Miniatures, originally, were tiny, decorative images that embellished illuminated medieval manuscripts. Portrait miniatures, head-and-shoulder portrayals of individuals about the size of large marshmallows, developed from their techniques and tradition.
From the mid-1400s, illuminators not only illustrated manuscripts and costly hand-printed books. For wealthy patrons, they also created stand-alone miniatures for private worship or as luxurious collectibles.
During the following century, English and French illuminators created portrait miniatures on backs of stiff playing cards, copper wafers or velvety calfskin parchment using watercolors. At the time, aristocrats and royalty, like Henry VIII, commissioned these small, colorful depictions as diplomatic gifts, signs of royal favor, and to facilitate long-distance marriage negotiations.
During the Elizabethan era, miniatures depicting likenesses of lovers were intended for personal, private use. When Spain threatened England, however, wealthier subjects sometimes bore copies of Elizabeth’s image as signs of loyalty. Similarly, some bore images of James I when he inherited the throne.
Though traditional techniques continued through the early 1700s, miniaturists usually preferred smooth, translucent ivory wafer backings, because they enhanced skin with realistic radiance. Since watercolors tended to slide off, however, many first degreased or roughened their surfaces.
In time, painting portrait miniatures became an acceptable pastime, even for women. Yet with the rise of the middle class, their demand rose dramatically. Clerics, soldiers, dignitaries, as well as common folk, not only commissioned depictions of themselves. Many also commissioned multiple copies, to be distributed to family members or as tokens of affection.
Women often wore these stunning, tiny portraits mounted in brooches, bracelets, or lockets backed by locks of hair coiled into love knots Young men, rakes and politicians concealed lovers’ portraits under lids of snuff boxes. Soldiers and sailors bore miniatures of wives and sweethearts into battle, leaving self-images for those left behind. In addition, seafaring merchants carried portrait miniatures to the American Colonies.
At first, Colonial painters produced tiny, traditional oval portraits for wealthy clients alone. Toward 1800 however, when enterprising British, French and Italian miniaturists arrived, this fine art thrived. Yet within a few decades, American miniatures, larger, brighter, sharper and featuring full-length figures, tended to resemble full-size oil paintings.
British portrait miniatures gained popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria, especially following the death of Prince Albert. Since public mourning had become fashionable, women not only wore brooches of their near and dear. Many also wore ones depicting images of their dear departed.
When portrait miniatures fell from fashion, the European middle class continued to seek small, affordable ornamental items. Mass-produced miniatures, reproductions of full-scale oil paintings and depictions of famed musicians, military leaders or maidens in fancy bonnets, were especially popular. These purely decorative works, many created in Germany, were not produced to deceive the public, but to fulfill their wide demand.
Many can be readily identified. The quality of their painting may vary, they may bear French-sounding signatures, and most are produced on low-cost, translucent ivorine wafers made from milk curd or rennet. In addition, they may be framed by lavish brass filigree or ivory piano keys backed by pages from old books, to simulate great age. Yet these attractive, available, affordable decorative miniatures are becoming antiques in their own right.
More serious collectors, however, usually seek unique miniatures featuring actual sitters. Those portraying a famed monarch, actress, or admiral, for instance, are especially collectible. So are those featuring sitters identified through historic research or genealogical studies. Works by celebrated miniaturists, like Samuel Cooper, John Smart, Robert Field and Laura Coombs Hills, are also desirable, especially if they are signed and dated. That said, rare, masterly portrait miniatures, in prime condition, in original, high quality frames, signed and dated by famous artists, and portraying known, interesting, and attractive sitters, are most collectible of all.
Since scores were produced by unknown artists, however, many may be found at appealing prices. Furthermore, those featuring unidentified sitters – even those not particularly attractive, may hold a certain charm. After all, these miniatures not only reveal fads and fashions of their day. They also illuminate real lives.
In addition, these miniscule, incredibly delicate works of art are wonders of survival.