Miniature Portrait Paintings

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MINIATURE PORTRAIT PAINTINGS
By Victoria Chick, Artist and 19th / 20th Century Print Collector

Miniatures of all kinds raise peoples’ curiosity and admiration for the detail given to tiny objects. Military figures, armies, and doll house furniture are examples of miniature items collected by many.

A special category of miniature work is portrait paintings produced by artists working mostly for royalty between the 16th and 19th centuries. Although they were renowned at the time, the artists’ names, in later centuries, became known mostly to collectors and museum curators. Most of these artists limited themselves to doing only miniature paintings, but a few also did large oil paintings on canvas.

Miniatures came out of the tradition of medieval manuscript illumination –done in both Europe and Persia. Artists would paint figures and scenes to illuminate hand lettered script on vellum. After the printing press was invented in 1440, hand lettered, illuminated manuscripts gradually ceased to be made. But, a new market arose for miniature portraits. This market traces most directly to European manuscript illumination.

As political and economic conditions shifted in Europe, royal marriage alliances were often used to solidify loyalties. Marriages were arranged between people who did not know each other. A written proposal of marriage would be accompanied by a miniature portrait of the intended groom who, probably, had previously been sent a miniature portrait of the prospective bride by one of his ambassadors or had received a miniature from a father trying to make a suitable marriage for his daughter. As society became more egalitarian, the practice of giving a portrait miniature to a loved one, when they were to be separated, became common among any people who could afford to commission an artist.

  • The future Duke of Wellington in 1808, by Richard Cosway.
    The future Duke of Wellington in 1808, by Richard Cosway.

Early miniatures were done on surfaces as varied as vellum, sometimes glued to playing card stock, and chicken skin. They were usually painted in watercolor. Some artists used oil paint. If oil paint was used the surface it was painted on was copper. These were framed or, if very small, placed in a locket and worn. By the 17th century when European trade flourished with Africa and India, ivory became a surface used for miniature portraits, with watercolor being the preferred painting medium. Ivory was sliced thinly and provided a translucent painting surface but, it was also a bit greasy. To make the watercolor adhere better artists would sand the ivory a bit and add more gum Arabic to the watercolor.

 

The popularity of portrait miniatures waned in the last half of the 19th century coinciding with the rise in popularity of photography. An exception was the miniature portrait of someone who died. A continuing popularity was maintained in miniature painted portraits of the deceased placed in a locket along with lock of the person’s hair sealed behind glass in the inside cover of the locket case.

 

There are many private, as well as museum, miniature collections in Europe and in the United States. These are appreciated for their place in history and for the skill of the artists.

 

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com

Artist Victoria Chick


About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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