The Art of Miniatures: Intimate Treasures of Days Long Past

By Christine Archibald

Editor's Note: According to Christine Archibald, she has always been obsessed with fiction, and therefore characters in stories. She has also spent some time writing, and therefore creating characters on paper. It seems a natural fit, that she found herself drawn to portraits, as the people in them – and their implicit stories – clearly capture her imagination. That passion and interest show strongly in the following treatise, a heartfelt and interesting exploration of the form of “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

Portrait miniature

Portrait miniatures are a peculiar breed. For a long time they've been slotted away in Decorative Arts, with silver and other objects of vertu, instead of taking a place in Fine Arts. One can see why they've served to puzzle. First, there are the casings, often beautifully hand-wrought of gold or other fine metals, occasionally bejeweled, or designed by well-known gold and silversmiths, such as Paul Revere. Then there are the decorative hair devices, sometimes arranged under glass on the back, trimmed with seed pearls, foil, cobalt glass, gold wire or ribbon. There are also the methods of display since their inception: tucked away on a chain on one's bosom, worn on a wrist or finger, stashed in a pocket or wallet, or, in the later nineteenth century, placed on a desk, bedside table, or hung on a nearby boudoir wall. This all served to make portrait miniatures feel less like “serious” art, and more like charming keepsakes or jewelry.

As well, the techniques of “paintings in little” were viewed initially, perhaps, as having a bit of trickery to them – more of an acquired skill, than a talent. The very beginnings of miniatures, in fact, descended from the illustrations in illuminated manuscripts – a tradition considered decorative, not artistic. The tiny stippled or cross-hatched exacting strokes of watercolor were applied in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to vellum backed by playing card. Not so odd; but the adoption in the eighteenth century of ivory as the medium upon which to paint miniatures seemed quixotic. Ivory does not marry naturally with watercolor, and must be painstakingly scraped, blotted, dried and scored to help the watercolor pigment – mixed with water, gum arabic, and now and then the artist's saliva or ear wax – to adhere. And lastly, there was the raison d'etre for miniatures; they were created more for social imperatives than artistic ones. They served as remembrances of loved ones, were carried as a reminder for family members during travel, and were employed for purposes of diplomacy, ambassadorship, engagement, birth, friendship, and in memorial of those who had passed on.

Intricate Artistry Revealed
All these things are still true about portrait miniatures. They are complex and complicated pieces of art, with layers of interest and import to them, which is what makes them so appealing. Antique miniatures have been with us for approximately 450 years, and in America, a younger country, about 250 years. Thankfully, in the last century, a good deal of writing and research has gone into their study, and the solid and varied talents of the artists – both fine and naïve – have come into light, to take their place along other respected artists in larger canvas genres.

There is something accessible and inviting about portrait miniatures, which can be literally concealed in the hand for private perusal and musing, or displayed on the wall for a more public viewing. The connection between sitter and viewer is both intimate and powerful, and often enhanced by the viewer's knowledge of the artist's background and oeuvre, as well as detail of the sitter's life. I think many collectors of miniatures would agree that a good deal of pleasure is garnered from researching the various artists, and the different styles and techniques of their work, as well as collecting information about the sitters.

Some people collect by artist: Plimer, Shelley, Peale, Parsell. Some collect by subject: children, officers, pretty women, old men. And some collect by nationality, style, time period or media: American or British, fine or folk, seventeenth or nineteenth century, oil on copper or watercolor on ivory. Miniatures were part of the very fabric of society for several centuries, and as such, there are groups of miniatures in existence, as well – husbands and wives, mothers and children, grandmothers and grandfathers, entire families – even the family dogs have had their miniatures painted and been included. There are two known Charles Fraser American miniatures, one of Isaac O'Brien Smith MacPherson, and the other of Colonel James E. MacPherson, grandson, and grandfather (painted, I believe, in the same year). When you look at them – one a fresh-faced, handsome, perhaps a bit spoiled,American folk miniature teenager. The other a grim, weathered-looking older man – you can't help but be curious about their relationship, and their lives, fated to be unknown stories for the most part, but still open to the imaginings of the viewer, and seeming, 150 years later, still relevant. There is also the unsolved mystery of the young dead bride, (Harriet Mackie, by P. R. Vallee, 1804) seen on the cover of Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures, allegedly poisoned by a neighbor the night before her wedding to gain her estate. Or the unusual, chilly beauty of Sarah Goodridge's self-portrait of her breasts, given to her friend Daniel Webster: behavior beyond the assumed convention of the times. There is also the sadness evoked by seeing the memorial miniatures of children and infants, and the terrible universal grief their parents must have felt. Or, on the lighter side, charming American folk miniatures, like the one seen accompanying this article, titled, simply: MY SISTER.

A Wealth of Information
For the collectors sensitive to the rarity and importance of what they collect, there are the miniaturists with talents comparable to classic Old Masters: Samuel Cooper, John Smart, James Peale, Edward Greene Malbone and others. Each artist can, if wished, be studied in depth. For example, English miniaturist George Engleheart is known to have his early, middle and late periods, with characteristics, techniques, and idiosyncrasies of signature distinctive to each. Along with fine miniatures there are folk portrait miniatures, which seem to truly sparkle with the human spirit and the blithe charm of a time apart, and have an important place in our folk art.

Although signed miniatures by known artists are the most coveted by many collectors, it's important to remember that portrait miniatures were not, as a rule, signed. There are many portrait miniatures in existence by anonymous artists, of sitters destined to eternal mystery – but not obscurity, as long as the collectors of miniatures continue to collect them, wonder over them, and cherish them, giving, at long last, these fellow humans of yesteryear the immortality that we all crave.

For more information on Christine Archibald, call (212) 982-0575.
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