As is often the case, I recently came across a very dry history book with some hidden gems in it. Miniatures: Ancient and Modern was written by Cyril Davenport and published in 1908 and although I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re a miniaturist dilettante like I am, it does offer a useful perspective on how English miniatures changed from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The short answer is not much in terms of shape and overall presentation. Excluding the style exhibited in the day’s favored painter, miniature portraits gradually grew more sophisticated in terms of backgrounds and range of mediums, but they are still miniatures.
England’s Three Periods of Miniature Art
The 16th century Tudor period marks the first time in English history when miniatures appear in large numbers. They are influenced by the work of Hans Holbein, the younger and are fairly uniform in design. Simple blue or red backgrounds predominate and men are the likeliest subjects, although important high-born ladies and Queen Elizabeth do appear.
The shape of the miniature is round, the medium gouache or oils, on vellum or paper, wood or metal, respectively, and no shadows present themselves on the portrait itself. Davenport’s definition of a miniature is no larger than 7×7 inches, which sounds fairly large to me if you wanted to admire someone in the palm of your hand (I always thought miniatures were somewhere in the range of 2×2 inches or less, but I guess not). Anything larger than 7×7 inches gets classified as a cabinet painting, which would measure no more than 2×2 feet.
The black and white mother and son portrait miniatures are from Elizabeth’s reign. If you do know what Henry, Prince of Wales looks like, you might be wondering if this miniature is actually of his younger brother, Charles I. Here’s a portrait from 1610-12 painted shortly before Henry death at age 18, making the age depicted in the miniature improbable.
Maybe the miniature below is a keepsake of what Henry would have looked like if he hadn’t died (hmm, I wonder if that was done)? Or maybe the painter sucked at his art? Another of history’s mysteries, if you’re up for some sleuthing. You can see Anne’s miniature in color here–the jewels in her hair and ruff are crazy!
The style of the 17th century Stuart period takes a nod from the work of Anthony van Dyck. Instead of being strictly blue or red, backgrounds add distinctive scenery and short oval shapes compete with the rounds of the previous century. The mediums have not yet changed. I personally like the first miniature of a Lady as Flora that was painted by Issac Oliver between 1575 and his death in 1617, making it straddle the Tudor and Stuart period. The duke in the second miniature has smug looking lips though, so I can’t recommend him.
Before daguerrotypes came onto the scene and resounded the miniature death knell, the third period extended into the 18th and 19th centuries. They styles is a reflection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings. Transparent watercolors were introduced, the shape turned oval, and ivory is a popular medium on which to paint. Ladies also start to appear in miniatures with regularity, though I must say I’ve seen a lot of ladies in 17th century miniatures.
The first three below are 18th century, the fourth is from the 19th, and the fifth is late 19th to early 20th century.
One last medium that I haven’t mentioned is enamel. Portraits on enamel have been around since the Byzantine period and during the 16th-19th centuries, were more popular on the continent than in England. I like how glossy they look. The colored Mary Wortley Montagu miniature at the top of the post is also enamel.
Unlike miniatures from the 16th century onward, early examples of Roman miniatures from the first and second centuries A.D. were painted on gold leaf and encased in glass plaques. The Greeks produced encaustic miniatures, painted on wood with hot beeswax, while Renaissance Italians and Germans also excelled at encaustic works, setting their miniatures in relief with most of their subjects in profile.
Clearly, there’s always been a desire to carry a beloved’s portrait around, making me think that miniatures are kind of romantic. Yes, they were given as diplomatic gifts and created to commemorate an age or occasion, but I can’t help but feel that many of them are as sentimental as a picture or a photograph in locket, which has got me thinking . . . what’s the history of lockets?
For more information on miniatures, do see:
And if you’d like to know what was going on across the pond, visit the Metropolitan’s Museum of 18th century American miniatures and 19th century American miniatures. Of particular note is the daring Sarah Goodridge’s self-portrait. Gotta love a lady with pluck!