Narcissa Niblack was born in Vincennes, Indiana, on May 2, 1882. While still a child, she and her parents moved to Chicago.
She was educated partially at home and partially in public school, finishing at the Kenwood Institute.
Narcissa married her childhood sweetheart James Ward Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward department store fortune, on May 29, 1901. Together they had two sons, named Ward and Niblack.
There are various stories of how Narcissa was initially prompted to construct the miniature rooms. Her interest in miniatures began early and was encouraged by trinkets sent to her by her uncle, a Rear Admiral in the US Navy.
The first known exhibit of her work occurred in 1932. The high unemployment of the Great Depression made it possible for her to hire workers with highly specialized skills.
Most of her exhibitions were private, held to raise funds for local charitable causes, but at the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, Narcissa‘s works were publicly exhibited in a dedicated building. Subsequent public exhibits included the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York World’s Fair of 1940.
In 1936, Narcissa received a request to make a miniature library depicting a room at Windsor Castle, to mark the planned coronation of Edward VIII. Although the coronation never occurred, she delivered the room and it was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Narcissa‘s best-known works show the interiors of upper-class homes from England, the United States, and France. The rooms are generally built on a scale of approximately 1:12, or one inch to one foot. They are painstakingly precise and when maintenance is required, it has to be done with delicate tweezers and cotton swabs, the furnishings being carefully restored to their original position with reference to a detailed layout plan.
Although her rooms were extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce, Narcissa never sought or received payment for any of them. The death of her husband in 1946 left her with an estate worth upwards of 2 million dollars, enabling her to continue focusing on her work. However, eventually a shortage of sufficiently skilled workers forced her to focus on dioramas and shadow boxes.
When a permanent gallery was established for the Thorne rooms at the Art Institute in 1954, Narcissa set up a fund to cover the costs of caring for the works.
Later life & Death
Due to poor health, Narcissa closed her studio in March 1966 and donated her remaining works to charity.
She died in Chicago on June 25, 1966 and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery.
Most of Narcissa‘s works were donated to museums and remained there, although some were auctioned off in 1985. Narcissa herself arranged for thirty of the rooms to be auctioned off for charity in 1963.
Approximately one hundred Thorne rooms are known to exist. The Art Institute of Chicago holds 68 Thorne rooms, which originally occupied a dedicated wing but are now housed in a large room in the building’s lower level.
An additional 20 are held by the Phoenix Art Museum and nine by the Knoxville Museum of Art. The remaining two are at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Kaye Miniature Museum in Los Angeles.
In addition to these, a bar that Narcissa auctioned off for charity in the 1950s is at the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.