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Portrait miniatures: Pretty as a picture
By Ginger Levit

Prior to the advent of photography, if a person wanted to carry around the likeness of a loved one, he or she may have turned to the portrait miniature. Painted in watercolor on ivory, they featured the likeness of loved ones, as well as images of important people of the day such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Portrait miniatures were also made as mourning portraits after a loved-one died.

The Colonists carried them everywhere, keeping them close to their hearts. Portrait miniature expert Elle Shushan, a scholar and one of the leading dealers in the field, calls them “tokens of affection.”

They flourished as early as 1760 and faded away around 1860. The 18th century was known as the century of sentiment and sensibility and feeling was considered to be “a path to knowledge and a mark of one’s true humanity and virtue.”

In 1780 Georgiana Shipley wrote to Benjamin Franklin, to thank him for his gift of a snuffbox with a miniature portrait of himself by François Dumont (1751-1831) on top of it. She was the daughter of a close friend. She rhapsodized, “How shall I sufficiently express my raptures on receiving your…most valuable present…I kissed…the picture 1000 times.”

Portrait miniatures were in demand until the advent of photography in the 1840s. Size and portability determined their popularity. Dating back to the Italian Renaissance, the portrait miniature remained popular through the Civil War. Then photographs became the easiest keepsake to carry around and the quickest to execute. Although, around the mid 1800s one photographer mastered the art of transferring a photograph onto the oval miniature.

The earliest successful miniaturists were Archibald Robertson (1765-1835), Robert Field (1769-1819) and Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).

Peale led the way. Born in Maryland, he also lived in Boston where he met John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley. He then studied portraiture with Benjamin West and other British miniaturists who worked in West’s atelier in London. There he learned stippling — the applying of small dots of pigment with the point of a brush and hatching —the application of long, parallel brushstrokes. The sharply pointed brushes were called pencils. Peale returned to America as miniatures became the rage; his patrons ran the gamut from the sober Quakers, such as Hannah Cadwalader Morris to Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston, a member of Philadelphia’s elite. Peale’s miniature of Livingston was painted on the occasion of his marriage to Anne Hume Shippen on March 11, 1781. Dressed in the distinguished uniform of his New York regiment, he makes arresting direct eye contact with the viewer. Its frame is studded with garnets and the reverse side has two merged hearts made from the couple’s hair. The use of the hair of the giver and/or recipient was often a sentimental gesture. This portrait is a wonderful example of the merging of personal and national history. Passing on his expertise to his brother James Peale (1749-1831), they both painted George Washington in miniature a multitude of times. Gilbert Stuart (1775-1828), who was painting large portraits of our first president, appointing British miniaturist Robert Field (1769-1819) to make tiny copies of his important presidential portraits.

European artists also flocked to the United States to cash in on the growing market for luxury goods and the craze for portraits of Washington. Frenchmen Jean-Pierre-Henri Elouis and Pierre Henri were among them. Pierre Henri (1760-1822) painted a naïve, horizontal oval of the women in his family. Titled The Artist’s Family, it was painted in 1800. His wife even wears his miniature portrait at her breast. Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807), died at age 29, but was known for his delicate, sensitive, romantic portraits that take advantage of the translucency of the ivory. Carol Soltis, Consulting Curator for The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art said, “he is typically considered the finest American miniaturist active during the peak of the genre’s greatest popularity. And friend Washington Allston spoke of Malbone as having ’the happy talent of elevating character without impairing likeness.’”

Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878) was the daughter of James Peale and painted miniatures of important heroes such as Andrew Jackson. She exhibited regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, spanning the years from 1817-1842. She was selected to paint Jared Sparks (1789-1866), an editor and historian who became the President of Harvard. By the 1830s, like other artists of the day, she had switched to square and rectangular shaped ivory, replacing the traditional vertical oval format.

John Henry Brown (1818-1891) advanced the portrait miniature many steps forward by a placing a photograph on the ivory to produce a realistic likeness. He also introduced the opalotype to the public, which was an albumen photographic image transferred onto white glass. Economical and requiring less labor and artistic ability, it actually resembled the classic portrait miniature on ivory.

William Dunlap wrote in 1834 in his book on design that the portrait miniature, besides its artistic qualities, provided a sensory experience to the viewer. The objects had the capacity to “raise sensations and feelings” in their owners which made them far more precious, beyond their delicacy and technique.

Ginger Levit is a private art dealer in fine French and American paintings who writes about art, antiques and travel. Contact her at

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