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“Miniatures” sounds precious, in more ways than one, and most of the examples in “Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750-1920” at the National Portrait Gallery fit that description closely—-they’re tiny, elegantly crafted, and sentimental, particularly those with the soft edges of an oval format. They “were often made as mementos, love tokens, or memorials that could be kept close to the body,” the curators explain. The museum’s collection of more than two dozen pieces range in technique from pigmented wax and oil on glass to oil on copper to watercolor on ivory, most with ornate frames; a small number of photographs are included, either daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. Until about 1900, the artworks are hyper-traditional in style; only with the turn of the century do they evolve in intriguing ways. Eulabee Dix’s 1901 watercolor portrait of Chief Thundercloud of the Blackfoot tribe (below) shows its subject expressively and wearily looking off to his left, while Dix’s loosely textured 1908 portrait of Mark Twain shows the famed author in an eccentric red and gray cloak. Most striking are a pair of works by Lucy May Stanton that show a distinct and welcome hat tip to modernity. One work, a self-portrait from 1912 (above), uses “puddling”—-allowing pools of color to shift around on the surface before drying—-to create a lush, impressionistic portrayal in a pleasing shade of baby blue. The other, from 1914, shows author Joel Chandler Harris sitting within a blue-purple miasma that shows strong influences of the Ashcan school.
The exhibition is on view 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to May 13 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW