American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century

See works of art
  • Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer) and Baby Eleanor
    2006.235.127
  • Elijah Boardman
    1989.204
  • Williams Middleton
    2007.61
  • William Middleton
    2007.62
  • Thomas Middleton
    2007.63
  • Hester Middleton
    2007.64
  • Henrietta Middleton
    2007.65
  • Mrs. Jacob Motte (Rebecca Brewton)
    1997.340
  • Stephen Hooper
    25.98
  • Elizabeth Ann Timothy
    26.286
  • George Washington
    83.2.122
  • George Henry Remsen
    68.222.10
  • Jeremiah Lee
    39.174
  • Joseph Griffiths
    1985.141.8
  • Mrs. Richard Peters (Abigail Willing)
    68.222.13
  • Self-portrait miniature
    2006.235.32
  • George Washington
    24.109.93
  • Richard Thomas III
    31.118

Works of Art (19)

Essay

The tradition of portrait miniature painting in America, like that of full-size portraiture, was adapted from European models, particularly from English painting of the Rococo period. Ultimately, portrait miniatures evolved from two sources: illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and portrait medals from classical antiquity as revived during the Italian Renaissance. With various changes in size, shape, and function over time, the first self-contained miniature portraits were made in France and England during the fifteenth century. In the next century, Hans Holbein (50.69.2) and Nicholas Hilliard (35.89.4) conceived of portraiture in the small, oval format that became prototypical for English and American miniatures. These dainty pieces were mounted in gold lockets, brooches, and bracelets, as such converging with traditions of jewelry and taking on connotations as mementos with exquisite and intimate meaning. Patronage for miniatures extended beyond the court to include the political and merchant elite, eager to own and wear such stunning small portraits of loved ones.

The single most innovative advance in the art of portrait miniature painting was made by a Venetian miniaturist, Rosalba Carriera (2002.22), who applied a watercolor technique to the decoration of ivory snuffboxes. The luminosity of ivory enhances skin tones and enables the painter to render the sheen of hair and fabrics in transparent watercolor applied in delicate strokes or fine stipples. The earliest known American miniatures, such as Mrs. Jacob Motte (1997.340) by Jeremiah Theus, were soberly painted, well-crafted portraits. The tradition continued in the hands of America’s most talented oil painters, who offered miniatures as reduced versions of their large portraits. In Boston, John Singleton Copley mastered this difficult medium. His portrait of Jeremiah Lee (39.174) matches his full-length portrait of this grandee from Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In Philadelphia, the brothers Charles Willson Peale and James Peale executed delicate and subtle portraits for their clients (83.2.122; 31.118), while the Charleston elite flocked to Henry Benbridge for his fine works (26.286). In New York, the Irish painter John Ramage held sway, painting many political figures including the first president, George Washington (24.109.93).

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, scores of miniaturists from Great Britain, France, and Italy came to America to paint the citizens of the new republic. British artists brought with them an enlarged, more luminous miniature, while those from the Continent imported their precise, decorative style. These artists left a lasting impression on the American marketplace for miniatures, which boomed in the coming century.

Carrie Rebora Barratt
The American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003

Citation

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mini/hd_mini.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures. Exhibition catalogue.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Dale T. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990. See on MetPublications

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