Brooches 13.07.2012

“Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses!”

Watercolor on ivory set in rose gold brooch, circa 1800-1810.

Anyone who has been collecting mourning jewelry for some time knows that there are definite similarities between jewels of mourning and sentimental or amatory jewels. The in-depth analyses Hayden posts on specific pieces from his collection, mine, and from other Mourners, teaches us some ways to distinguish between the two. Obviously, an engraving with a person’s name, date of death, and age lets us know right away that we have a mourning piece. This is also true for something that has the ubiquitous “In Memory Of” motto. Black enamel is usually a very good indicator that a piece is a mourning one, in the absence of other signs. And of course, we must learn to read the symbolism- this holds especially true for those neoclassical sepia and watercolor miniatures of which I’m so fond.

I have in my collection two wonderful watercolor miniatures on ivory- a locket and a brooch, both English, dating to around 1795 and 1800-1810 respectively, both containing hair on the reverse. Each was purchased from a reputable antique dealer, both were sold to me as mourning miniatures, and I saw no reason to question that. Well, they’re not mourning miniatures, and while they can certainly be called love tokens, I think it’s in a sense rather different than most of us would expect. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let me start by saying that Hayden did analyze the brooch, which is pictured here, and he immediately made the case to me that it was not a mourning miniature, but rather a love token, and possibly a token of a marriage with the allusion to a pregnancy.

Looking at the imagery, we see a woman seated next to a table on which she leans heavily, looking down at a bird she holds in her lap. The bird’s cage is on the table behind her . Standing to her right is a man, tenderly observing her and writing on a scroll. While both figures are barefoot, the woman is dressed in an empire-waist gown- a fashion contemporary to the construction of the brooch. The man on the other hand, is classically attired, in a short toga-like outfit. The back of the brooch has a large glazed hair compartment with alternating colors of light and reddish-brown braids.

Two colors of braided hair under glass

Given the imagery of the couple, the bird in the lap, and the two colors of hair side by side it would make perfect sense that this relates to two lovers united, and possibly conscious of a new life, or soul symbolized by the bird, about to join them.

Let’s take a look at the pendant now, before I get to the analysis. Here we have a woman kneeling on the floor next to a chaise, her eyes similarly downcast as the woman’s in the brooch, and pointing to something with her left hand, something that appears to be on the end of the chaise. Watching her are two men, the one on the right also gestures to the spot where the woman is pointing, and he appears to be conversing with the other man about the scene. Again we have the woman in contemporary neoclassical dress while the men are both robed in classical attire. Look at the faces and the hairstyles in both the locket and the brooch. The faces of the woman and the men are are almost identically rendered in both paintings, and the hairstyles are the same in both style and color. The clothing the women wear is almost the same- in style and in the color of the white gown with the blue sash, and the man’s reddish toga is only different from the brooch to the pendant by the addition of a blue draped cloth covering. The color scheme overall is very much the same for both pieces- the furniture is a reddish brown color, while the columns are a bone color, with subtle shading. The composition is markedly similar between the two. Could these two pieces be by the same hand? Indeed it’s possible, though I have not opened either piece to look for signatures.

Watercolor on ivory in gold locket case

So then- what is going on here? While there are similarities to both pieces, the locket has an additional figure present. Who is he? What is the relationship being depicted between these figures? What is the bird symbolic of here, if not the soul, or a new life which it often does represent? Well, I cannot take any credit for the explanation which follows. A gentleman by the name of Dr. Kyle Karnes, who is himself a collector of portrait miniatures, and from whom I purchased a double portrait miniature a number of years ago, saw these two pieces on the old AOM site and asked my permission to use the images in a book (which I don’t believe has been published as of this time). What he told me I have here are two scenes from a series of poems by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus on the subject of Lesbia and her sparrow. The poems consist of several numbered “songs” (carmina), and the brooch I’m told, depicts Song (Carmina) II, while the locket portrays Carmina III. The poem refers to Catullus himself and his mistress, a married woman he called Lesbia (although such a name might today lead us to speculate on the lady’s sexual inclinations, it was in fact a common Roman name). In the poem, in which Catullus speaks directly to the listener, he laments that his beloved Lesbia was always playing with her pet sparrow, and that left little time for him. The Latin word for sparrow is “passer”, which was also a word used to denote the phallus. Can we all see where this is leading? As an aside, some of Catullus’ poems were so sexually explicit, that they weren’t fully translated into English until the late 20th century. Here is one English translation from the Latin of Carmina II:

Sparrow, favorite of my girl,
with whom she is accustomed to play, whom she is accustomed to hold in her lap,
for whom, seeking greedily, she is accustomed to give her index finger
and to provoke sharp bites.
When it is pleasing for my shining desire
to make some kind of joke
and a relief of her grief.
I believe, so that her heavy passion may become quiet.
If only I were able to play with you yourself, and
to lighten the sad cares of your mind.

Many scholars agree that the Lesbia series, as well as many of Catullus’ other works referred to his lover Clodia Metelli (b. c. 95 BC), wife of Metellus Celer, who of noble birth was known for her beauty, her talent as a poetess, but also for her scandalous lifestyle, counting among her many lovers Catullus himself. The romance between Catullus and Clodia was no simple love story, but was beset with bitter jealousy and remorse. Here in the brooch, the man depicted is the poet Catullus himself, shown as an onlooker while Lesbia plays with her sparrow, recording his poem as the scene unfolds- essentially creating it in the present for us, the listeners/observers.

Turning to the locket and thinking about the similarities to the brooch’s miniature, we move on in the poetry cycle to the point where the sparrow dies and Lesbia mourns her loss. To me, the woman here is portrayed practically collapsed with grief, which is why I never questioned the dealer’s assertion that this was a mourning miniature. Let’s read on, to the next song- Carmina III:

Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses,
and whatever there is of rather pleasing men:
the sparrow of my girlfriend has died,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it had known its
mistress as well as a girl knew her mother,
nor did it move itself from her lap,
but jumping around now here now there
he used to chirp continually to his mistress alone:
who now goes through that gloomy journey
from whence they denied anyone returns.
But may it go badly for you, bad darkness
of Orcus, you who devour all beautiful things:
and so beautiful a bird you’ve taken away from me
o bad deed! o miserable sparrow!
Now on account of your work my girl’s
slightly swollen little eyes are red from weeping.

So, while Lesbia mourns the loss of her pet, the poet rejoices, for now he can have her all to himself. While it’s not visually clear in the locket’s painting that the woman points to a bird, if we follow the story, it would certainly be her dead sparrow lying on the end of the chaise whose demise she laments, while the poet is portrayed as the man “showing the scene” -here again, unfolding it in the present for us, represented by the second man.

How were we to know then, what these two lovely miniatures depict? Well, unless we are well-versed in our classical literature, I don’t suppose we would. Perhaps the subject could be identified by reference to similar depictions- there were certainly other art forms portraying the same subject, which remained popular into the 20th century. I include here three images- a 1907 painting by Sir Edward John Poynter (Carmina II), a late 18th century pen and ink drawing by Angelica Kauffmann (Carmina III), and another painting, also late 18th century (Carmina III), that is quite similar to the scene in my brooch.

Lesbia & Her Sparrow by Sir Edward John Poynter, 1907



Pen & ink of Catullus writing his ode on Lesbia’s dead sparrow
by Angelic Kauffmann, late 18th century

Late 18th c. painting of Lesbia & her sparrow

When these pieces were made, jewelry of this quality was affordable only to the wealthy. The wealthy were also the educated ones- and that meant a classical education. Certainly the giver and the recipient of these miniatures would have been well-aware of the subject matter, and the erotic overtones of Catullus’ poem. Were these gifts from one lover to another during a passionate affair that involved outside complications? It would seem that way in light of the subject matter, and that’s bolstered by the fact that both jewels contain hair- something which was not given lightly but implied a serious bond.

Reverse of locket showing hair compartment

Perhaps one or both parties were bound by marriages, and yet there were intense feelings of passion, frustrated desires, and rivalry. In truth of course, we’ll never know, but an educated understanding of late 18th to early 19th century social culture with its literature and art, allows us to read further into amatory pieces like these, and understand better both the similarities and the differences between jewels of mourning and jewels of love.