Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was published on March 20, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author, Peter J Baldaia. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through the Huntsville Museum of Art. The essay was written in connection with the 1996 exhibition American Portrait Miniatures from the Collection of Linda and Raymond White, held at the Huntsville Museum of Art.


From Hand to Heart: The Art of the American Miniature Portrait

by Peter J. Baldaia


The fascinating genre of painted miniature portraits evolved from an established tradition of full-sized portraiture and the desire to perpetuate images of loved ones into intimate format, suitable for carrying or wearing on one's person. The art form flowered in Revolutionary America through the mid-nineteenth century. Adapted from European models, New World miniatures were more realistic and focused on a sitter's character, reflecting the pragmatic and democratic spirit of the new country. Many of the young nation's foremost painters became skilled miniaturists, including John Singleton Cupola, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse, George Catlin, and Emanuel Leutze. Other outstanding artists specialized in the miniature genre, and spearheaded its rise to one of the crowning achievements of early nineteenth-century American art.

Portraiture initially developed from profile images. Ancient Greek and Roman coins and medals display early profiles; main features were generally indicated by simple lines and forms. Renewed interest in classical antiquity during the Renaissance revived the genre of circular profile portraits. Though profiles remained popular, artists began to capture front and three-quarter views to encompass all the expressive features of a human face.

Early miniature portraits drew on the circular shape of ancient portrait medals, and, like Medieval illuminated manuscripts, were painted on vellum. The new genre was developed through simultaneous efforts of court painters Jean Clouet, in France, and Luke Hornebolte of Ghent, in England. Under Hornebolte and his successors during Henry VIII's reign, England became the center of the miniature's future development.

The initial circular form of miniature portraits was soon replaced by the more expressive oval. Nicholas Hilliard established this new English prototype, which later took root in America. Rosalba Carriera claimed the art form's single most important advance; the Venetian artist began to use ivory, rather than vellum, as a ground for her watercolor miniatures. Its material was more luminous than vellum, resulting in artists rendering skin tones, hair, and shiny fabrics with greater veracity.

But ivory possessed challenging technical disadvantages. Its surface was hard, non-porous, and slippery; watercolor would not readily adhere. Errors in paint application were usually irreversible, and attempts at reworking often lifted the paint from its surface. Precise techniques were developed to accommodate these computabilities; paint had to be applied carefully with a dexterous method of crosshatching and stippling.

By the mid-eighteenth century, patronage for the miniature portrait extended to politicians, merchants and other members of the burgeoning middle class. For this straightforward new market, miniatures became more subdued in size and demeanor. They shrunk in height to an inch and a half, became more restrained in coloration and paint application, and were generally less idealized than aristocratic versions. These modest, unpretentious likenesses became popular in the New World. The earliest known American miniature on ivory, Portrait of a Woman of the Gibbes or Scboolbred Family, was painted around 1740, in Charleston, by Mary Roberts. Other important examples surviving the mid-eighteenth century include Portrait of Mrs. Jacob Motte, c. 1755, by Jeremiah Theüs, Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Hopkinson, painted before 1764 by Matthew Pratt, and Benjamin West's Self-Portrait, his only known miniature, painted around 1758 when the artist was still in his teens.

By the late eighteenth century, goldsmiths collaborated with the artists to create exquisite locket cases and brooches to be easily worn or carried. Paul Revere's daybooks, for example, indicate that the silversmith made locket cases for John Singleton Copley's miniatures, though no specific case has been identified.

Copley, the eighteenth century's leading American portraitist, began painting miniatures around 1758, in addition to his full-scale work. His linear and direct style, which utilized strong side lighting and clear modeling, became the prototype for colonial American portraiture. Copley's attempts to capture a sitter's character without embellishment or idealization stood in marked contrast to florid, Rococo-influenced portraits of his English and European contemporaries.

When Copley left for London in 1774, Philadelphia's Charles Willson Peale emerged as the leading American portraitist. The artist, inventor, scientist, author, and museum founder personified the optimistic "can-do" spirit of the young country. Peale showed an early penchant for miniature painting while studying in London with Benjamin West, and supported himself as a miniaturist while in England. Returning home in 1769, Peale continued to paint miniature portraits. He probably taught himself the arts of hairwork, and memorial and allegorical painting, which often decorated reverse sides of miniatures.

Peale trained his brother, James Peale, to paint the tiny portraits. The younger Peale possessed a superb talent, and soon surpassed Charles as one of the country's finest miniaturists. He assumed the miniature portion of Charles' business in 1786; and James' outstanding execution kept him in constant demand.

By 1794, James abandoned small, hard, and densely colored miniatures for larger ivories with more delicate brushwork and an increasingly graceful overall appearance. The portrait of Captain Edmund Potter from 1799 is typical of James Peale's maturing style. Its refined finish rendered flesh, hair, and eyebrows with wispy linear brushstrokes; costume detail revealed softness and precision. James Peale usually signed and dated his miniatures, and he incised I P 1799 into this ivory's lower right.

Irish miniaturist John Ramage emigrated to America from London, and initially established himself in Boston as a miniature painter and goldsmith. By 1777, he was in New York and the city's leading miniature painter; Ramage retained that position for over fifteen years. His more prominent sitters included George Washington, George Clinton, and members of the Van Rensselaer, Ludlow, Van Cortlandt, and Pintard families. Ramage's American miniatures are of consistently high quality, as seen in the 1792 Portrait of the Reverend Samuel Spraggs. Though his miniatures remained unsigned, Ramage's style is distinctive. Typical of his work, this portrait's rich color palette and fine, delicate brushwork create the effect of a painting on enamel. The reverend's features are sharp, carefully rendered, with background highlights setting off the cheek and shoulder. The simple gold case, with its delicately scalloped inner bezel, is likely Ramage's work as well.

Toward the century's end, many European miniaturists travelled America painting citizens of the burgeoning nation. British artists brought with them the newly enlarged, more luminous miniatures favored in England, while Continental artists imported their favored circular format and use of gouache and opaque color. These immigrant artists worked as itinerants outside populated areas of the Northeast, and exerted great influence on the native artists they met; some opened painting schools to supplement their income.

Early in the nineteenth century, Gilbert Stuart established himself as the era's supreme American portraitist. He was not known to have painted miniature portraits, but Stuart's refined style, fusing the American's penchant for factual realism and the fluid and decorative manner of fine English portraitists, was successful and highly influential. Stuart and European miniaturists working in America at this time, catalyzed the development of a number of outstanding artists who, in the ensuing decades, would create America's "golden era" of miniature portrait painting.

Edward Greene Malbone came of age in this period and emerged as America's finest miniaturist. A self-taught artist, who was active for less than twelve years, Malbone established himself in Providence, Massachusetts at the age of seventeen, later working in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston.

By 1801 Malbone had developed a technique of building up form through a network of delicate crosshatching, allowing the luminosity of the ivory to emerge through thin washes of transparent color. A trip to England to study the portraits of Sir Thomas Lawrence and several leading British miniaturists freed Malbone's brush work. It became broader with subtler transitions between painted areas. His backgrounds lightened and became more atmospheric, often displaying a sky and cloud motif. Portrait of Abagail Amory Winslow exhibits the freshness and confidence in execution that exemplified Malbone's mature style and underscored his rank as a preeminent miniaturist.

A second generation of Peale family artists joined James Peale, dominating the miniature portrait markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Raphaelle Peale, Charles' eldest son, was taught miniature painting from his uncle James. James' daughter, Anna Claypoole Peale, produced works with a delicate pattern of intricate crosshatching. Anna trained under her father as well, and painted over 150 miniatures during her career.

Her Portrait of a Gentleman emphasizes the sitter's age and character through delicate, transparent shadowing of his face, particularly around the eyes and cheeks. A bright costume and chiaroscuro background lends the piece a lively air. As elsewhere, she depicted her subject in a somewhat attenuated, rendering the figure with a slender torso and elongated neck. Anna Claypoole Peale was the last of the Peale family miniaturists.

By the 1820s, a new miniature style, developed in England a decade earlier, was gaining American favor. The elegantly restrained miniatures of Revolutionary America were superseded by realistic, highly finished works in both oval and rectangular formats. Increasingly, these were housed in leather cases or small wooden frames to reinforce their resemblance to small oil paintings. Change in presentation not only radically altered the look of miniature portraits, but also negated the original purpose, to be worn or carried as a cherished reminder of a loved one.

Although their size increased by the turn of the century, miniatures continued to be worn as brooches or lockets. The new rectangular miniatures functioned as portable objects for a while, but their appeal as an "affectionate memento" waned as years progressed.

American portrait painting in the second quarter of the nineteenth century was exemplified by the facile works of Thomas Sully. Born in Horncastle, England, Sully immigrated to Virginia in 1792; he later settled in Charleston, West Virginia and then, in Philadelphia. Like his contemporary Malbone, Sully had absorbed the fluid portrait style of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Sully's work quickly established him as Philadelphia's leading portraitist; by the 1830s, he was widely regarded the finest in the nation. Sully's dashing style inspired a younger generation of miniaturists centered in New York, including Henry Inman and Thomas Seir Cummings.

Henry Inman arrived in New York from Utica in 1812; he began an extended apprenticeship under distinguished portraitist John Wesley Jarvis. Inman progressed rapidly, and soon formed a lucrative business with Jarvis. In 1822, Inman opened his own studio. Shortly thereafter, he accepted Thomas Seir Cummings as his apprentice. They formed a partnership in 1824, and three years later, divided the business: Inman specializing exclusively in oils and Cummings in miniatures.

Cumming's miniatures were most successful and prolific. His informative essay, "Practical Directions for Miniature Painting" summarized his philosophy: "Works in miniature should possess the same beauty of composition, correctness of drawing, breadth of light and shade, brilliancy, truth of color, and firmness of touch, as works executed on a larger scale."[1] Like Inman's, Cummings' miniatures are technically flawless and often psychologically perceptive. His Portrait of a Gentleman painted in rectangular format, achieves a striking effect with strong light, dark contrasts, and the application of brilliant color.

With the 1839 invention of the daguerreotype, photographic portraiture began. Miniaturists could not compete with the new technology's increasing popularity, and consequently, many abandoned their art. John Wood Dodge learned to adapt, offering his clients a choice of the two mediums. A self-taught miniaturist initially centered in New York, Dodge moved south, in 1841, due to frail health. He settled in Nashville, and was commissioned to paint miniatures by Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Between 1838 and 1861, Dodge traveled frequently in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, turning out hundreds of skilled miniatures.

His extremely fine Portrait of David Peter Lewis depicts the Huntsville, Alabama native; an attorney who became Alabama's twenty-third governor in 1872. Lewis is set against a simple luminous background with direct and meticulous detail. Dodge's characteristic technique of including a thumbprint-shaped shadow to the sitter's right, is apparent in this accomplished work.

The advent of negative-based photography in the late 1850s enabled portrait photographers to easily reproduce multiple prints. Photographs were consequently so cheap and ubiquitous, that miniatures came to be looked upon as undesirably outdated.

But industrialization spearheaded a resurgent interest in the handmade objects at the turn of the twentieth century. The ivory miniature was revived as part of an Arts and Crafts movement, and the American Society of Miniature Painters was established in 1899. Some prominent revival miniaturists include William J. Whittemore, Lucia Fairchild Fuller, Lucy M. Stanton, Rosa Hooper, and Margaret Foote Hawley.

While their works are often aesthetically pleasing and technically proficient, revival miniaturists exhibited less skillful buildup of forms, precise brushwork, and clarity of purpose than their eighteenth and nineteenth century counterparts. Many painted on ivorine or celluloid as ivory became increasingly difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, revival era miniatures never achieved widespread popularity with the American public.

The fine art of the miniature portrait is an important, yet under-recognized, aspect of eighteenth and nineteenth century American art. No longer a part of the fabric of artistic production, the genre offers a unique window into a time when a "likeness in little" represented an artistic tour-de-force that held treasured meaning for its fortunate owner.

This essay was adapted in large part from the book, American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection, by Dale T. Johnson (1990, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).



1. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, 1834, vol. 2, pp. 10-14.


About the author

Peter J. Baldaia, is the Chief Curator at the Huntsville Museum of Art, 300 Church Street S, Huntsville, AL 35801.

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