With their carefully-scaled furniture and exacting details, Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s miniature rooms make up one of the most treasured collections at the Art Institute of Chicago. While they range from medieval European church interiors to a 1940s San Francisco penthouse complete with contemporary artworks, none of them include people. Miniaturizing the human figure proved too difficult, and would have disrupted the way viewers find themselves inexorably drawn into the rooms.
But a recent gift to the Department of Prints and Drawings of six shadowboxes created by Mrs. Thorne turns this notion on its head.
These shallow, glazed shadowboxes (or dioramas) are inset into the lids of other boxes. They consist of layered collages of cut-out prints and drawings, many of them hand colored. And unlike the full-blown miniature rooms, all of these include images of people. Mrs. Thorne produced them for charity auctions in the 1930s or 1940s, likely with the help of Eugene Kupjack and other skilled miniature makers connected to her workshop. Two of the most intricate shadowboxes include tiny three-dimensional objects made of other materials (such as a metal chandelier and urns), as well as separately standing paper figures that were glued to the background on small pieces of wood. A number of these components have temporarily come loose in the first box (above), lending a Monty Python-like quality to the scene of bewigged gentlemen bowing at each other. The better-preserved second box (below) shows two couples conversing in front of an elaborate archway.
The men appear in regimental outfits, which are comparatively unchanging, and so, difficult to date, but the women appear in trendy ensembles from the early 1810s that were meant for just such a promenade. Eugene Kupjack’s son, Henry, is still in the business of making miniature rooms, and retains some of his father’s materials that Mrs. Thorne used. Henry suggested that the sources for the prints could be an early nineteenth-century British periodical called Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (below), which Mrs. Thorne had cut apart with relish for use in her charity projects. Interestingly, the figures in these boxes turn out to be several centimeters shorter than the fashion plates in that magazine. And, on closer inspection, they are not printed at all, but are colored drawings! Did Mrs. Thorne continue to be concerned about using proper scale in these boxes so that the figures did not dwarf the architecture? Or did she simply need male characters for her scenes that the magazine lacked? (In the first six years, only half a dozen images of men’s fashion appeared, compared to the requisite two to four female outfits per monthly issue.)
Where then, did these lovely ladies come from? They may still have been inspired by Ackermann’s, even to the point of the color and texture of their dresses. Indeed, this publication was a mixed-media artwork in its own right. Including meteorological and political reports as well as stock tips, each issue also presented British-made fabric samples corresponding to the fashion plates so that women could recreate them. In fact, the Art Institute’s Ryerson Library holds many issues with the fabric samples still intact.
Perhaps Mrs. Thorne used this lovely promenade outfit from June 1814 (above) as a jumping-off point for the frill on the woman on the left, perhaps even imagining one confected from the recommended striped lace muslin. Perhaps these fabric swatches inspired the use of tiny textiles in Mrs. Thorne’s other boxes, including the rugs and microscopic bits of knitting. Indeed, the Repository’s other offerings of fancy work papers and embroidery patterns must have been equally appealing to the architect of the Thorne Rooms in all their meticulous, if strikingly un-peopled glory.