Cuba in 1853 but also painted in the present-day United States. During the 1860s decade, Brownell moved to New York City, started exhibiting paintings, met his future wife Henrietta Pierce, and then moved to Bristol, Rhode Island. This drawing came from a sketchbook the artist kept in the 1860s. After the move to Bristol, Brownell traveled constantly in the Caribbean and South America. He painted throughout his travels but exhibited few paintings.

Charles De Wolf Brownell, The Hills of Palenque-From the Southern Foot of the Pan of Matanzas, 1871, 12 1/4 x 16 1/8 in. (31.1 x 41 cm), brown ink on paper, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2007.36.

An Eye for Love

This odd fragment of a human eye with its blood vessel monogram may have been a token of affection between Brownell and Pierce. It might be Brownell's portrait of his own eye or it might be his painting of Pierce's eye. The miniature drawing relates the heart with the eye through the blood-vessel monogram and is the product of intimate artistic creation. Though bizarre today, gifts of miniature eye paintings were common between lovers. The same qualities of anonymity and specificity that frustrate today's researcher appealed to lovers in the past. Such paintings were a way of establishing mutual bonds or sharing something precious and intimate, without revealing the identities of the lovers or publicly signaling the relationship.

But then, whose eye is this? Charles or Henrietta? It's in the eye of the beholder. . . .

Further Reading:

  • Graham Boettcher, The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection (Giles, 2012).
  • Tom DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave- Trading Dynasty in U.S. History (Beacon Press, 2009).

Written by Joseph Litts, Havner curatorial intern, summer 2020