A SMALL HISTORY OF PORTRAIT MINIATURES

"...the miniature, the little picture that could be covered by a kiss or hidden in the palm of the hand had an intimate and personal quality, it was a pledge of affection, often a gauge of stolen joys; it could be carried by the exiled in never so hurried a flight, could be concealed in the lid of a comfit case..."
--Scribner's Magazine, February 1897

 

 

 

A Small History Of Portrait Miniatures

 

The art of limning dates to the early 16th century. The first British portrait miniature was thought possibly to be of Henry VIII, painted by Lucas Hornebolte, the son of a Netherlands court painter.1 John Murdoch in The English Miniature says: "Technically, this art is unrelated to any other, except in its earliest phase, when it was developed from the methods of the Flemish book illustrators. With the waning of the manuscript illumination studios, and the further technical development of the portrait miniature, even that tenuous link was broken."

Initially miniatures were used by the court almost as currency: They were bestowed on favorites of the Queen or King, exchanged with members of foreign royalty for purposes of diplomacy, or painted to commemorate an engagement or marriage—which in that day and age were often undertaken for reasons of economics or politics, rather than sentiment. Portrait miniatures reflected the social history of the times, down through the ages.

The first miniatures in England were mostly painted in watercolor and bodycolor thickened with gum arabic on vellum or card, backed by playing card. Soon after, gouache replaced the bodycolor. Due to the influence of artists from the Netherlands, miniatures were sometimes also painted in oil on copper. The earliest miniaturists included Hans Holbein, Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and Levina Terrlinc, and during the 17th century included John Hoskins, Samuel Cooper, Thomas Flatman, Richard Gibson, Nicholas Dixon, and Peter Cross.

Gradually the commissioning of miniatures travelled from the royalty to the aristocrats, to eventually the gentry, and, in the late 18th century, the affluent middle class. Around 1720 the use of ivory as a base for the watercolor portrait was introduced, and quickly caught on, eventually eclipsing the use of vellum. The introduction of ivory as a support is credited to Italian miniaturist Rosalba Carriera, and the earliest known English miniature on ivory is by Bernard Lens III, painted from life in 1707 of Reverend Dr. Harris.2 . Miniatures executed in enamel--primarily by foreign-born miniaturists who’d settled in London--became highly popular during the early 18th century, and during this brief period small portraits in plumbago (graphite) on vellum were executed as well.

The English quickly capitalized on the translucent effect of ivory when using watercolor, and created portraits that were light and luminous. In contrast, while the European miniaturists also abandoned vellum in favor of ivory, they often continued to use watercolor and gouache, resulting in miniatures that were opaque and somewhat dark, and more reminiscent of larger oil paintings. Ivory was a difficult medium to master at first, and this may be why the English miniatures of the middle of the 18th century were very small—or modest—in size, resulting in their name, the Modest School. Executing portraits on small ovals of ivory may have aided the artists in controlling the work, until they became more experienced. At the end of the 18th century, which was considered the heyday of English portrait miniatures, the miniatures often reached over three inches in height, and displayed portraits that were light, airy, and academically polished. Principal artists of this period were Jeremiah Meyers, Richard Cosway, John Smart, Richard Crosse, George Chinnery, Samuel Shelley and George Engleheart, among others.

By this time, as well, miniatures had taken on another, important aspect of usage. They were commissioned to mark almost every possible milestone in a personal life: Birth, death, engagement, marriage, distance due to career, war, or moving house. Miniatures became another sort of currency, that of the heart, reflecting the changing emphasis in society, which focused now on the personal nucleus of family life, the romantic attachment between spouses, and the new awareness of children as innocent creatures with a defined childhood, rather than being viewed as small adults.

Some of the first portrait miniatures painted in America were in oil on copper, executed by the Scotsman John Smibert, circa 1735.3 Later, around 1750, John Singleton Copley also painted miniatures, initially also in oil on copper. Copley had no academic training, though he may have received some informal guidance from his printmaker step-father, Peter Pelham. He lived a short distance from Smibert’s studio, and Copley’s step-father had engraved a number of prints after Smibert’s larger oil portraits, so it is probable that Copley became familiar with Smibert’s portrait miniatures. Smibert died when Copley was age fourteen, and most likely did not have significant influence on Copley’s artistic development.4 Copley had immediate access to copper in the form of recycled printing plates from his stepfather, so painting on copper would have been a matter of using the material at hand.5 Copley used one technique very briefly: He painted on copper that had first been sheathed with gold leaf, which served to illuminate the base beneath the paint.6 Quite soon Copley moved on to painting watercolor on ivory, and the richly talented various art form of American miniatures was underway, to give birth to such native and transplanted miniaturists as Copley's step-brother Henry Pelham, William Verstille, Nathaniel Hancock, Joseph Dunkerley, Edward Savage, William Dunlap and others of the 18th century.

The first wave of miniatures in America tended to mimic those earlier British miniatures from the Modest School—small portraits in lockets or brooches. As Susan Strickler in American Portrait Miniatures says: "The earliest American miniatures by such artists as John Singleton Copley of Boston, Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia and Henry Benbridge of South Carolina…captured in somber, opaque colors and with unidealized honesty the practicality of the colonies’ most patrician familes." Then, as Strickler points out, "[f]ollowing the American Revolution, miniatures were painted in a more fluid, transparent technique and in paler colors, reflecting the grace and elegance of the Federal era. The British-born miniaturist Robert Field brought this style to America."

This shift in style brought a great, albeit brief, flowering of original talent in the 19th century American miniaturists. Perhaps less constrained than their English counterparts, who had 300 years of portrait miniature tradition imprinted in their practice of the technique, a number of the American miniature painters, true to their national free-thinking and rebellious character, developed highly distinctive and individual styles. The best examples of these would be Sarah Goodridge, Benjamin Trott, John Wesley Jarvis, Anson Dickinson, Anna Claypoole Peale, John Wood Dodge, John Carlin, Henry Colton Shumway, and Nathaniel Rogers, among many others.

Some miniatures in the early 19th century grew larger and were painted in a rectangular format, to be displayed on walls or in cabinets. Gradually the colors grew darker and more opaque once again as the Victorian age approached. With the advent of photography and daguerreotypes, the death knell rang for this unique art form. Although there was to be a strong Revival at the turn of the century, mostly populated with female artists--including the talented artists Laura Coombs Hill, Alice Beckington, and Lucia Fuller--the era of the portrait miniature was no more.

 

  1. John Murdoch et al., The English Miniature. Yale University Press, New Haven and London,  1981, pp. 31-32.
  2. Ibid. p. 171.
  3. Martha Gandy Fales,  Jewelry in America: 1600-1900. Antique Collectors Club, 1988,  pp. 122-23.
  4. Harry B. Wehle, American Miniatures: 1730-1850. Garden City Publishing, Inc. 1937, p. 25.
  5. Theresa Fairbanks, "Gold Discovered: John Singleton Copley's Portrait Miniatures on Copper." Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 1999,  p. 77.
  6. 1.Ibid. p. 81.

 

 

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