Narcissa Niblack Thorne was born in 1882. She fell in love with her childhood sweetheart, James Ward, and they married. He was the heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune, one of the biggest in the world at the time thanks to a chain of department stores that were once as ubiquitous as Target or J.C. Penney. A graduate of art school, the Chicago socialite wasn’t content to sit around and make small talk all of her life. She began designing and orchestrating these incredible one-foot-to-one-inch scale historical replicas of different architectural, interior design, and furniture styles throughout history to serve as models of how homes and spaces had changed over the years. She was meticulous and insisted upon accuracy (e.g., the wood, down to the grain direction, of the tiny furniture had to be made in exactly the same way as the model piece upon which it was based.)
When the Great Depression threw the United States into abject poverty, some of the most skilled artisans in the nation were out of work so she hired them to produce furniture and accent pieces for her project (this turned out to be an interesting case of the economy fundamentally altering art – later, when things had returned to normal, Thorne had to abandon the miniature rooms because she couldn’t find enough people to help her construct her visions). When possible, if she couldn’t find someone to do the work she wanted, she had them educated, going so far as to send one sister-of-a-contributor worker to school to learn a specific style of needlepoint so the woman could product intricate, tiny historical rugs!
Thorne would show off her miniatures at charity events, raising money for non-profit causes. Shortly before she died in 1966, she closed her studio, donated her body of work, and they toured the country in the decades that followed. While she could have made quite a bit of money selling tickets a la P.T. Barnum, she and her family covered the expense of production, kept the craftsman employed during the worst economic collapse in 600 years, and now, her legacy draws in patrons for one of the world’s great museums, helping protect everything from Korean pottery from the Joseon era to famous oil paintings.
After dinner at Tocco last night, we are meeting up with Jimmy to go see the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent display of Thorne’s miniatures, which he knew I’d enjoy. According to Wikipedia, there are roughly 100 Thorne miniature rooms known to exist in the world, with the Art Institute of Chicago holding 68 of them, the Phoenix Art Museum holding 20, the Knoxville Museum of Art holding nine, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum holding two, and the Kaye Miniature Museum in Los Angeles holding one. The entry on her also states that there is a bar she auctioned off for charity in the 1950’s held at the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.
Some of you might remember that I have an irrational, completely not-fully-explainable, totally baffling emotional reaction that can only be described as euphoria when I see perfect miniatures (buildings in particular – like the scale model of the U.S. Capitol Building at Disneyland). It’s like I lose control and get flooded with endorphins to the point I experience pure, unrestrained ecstasy. I gave up trying to figure it out a long time ago but I think it’s the attention to detail and skill required to pull it off; the same reason I am passionate, on a visceral level, about things like Ruffoni cookware, Creed fragrances, Brioni clothes, or Bosendorfer pianos. In a world of mass-produced, cheap, bottom-dollar disposable products – furniture, coats, shoes, toys – knowing there are still men and women who have a craft that took a lifetime to learn, and can create something of lasting value fills me with a combination of admiration, hope, joy, and inspiration. (One of my life goals is to visit Minimundus in Germany, though I’ll probably need to be sedated to avoid total overload.) I was so overcome when I saw the Thorne miniatures for the first time, I reflexively punched Jimmy in disbelief. He joked he was bruised and battered, nursing his arm. It’s as if I lose myself temporarily. I could have probably spent the entire day in the museum if left to myself.
When her husband died in 1946, the entry on her at Wikipedia says she was left with a fortune north of $2 million to support her. Adjusted for inflation, we’d be talking somewhere between $24 and $30 million using a reasonable approximation; money from her investments generating passive income so she could continue living comfortably and pursue her passion.
Here are some quick pictures of the information of the people who worked with Thorne on her miniatures (click the images to enlarge so you can read about them) …
These were some of my personal images but if you want to see the Art Institute of Chicago’s high-quality, perfect-condition pictures of each Thorne miniature – and there are many, many more – along with information on the details of the particular project, check out the installment page from the museum itself.