Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Portrait Miniatures of the Nineteenth Century

Miniature painting—tiny watercolor on ivory portraits—thrived in America during the early nineteenth century. Works in the traditional oval format rivaled innovative rectangular pieces as artists vied to please clients who wished to wear and display these intimate pieces. Indeed, most of the era’s finest portraitists in oil undertook miniature painting or hired an apprentice to do so. Gilbert Stuart may have popularized this mode of commerce when he arrived in New York in 1793 with the Irish miniature painter Walter Robertson. They took sittings together for patrons eager for a full-scale oil portrait, from Stuart, and a matching miniature from Robertson. In the succeeding years, the studio of John Wesley Jarvis became the starting point for many young miniaturists. Joseph Wood joined Jarvis’ fold in 1803 and stayed until 1809; Wood soon thereafter took the talented miniaturist Nathaniel Rogers as his apprentice. In Wood’s absence, Jarvis attracted Henry Inman into his fold, an apprenticeship that lasted from 1814 to about 1821, until Inman took on a student of his own, Thomas Seir Cummings. Inman and Cummings enjoyed a very successful partnership, first because they painted miniatures together and then because they were savvy enough to eventually split the business: from 1827 on, Inman painted in oil and Cummings in miniature.

By this time, miniaturists were striving to replicate the oil portrait. Not only had miniatures become larger and more strongly colored, but they also portrayed full-length figures and groups of figures, and showed interior settings in elaborate detail. They acquired a high finish and sharp focus, taking on the qualities of their impending rival, the photograph. In fact, after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, many miniaturists abandoned their art as this new medium—featuring light on polished metal—attracted clients away from the soft, fluid strokes required of watercolor on ivory. Some miniaturists colored photographs, some purchased the materials required to produce both miniatures and daguerreotypes in their studios. The two media shared casework: pocket-size leatherette cases lined in velvet. But as photographic methods became more popular and accessible, miniature painting became a lost art. As the former Metropolitan Museum scholar Harry Wehle put it in 1927, “The miniature in the presence of the photograph was like a bird before a snake; it was fascinated—even to the fatal point of imitation—then it was swallowed.”