Portrait Miniatures

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PORTRAIT MINIATURES. The portrait miniature was an art form that flourished from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. These small-scale portraits derived from the tradition of manuscript illumination, in which vellum pages with text decorated with images in watercolor were bound together to form a book. In the sixteenth century, these marginal images were adapted into a separate art form, usually a half-length or bust-length portrait, painted in watercolor on vellum. Ranging in size from an inch to five or six inches in height, the portrait would then be either housed in a metal locket, sometimes decorated with pearls or diamonds, which could be worn or carried on the person, or placed in a frame and displayed in the home. Hans Holbein (1497?1543), a German painter working in England at the court of Henry VIII, and François Clouet (c. 15161572), a French painter at the French court, were the first prominent miniaturists, although their careers were not exclusively devoted to the form. Both artists produced striking likenesses set against solid jewel-tone backgrounds, usually blue. The art form became most popular in England and developed into a distinct specialty for English artists, but was also practiced throughout continental Europe.


Nicholas Hilliard (1547?1619) became the first specialized practitioner in England. His career was tied to the Elizabethan court, where miniatures played a prominent role in court life, and he trained a number of prominent pupils, including Isaac Oliver, Peter Oliver, John Hoskins, and his own son, Lawrence Hilliard. Throughout the seventeenth century, miniaturists such as Samuel Cooper and his brother Alexander Cooper continued to serve the monarchy and aristocracy, and, during the Interregnum in England, Oliver Cromwell. Cooper's style departed from Hilliard's careful handling of watercolor with his freer use of brushstrokes. In the eighteenth century, the watercolor on vellum miniature was eclipsed by the new technique of painting in watercolor on ivory. Bernard III Lens (16811740) was the first miniature painter in England to adopt this technique, which had been invented in Italy by Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera. Watercolor on ivory soon replaced watercolor on vellum as the signature medium of the portrait miniature. The portrait would be painted on a thin slice of ivory, usually shaped in an oval but sometimes rectangular. The ivory was sanded down to make a rough texture that would catch the paint more easily. The watercolor, mixed with gum arabic, was then applied either in short, controlled brushstrokes or in dots of paint, called stippling. Enamel miniatures also enjoyed popularity in England, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, alongside watercolor on vellum, until eclipsed by watercolor on ivory. The most prominent practitioner in England was Christian Friedrich Zincke (c. 16831767) from Dresden, another enameler trained as a goldsmith.

With the new significance placed in the eighteenth century on affective relationships and emotions, demand for portrait miniatures expanded from the court circles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the middle and upper classes. The heyday of the miniature spanned the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Miniatures played an important role in personal relations. They were exchanged as tokens of affection and love, and as stand-ins for absent loved ones, or served as commemorations of the dead. The housing for the ivory portrait was often decorated with other elements that reinforced these functions, such as initials, woven hair, or symbols of love or mourning. Many portraits were painted posthumously to commemorate a lost loved one. They often included mourning imagery on the reverse, painted in grisaille with chopped hair dissolved into the watercolor, which might depict mourners at tombs inscribed with the loved one's name. Among the most prominent eighteenth-century English miniaturists were Jeremiah Meyer (17351789), John Smart (17431811), George Engleheart (17531829), and Richard Cosway (17421821). Although each miniaturist developed an individual style, eighteenth-century miniatures generally have in common a light palette of colors, monochromatic backgrounds, and brushwork that exploited the translucency of the ivory support.


The miniature tradition in continental Europe followed a trajectory similar to that in England but was never quite as popular. After Clouet's work in France, the miniature did not really have a resurgence there until the eighteenth century, and the watercolor-on-vellum and watercolor-on-ivory techniques were not as common as in England. Instead, the medium of choice tended to be enamel. This choice ensured a different quality to the continental miniature because of the saturated, opaque colors and the techniques for painting enamels, resembling oil painting, in contrast to the light, translucent quality of watercolor on ivory. Enamels are produced by painting with metallic oxide paints on a metal plaque, usually made of copper, although other metals were used as well. The metal was prepared by being covered with a white enamel paste, made from ground glass. Each color was applied separately and then fired in a kiln or oven. Jean Petitot (16071691), one of the first masters of enamel painting in the seventeenth century, was trained as a goldsmith, as were most of the early enamelers, and most of his portraits were of royalty and court in both England and France. In the eighteenth century, several more enamelers rose to prominence by painting royalty and aristocracy. As in England the small-scale likeness became an important part of the everyday life of the middle classes, and the number of artists who specialized in the art form increased. Many artists, however, practiced both enamel and watercolor painting or other forms, such as pastel or drawing in ink or graphite. Enamelers, moreover, also supplied enamels for watchcases and snuffboxes as well as separate miniature portraits. Although enamel miniatures were sometimes painted from life, they were often small-scale copies after oil paintings.

The portrait miniature continued to play an important role in the life of the middle and upper classes into the nineteenth century. But with the advent of photography, which made small-scale portraits available quickly, more cheaply, and on a much wider scale than before, the demand for painted miniatures gradually ceased, although it continued to be practiced as a polite accomplishment by amateur artists.

See also Britain, Art in ; Carriera, Rosalba ; Clouet, François ; Holbein, Hans, the Younger ; Painting .


Caffrey, Paul. Treasures to Hold: Irish and English Miniatures 16501850 from the National Gallery of Ireland Collection. Exh. cat. Dublin, 2000.

Coffin, Sarah, and Bodo Hofstetter. The Gilbert Collection: Portrait Miniatures in Enamel. London, 2000.

Coombs, Katherine. The Portrait Miniature in England. London, 1998.

Foskett, Daphne. Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide. Woodbridge, U.K., 1987.

Diane Waggoner

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Portrait Miniatures

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