The interesting origin of portable likenesses stretches back hundreds of years to miniature portraits and their origin in the illuminated manuscript. Initially contrived of in the beginning of the 16th century, miniature painters usually painted in watercolor and gouache, first on vellum (parchment made of animal hide) and eventually on ivory. These skilled painters were only allowed a few square inches of space to work with but managed to capture surprisingly life-like images of their subjects. Miniature work was not limited to portraits and also was comprised of landscapes, mythological images and historical scenes. The personal portrait is by far the most interesting form, however, because it offers an intimate glimpse of the sitter. More relaxed than a formal portrait, these small images were commissioned by wealthy citizens with the intention of leaving a portrait for someone close.
France is said to be the birthplace of this unique art form, but the production of such a small-scale portrait did not stay a secret for long. 17th century England fostered a long line of miniature painters in dialogue with one another, a characteristic unusual for such a genre. Continental Europe worked to refine such portrait miniatures, and it wasn’t unusual for a German artist to study portrait miniatures abroad before going home and creating them himself. Eventually the practice was exported to colonial America and became popular with the wealthy merchant class of the east coast. Only with the rise of photography and the carte-de-visite in the 1850s did such a useful and important form of art die out.
These items are understandably collectible today because of their craftsmanship, uniqueness and background. MIR Appraisal Services has a couple of these portable portraits in its collection, both French from the beginning to middle of the 19th century. One depicts an elaborately dressed woman with an imperial hairdo while the other portrays a staunch, sober man with a dark jacket and grey hair, both on ivory. They are only a few inches in diameter and their exact identity is unknown. They are remarkable examples of the great talent these artists possessed and an interesting piece of pictorial history.
Portrait miniatures allow us a glimpse into a class and time period that otherwise may not have a human face at all. The subjects of such images were of a higher social status than most but most were never to be the subject of a large-scale oil painting. Many likenesses of some of the most famous people in history are based on sheer conjecture, but the miniature portrait can occasionally assign a face to a name. At the very least, they allow us an opportunity to view the various styles of an era and nation, adding to the authenticity of our historical imagination.
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Smeyers, M. and Graham Reynolds. “Miniature,” in Oxford Art Online.