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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century

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.