He initially wanted to be a film set designer but as life has it—with its twists and turns, obstacles and opportunities—he became a miniaturist. One of the most famous in the world.
Eugene Kupjack created more than 600 room boxes in his lifetime and is lauded for his work with Narcissa Thorne, widow of Montgomery Ward heir James Ward Thorne. Together they created the majority of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, 68 room boxes in 1/12 scale representing European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s. He also made the room box you are seeing here.
I never met Mr. Kupjack who passed away in 1991, but today the KSB Miniatures Collection houses two of his room boxes. His son, Henry, also an accomplished miniaturist whose work is in the collection, contacted me when this piece came up for sale. I have him to thank for its acquisition and for filling me in on the history of it. According to Henry, the scene depicts a soldier’s study and was once owned by a Chicago gentleman. It was one of the many masculine-themed room boxes his father crafted to appeal to a male audience because, as Henry puts it, “they were the ones most often writing the checks.”
Henry believes this particular scene was made around 1971. He was in college at the time and often frequented the studio while his father was working. He says Eugene made every item in the study, which he describes as portraying a room in a home possibly from the Bordeaux region of France. His father created several French provincial-inspired rooms, a style Henry equates to American Colonial, one alluding to a comfortable lived-in atmosphere. Two other examples of this style, a kitchen and a bedroom, can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.
My Kupjack room box, which I call The Lafayette Room, is dear to me for several reasons. I have always admired the Thorne Rooms, and to add Eugene’s work to the collection was something to which I had aspired. I also relate to settings which imply action could be taking place. I saw a retired soldier in this room reading, stoking the fire and polishing his weaponry. I envisioned him as a lover of the arts, as well, with paintbrushes and collectible items such as porcelain figurines and models of horses, cannons and ships scattered throughout the room. To this day, I can picture him carefully placing a book back into the bookcase, extinguishing the tole lamps and disappearing through the hall up the steps to his bedroom.
Another reason I treasure this piece is because at the time Henry contacted me, I had been asked to teach a portion of a summer program at the public library. Various people were given different countries to talk about and then the children, 6th graders, were given time to do a small project. I knew I could use the scene as a unique teaching tool so I asked Henry if we could change the portrait over the mantle to that of General Lafayette. He graciously agreed and that was the beginning of a beautiful merger between the room box and history.
During that summer session I used the scene to help teach about the part the French played in helping our country win the American Revolution. George Washington became good friends with General Lafayette and after his journey to the States he went back to France to gather soldiers to help the American cause. The French went on to help us win that war giving us independence and allowing for a separation of religious freedom and government. In his later years, around 1824-1825, Lafayette came back to tour the colonies. He actually stopped here in Maysville for lunch at a tavern on the river, a fact which always delights the many students who hear it while touring the gallery on school tours.
When I talk about the American Revolution and General Lafayette in regard to this room box, children begin to see him not only as the “Hero of Two Worlds” but as a normal person. Through this French scene, they imagine a retired general’s daily life, his hobbies and how he may have shared a cup of tea with friends and family—maybe while recounting old war stories. It brings a realistic human touch to historical figures and perhaps an even greater message that as human beings we are all capable of accomplishing great things to contribute to a better world. General Lafayette was just 19 when he set sail across the Atlantic to assist the colonists in their uprising against British oppression.
I am forever grateful to Henry for allowing us to make his father’s creative talent available for all who come to the gallery, whether it is to admire the miniatures or to learn about history. I only wish Eugene, who wanted to become a set designer, could see that he did, indeed, become that and more with his scenes enticing stories of the mind, both fiction and nonfiction. Special thanks to Henry Kupjack. Please take a moment to view his work here.
See the collection’s other Eugene Kupjack room box here.