Ornamental Hairwork in Jewelry and Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum
A Gentleman by J.-F. Léauté (French, active circa 1790–1830)
Sometimes the casework for a miniature tells more about the sitter than the portrait. Here, a conservative looking gentleman has chosen a fancy case style known as fausse-montre (false watch). In the late eighteenth century, it was popular to wear two pocket watches suspended at the waist, one real and the other a fausse-montre, usually made to match, that often contained a portrait miniature. In contrast to the simple portrait, the reverse has a cobalt glass border with bright-cut gold metal bezels surrounding a bow of hair tied with a narrow gold “ribbon” mounted on ivory. This design was likely a pattern copied from one of the manuals used by hair workers and jewelers, since it has also been found on other miniature cases.
Young Man with the Initials J. L. F. by Auguste-Jean-Jacques Hervieu (1794–1858)
A large hairwork display surrounding the monogram J L F in seed pearls on a small blue glass oval takes up the entire space of this case’s back. The three broad, tightly curled curves of hair are worked in a popular style known as the Prince of Wales feather, which derives its name from the English Prince of Wales’ heraldic badge of three feathers rising from a gold crown. Remnants of what may have once been stylized stalks of gold wire wheat circle the outer rim of the piece, furthering the curvilinear composition. All of these elements are set on a background of opalescent glass.
A Gentleman with the Initials C. L. by Henry Edridge (1769–1821)
The reverse of this gentleman’s miniature features a lock of hair fashioned into a sheaf of wheat bound with a band of seed pearls. Symbolically, wheat has many meanings, but its use here most likely signifies love and charity. Pearls were called the stone of truth, faith and love and were often used to imply purity.
Cameos, carved from a variety of semi-precious stones or shells, often depicted the likeness of a person or illustrated a story. Popular themes included religious icons, classical figures and pastoral scenes. By adding hairwork to the back, cameo jewelry could assume an even deeper meaning, relating it to someone loved or lost. This cameo brooch includes many signs that tell us about the person to whom the hair belonged: the two female figures may represent a mother and daughter and the buildings might suggest a deep connection to home.
Watch Fob (19th century)
By the middle of the nineteenth century, jewelry made of hair was predominantly a sign of love rather than mourning. They were tokens of affection to a betrothed, spouse or family member. For men, watch chains were popular pieces to have made with your significant other’s hair. For women, any number of pieces could be made, but necklaces and bracelets were common choices. One could purchase pendants and charms to which hair was then added. These charms might simply be something pretty or represent an interest of the hair’s owner, such as music, bird-watching or even ice skating.
A Young Man with the Initials M. A. B., Attributed to German School
Not all hairwork kept locks of hair intact. Hair painting was also popular and easy to accomplish by the amateur hair worker in the home. This was done in one of two ways. The hair was finely chopped, or sometimes ground, then mixed with glue and painted into designs. It could also be simply painted with glue and then the chopped hair was sprinkled on top.
In the nineteenth century like today, flowers had deep meanings universally understood in society. In this brooch, the hair is shaped into various stylized flowers. The forget-me-nots at the top and the chrysanthemum at bottom right denote true love. The marigold at top right is for grief and the zinnia at top left represents absence. The bottom left blossom could be a lily, a symbol of majesty. On the reverse is a photographic portrait of John Martin, who settled in Cincinnati in 1856. The style of brooch suggests it was a token of love, but the flowers imply it may have been a mourning piece. With no inscriptions, the original intent is unknown.
A Man, French School
The use of metal accents in this piece creates a design over the flat bands of hair that, despite being made in the early nineteenth century, appeals to today’s viewer in its simplicity. The plain austerity found in this miniature reflects the Neo-classicist quest for a timeless mode of expression called the “true style.” Though this style seems to leave no room for emotion, the heartfelt words a toi seule (to you alone) created a sentimental connection between the sitter and the original receiver of this miniature.
A Young Boy by Richard Bull (active 1777–1809)
In England, from the late 1760s through the 1790s, a case style appeared that included a hairwork border on the front of the miniature. The hairwork is fashioned into either a braid or a belt, as can be seen here. Because the clasped belt creates an eternal loop that threads through itself, it is a symbol of eternity, fidelity, and protection. It therefore represents upholding the memory and love for someone forever. The oval format of miniature cases further emphasizes this concept as the hair literally surrounds the portrait in an unending border.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a return to the ideals of Grecian beauty and themes. The lyre, a small harp-like stringed instrument commonly seen in Greco-Roman art, became a popular image in Victorian jewelry. Lyres were associated with the Greek muses, nine goddesses representing the arts. During the Victorian period, the lyre was often associated with Christian themes of divine inspiration and heaven. One writer in 1852 used the lyre to illustrate the ingenuity of the industrial revolution in England saying, “There are wealth and work in our crowded marts—There is speed in our hurrying ways, But men must seek in the craftsman’s arts For the story of these days. Pencil, and pen, and lyre are brought To the engine’s haste and the trader’s thought; For life with the din of wheels is fraught, And again the iron always.”
This brooch features loops of hair in an openwork braid. In the center are three hairwork acorns with gold caps and two gold oak leaves. Oak trees and acorns represent longevity and new life. Acorns and other openwork structures were created by braiding the hair around a bead or wire mold. The completed braid was then boiled and dried in an oven, removing the mold afterwards.
An Officer by E. Thomson (1771–1848)
This small pendant-style miniature of a young officer in his brilliant red coat must have been a treasured portrait that served as a reminder of the man while he was away. The reverse scene of a country church is an unusual choice. Finely chopped dark hair has been mixed into the watercolors used to denote the landscape. While sepia-toned paint mixed with hair was common, it was used more often for memorials mourning a death. Using the sitter’s hair to paint a church must have had a deep personal meaning, or perhaps a connection to the place, which has been lost.
Colonel Philip Stuart by Robert Field (circa 1770–1819)
Colonel Philip Stuart (1760–1830) was a respected military leader who would eventually be elected to Congress as the representative of Maryland from 1811–19. This portrait was painted in 1803 and shows a proud survivor of the Revolutionary War. The miniature is housed in its original locket case. Inset in the back’s reveal is an intricate decoration featuring a P S cipher surrounded by swags and palms made from gold foil. The foil is cut in one continuous piece that has been laid over a woven lock of hair.
In the Victorian period, an anchor on jewelry had a deep meaning: hope. Anchors hold a ship in place, are steadfast, and were sometimes a symbol of Christ. A poem by the Reverend W. S. Studley published in the Zion’s Herald in 1887 reads:
"We cast far forward in the vail
An anchor which can never fail
To hold our storm-tossed bark, until,
Passed every danger, every ill,
We into heaven’s harbor sweep,
Safe from all perils of the deep.
This necklace pairs the anchor with a heart, adding love. These two emblems could also be paired with a third charm, the cross, to indicate hope, faith and love."
Allegorical Scene Representing Love, English School
Created to honor the love of either a family or a close group of friends, this miniature abounds with symbolism on both sides. The front is an allegorical scene depicting a young woman seated next to a heavily decorated pedestal while playing a pearl (purity)-encrusted lyre (harmony). Her attention is pulled away by Cupid to a pair of doves (love and constancy). A banner above the scene is inscribed Sacre de Amour et Amitie which translates as “coronation of love and friendship.”
On the reverse, set within a painted border are layered hairworks from three individuals. Each piece is woven, braided or knotted in such a way that their designs seem to have no end or beginning. These never-ending patterns represent eternal bonds of love and friendship.
Engle James Richardson, American, English, or Continental School
Engle James Richardson was a Dutch expatriate who lived on St. Maarten, part of a group of islands known as the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean. These islands became a microcosm of European conflicts when Richardson played a key role in the 1793 capture of the French Fort St. Louis. Later in 1816, he was appointed to accept the surrender of the British island Saba to the Dutch. Despite his adventures, Richardson appears to have been devoted to his family. He married Mary Gumb and three of their children reached adulthood.
Blonde curls of hair form a heart using two brunette Prince of Wales feathers. Within the heart is a cobalt glass oval decorated with the initials E J R in seed pearls. Blue signifies sincerity and the pearls purity. An arrow points upward into the heart. Emblematic of Cupid, this heart has been pierced to show the two people represented, likely Engle and Mary, are a true love match. Surmounted above the hair is a fancy golden knot, another example of unending love.
A Lady by Susannah-Penelope Rosse (circa 1655–1700)
This miniature was painted by Susannah-Penelope Rosse around 1680. Rosse received training from her father, Richard Gibson, who was a successful miniaturist. Her marriage to a prosperous jeweler precluded any need to paint for clients, so many of her portraits were created for her family or close associates. This gives the miniature sentimental value, which is reinforced by the hair and gold foil decoration on the back. The foil wreath is made up of eight varieties of aster, which are talismans of love and referred to as the herb of Venus. Set within it are two flaming hearts. The heart has long been a symbol of love, but when it is enflamed it signifies extreme passion, suggesting that this miniature was intended for the woman’s husband or lover.
Brooch (circa 1860)
By the mid-nineteenth century, hairwork became commonly associated as tokens of love. This brooch swivels to show a photographic portrait of a young man on one side and hairwork, likely of the sitter, on the other. It might have been given to a woman close to the sitter: a fiancée, wife, or possibly mother. Swiveling brooches allowed the wearer to choose which side to display.
Like the swiveling brooch with the young man’s photograph, this brooch features a photograph of a young woman on one side and hairwork on the other. There are two colors of hair formed into feathers. As there are no inscriptions on this piece, we can only speculate its meaning. It is possible that one color is that of the sitter and perhaps the other is a close family member or significant other.
Edwin Greble by James Passmore Smith (1803–1888)
The inscription engraved on this case reads: Edwin Greble to Susan V. Major / 1829. / Painted by Jas. Smith. Edwin Greble (1806–1883) of Philadelphia ran a marble and granite works that produced mantels, cemetery monuments and architectural elements. He had this portrait miniature of himself made as a gift to his fiancée, Susan Virginia Major (1808–1875), whom he married in 1831. The window reveals a complicated braid of Greble’s hair, meant as an intimate reminder of his affection for Susan.
A Young Woman, American School
This simple portrait of a young woman in a black dress has surprisingly intricate hairwork on its back. A detailed landscape made of watercolor mixed with chopped hair surrounds a central design dedicated to love. The conjoined medallions with the initials of two people support a column surmounted with a pair of flaming hearts. When columns are shown whole they can represent strength. The burning hearts symbolize extreme passion.
A Young Officer by Thomas Peat (active 1791–1831)
Portrait miniatures of men who were in the armed forces often have hairwork on their backs. The addition of the sitter’s hair brought the memory of a loved one who was far away close to whoever wore or held the miniature. In this example, the Prince of Wales feathers are made from hair taken from two people, most likely the portrait’s subject and the original owner of the miniature. Combining the hair into one design created an emphatic link between the two, forever connecting them in their love for each other. This idea is furthered by the remaining decorative elements: the gold ears of wheat represent constancy, and “souvenir” written in seed pearls refers to the word’s original meaning of a memory or reminder.
Benjamin West of Salem, Massachusetts, American School
Not to be confused with the well-known painter of the same name, the subject of this miniature is Benjamin West (1739–1809), who lived in Salem, Massachusetts. On 9 August 1762 he married Abigail Phippen (b. 1743). West was around sixty years old when he sat for this likeness. It is housed in an expensive case with a reverse window ornamented with a band of reverse-painting and gilding that showcases two colors of hair woven together. Shot through with gray, the hair is a tender reminder of a long, loving relationship presumably between Benjamin and Abigail. This miniature was a treasured keepsake for the West family and it remained in their possession for more than a century.
Army Officer by William John Thomson (1771–1845)
Although the English county militia officer depicted on the front appears stern, the family tree made from hair on the back of the miniature proves this man had a close and loving family. The trunk of the tree is made from the hair of the parents while hair from eight children is used to create his or her branch. Each lock of hair encircles a medallion bearing initials and inscriptions. Clockwise from the lower left they are: CAR / BORN 23 JULY 1805; ER /BORN 18 JUNE 1807; JNR / BORN 24 DEC. 1809; MJR / BORN 14 JUNE 1812; BR / BORN 30 JULY 1813; AEPR / BORN 12 JAN. 1811; ASR / BORN 13 JUNE 1808; and WJR / BORN 13 JULY 1806.
This brooch is rife with mourning symbolism that was easily recognizable in its time: black enamel, the grave urn and the weeping willow. In place of an epitaph on the urn is a small window that reveals hairwork. Black enamel was a common material in Georgian mourning jewelry for adults, with white generally being reserved for children and the unmarried. The willow was a powerful symbol, with the drooping branches resembling the sinking feelings of grief, while the regrowth that occurs when limbs are cut symbolized that death was not the end. The hairwork, displayed on the front, adds deeper significance and evokes a stronger connection between the deceased and the grave.
Memorial to Stephen Crossfield, Jr., American School
The navette shape of this small memorial signifies tears. The design of an urn on a plinth under the branches of a weeping willow was common and frequently requested by grieving families. Chopped hair makes up the ground and decorates the urn while pieces of incised metal add another visual layer. An inscription dedicates the piece to Stephen Crossfield, Jr.
Stephen came from a well-to-do family. His father Stephen Crossfield was a successful shipbuilder who married Mary Kerbyle in 1758. The family Bible records Stephen’s birth, “July 10, 1765, was born our beloved son Stephen and baptized by Rev. John Oglevie in St. George’s Chapel. Witnesses Mr. Andrew Gautier and Elizabeth his wife.” Stephen’s death is memorialized five entries later, “May 4, 1790 My beloved son Stephen departed this life aged 24 years and 10 months.” He was buried in his uncle Andrew Gautier’s family vault at Trinity Church in New York City.
Pendant (circa 1815)
Mourning scenes became a popular device for jewelry in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. These depictions, instead of focusing on a remembrance that we all must die, a somewhat selfish thought, focus on the grief felt at a loved one’s passing and the personal relationship to that person. This particular scene is compelling, showing a mourning woman holding a heart above a flame set on a plinth, perhaps representing a passionate love. As the heart she holds is not yet on fire, it could show a heart sacrificed to grief. She stands under a cypress tree, another symbol of mourning.
A Gentleman (recto), Memorial to Ann and Maria Dash (verso), American School
While most memorials are dedicated to one person, occasionally they will be for two people. This piece possibly commemorates a mother and daughter. Ann Dash died in 1795 at age forty-one and was followed by Maria Dash in 1799 at age eight. The locket’s other side is a portrait of a man, probably the husband and father of the deceased.
The central motif is a bereaved woman standing by a monument. Clutching a handkerchief to her heart, she seems to take comfort from the angel who points to heaven as a reminder of life after death. The willow with its drooping branches was a further representation of grief. The memorial was personalized by using hair to form the plants and by mixing it into the paint for the grass.
Memorial for Eugénie Berset, French School
This memorial was most likely made by the grieving mother of Eugénie Berset. By 1860 it had become popular for the lady of the house to make large hairwork pieces that could be prominently displayed. These homemade works were considered to be imbued with true emotional integrity as the untrained women painstakingly created intricate decorations.
The woman who made this created a three-dimensional scene. All of the main details are on glass in front of a background painted on ivory. The woman and tombstone are painted with watercolor; while pulverized hair was mixed in the paint for the textured ground. The final layer is the willow tree and forget-me-nots made of hair. These were created using goldbeater’s skin, which is made from the outer membrane of ox intestines. Hair was flattened on skin lined with gum to make a sheet of hair that could be cut into shapes.
A Woman (recto), Memorial to John Birch (verso), English School
The highly decorated urn and pedestal with its dedication to John Birch stands out from the hairwork that surrounds it. A thick lock of hair forms the gently undulating trunk of a weeping willow whose “branches” spread out over the urn. Three sections of hair in graduating lengths create a stylized ground with individual blades of grass painted in watercolor. Underneath the background opalescent glass is a layer of textured foil that creates a shimmering effect when viewed in direct light. John Birch’s family commissioned multiple copies of this memorial—at least one other has been located in a German private collection.
Instead of a portrait of John Birch, the front of the miniature features a young woman. Her connection to John Birch in unknown. It is possible that the woman’s portrait was added at a later date.
Edward Cary Johnston, English School
The cloud background and stylized dress used in the portrait of Edward Cary Johnston indicate he is deceased. A sad note has survived with the miniature: “The hair of my first born beloved Child who lost his life by accident when playing at the breakfast table of my dear Aunt Lady Jane Cary. Edward Cary Johnston was two years and eight months old Obid [sic] Feby 20th 1789.” To express their grief and eternal love for Edward, his parents had his hair woven into an intricate belt that surrounds an additional lock of the child’s hair bound with a “bow” of pearls.
Memento Mori, French School
Hairwork mourning jewelry, or memento mori (remember death), first appears in the seventeenth century as the nobility sought to memorialize their dead. Though the primary purpose was to act as a memory of a loved one, the secondary function was to remind the wearer of his or her mortality. By the eighteenth century, memento mori were worn by almost everyone as they became public expressions of private mourning.
This memento mori has chopped hair mixed in the paint. It was most likely made to mourn the child who points to the flying dove, which represents the deceased’s soul. Despite the sad purpose of the pendant, it shows a loving family sitting in a bucolic landscape. The father holds a book as if interrupted in educating his distracted child. In art, books have long symbolized knowledge, and the half-open one here is a poignant suggestion of a life cut short.
The painted mourning scene, a popular device in miniatures, most often featured a woman in Grecian-style dresses crying by a grave under a weeping willow or cypress tree. This brooch, however, features a young man in mourning next to a simple tombstone. He wears fashionable clothing of the time, but otherwise the scene is plain. The austerity of the grave and surroundings suggest a feeling of somberness without the presence of other traditional symbols of mourning, such as a willow.
This necklace is a particular marvel, not just for its beauty, but also for its white hair. The use of white hair for jewelry was rare, with brown and blonde hair being the most widely used. However, the white hair of a deceased elder was treasured. One touching short story published in the Massachusetts Ploughman in 1878 tells of Beth, a young actress who cares for her ailing grandfather. She is courted by a young man who, upon her grandfather’s death, takes his own hair and the deceased’s hair to create a locket for her. While the romance itself fades, the locket remains more valuable than a necklace of fine gems.
This bracelet combines an elaborate hairwork band and a large oval frame outlined in black enamel and seed pearls. Included inside the frame is a tiny wooden doll made of pegs. Peg dolls, sometimes called Dutch dolls, were introduced in the early eighteenth century in Germany and were made in a variety of sizes. The bracelet is inscribed: “In memory of William Endicott, Obt. July 23d. 1846 AE 78 years.” William was born in 1769 in Massachusetts and wed Thankful Price on November 3, 1814 in Boston. They had one daughter, Charlotte, born 1816. Thankful died in 1835 at the age of 53. The bracelet may be made from Charlotte or Thankful’s hair, and was likely given as a gift to Charlotte upon her father’s death.
Jewelry Ornament (1780–1820)
Some of the earliest examples of mourning jewelry included the phrase “memento mori,” translated as “remember you must die.” Along with this saying, various images came to symbolize the sentiment, such as clocks, the grave, and, unsurprisingly, skulls and skeletons. This ornament, which could be attached to a choker or bracelet, includes a lock of hair with a small skeleton placed on top. It is both a remembrance of someone who has passed and a reminder that the owner would one day pass on as well.
Memorial to Emma Camilla, English School
On the front of this locket is a mourning scene of a weeping young woman being led from a tomb by an angel pointing to heaven. The gesture is meant to signify hope and allude to life after death. The scene is painted in monochrome, with bits of chopped hair forming the grass. The miniature’s back features a feathered sheaf of blond hair, accented with gold wire and an enameled band inscribed Emma Camilla with a forget-me-not in the center. Each side of the miniature has glass borders—blue on the front, amethyst on the back—backed with patterned foil to create a shimmering effect in direct light. The gold case is bordered with faceted cut-steel beads.
Brooch (19th century)
Symbols of faith have long been worn as jewelry, especially the cross in predominantly Christian societies. Hairwork crosses were commonly used as brooches, pendants, and charms. The gold Star of David on this brooch is a rare example of a Jewish symbol used in hair jewelry. Other important features here include the use of seed pearls and black, both symbols of mourning. The back includes hairwork behind a window.
Early accounts of mourning jewelry involved the distribution of rings and other ornaments belonging to the deceased to his or her family. This practice expanded so that jewelry was specifically made that could be passed along en masse after death. Ready-made mourning jewelry originally featured representations of death but rarely included hair, such as this painted scene of a woman at a grave monument. As the practice became more individualized, mourning scenes were often painted with chopped or ground hair.
Ring (circa 1780)
Not much is known about this ring. There are no inscriptions that tell us who the hair belonged to or when he or she died. The hair inside is woven in a soft braid and dyed an unnatural shade of green. There is a reference to green hair dye in Johann Jacob Wecker’s Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art and Nature in 1661, but it is unclear what the purpose of this would be or how often green hair was sought after. Another interesting mystery is the use of rubellite tourmaline gems. Garnets were often used in mourning jewelry to symbolize blood, but tourmaline was not as common.
Curated by: Anne Buening, Curatorial Assistant for American and European Paintings, Sculptures, and Drawings and Adam MacPharlain, Curatorial Assistant and Collections Manager for Fashion Arts and Textiles
Digital Exhibition built by: Andrew Yakscoe, Administrative Assistant for Learning and Interpretation