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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

American Portrait Miniature Treasures

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

American artists began painting portrait miniatures around the mid-eighteenth century, following English and European traditions. The miniatures were closely tied to artistic and social circles, representing keepsakes for bonds of family and friendships, and of admired public figures. Portrait miniatures were often created to celebrate a special event or relationship, such as an engagement, marriage, or memorial. Private gifts of portrait miniatures sometimes were exchanged between loved ones, in which only a person’s eye was depicted. Miniatures were usually palm-size and created to be held or worn as jewelry. These treasured objects combined the fine art of portraiture with the decorative arts in protective cases of glass, fine metals, leather, filigree, and gems. The portrait miniatures were influenced by the earlier traditions of medieval illuminated manuscripts and classically inspired portrait medals of the Renaissance. In the colonial period, artists referred to the art as “pictures in little.”

The earliest English and European miniatures were created with watercolor or gouache painted on vellum and later on ivory or card. There was also a tradition of oil or enamel painted on copper and wood panel. In America, many of the early miniatures were created by European-trained artists beginning in the early eighteenth century. American artists learned from visiting or emigrant European artists and by studying abroad. The popularity of painted portrait miniatures was affected by the competitive market of daguerreotypes and photographs in the mid-nineteenth century. At this time, artists started painting portrait miniatures with greater realistic details and larger formats for public display on tables or as wall hangings. After 1890, miniature painting experienced a revival through the Arts and Crafts movement and the 1899 formation of the American Society of Miniature Painters.

From 2011 to 2012, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery held an exhibition entitled Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750–1920. To complement this past show, I would like to present additional miniatures from the collection that are fine examples in the historic development of this art form in America.

Andrew Oliver (1706–1774), by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), c. 1758, oil on copper (NPG.78.218)

In about 1758, the young artist John Singleton Copley captured a remarkable likeness of Andrew Oliver, with attention to facial modeling, realistic detail, and side lighting. Copley created this portrait in oil on copper, a technique he used in the early stage of his career, possibly following the miniature technique of John Smibert, a Scottish artist who settled in Boston. Copley also painted a c. 1760 companion portrait of Oliver’s brother Peter, which has a matching original porthole decorative frame. The Oliver family members were so impressed with Copley’s talent that they commissioned seven miniatures from him. Andrew Oliver was a leading merchant and active politician in Boston. He served in the colonial House of Representatives for three terms, on the Massachusetts Council from 1746 until he was appointed secretary of the province in 1756 and lieutenant governor of the colony in 1771. As a representative of the British Crown, he was violently attacked by the colonists as an appointed distributor of the unpopular tax stamps after the Stamp Act of 1765.

Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828), by John Trumbull (1756–1843), 1791, oil on wood panel (NPG.2007.211)

Thomas Pinckney, a former governor of South Carolina, was soon to become minister to England when John Trumbull created this 1791 oil on wood panel miniature. The artist followed the elegant Federal period’s fluid, painterly style in this portrait of Pinckney in uniform, with a cloudy sky in the background in the English manner. He had studied painting under the American artist Benjamin West in London. Trumbull’s 1791 miniatures of Thomas Pinckney and his brother Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were intended as sketches for a planned group history painting of the 1779 siege of Savannah that was never realized. Both brothers had participated in the unsuccessful attempt to recapture Savannah from the British during the American Revolution. Thomas Pinckney’s most notable role was as special envoy to Spain, where he negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), which expanded America’s commercial interests in the Mississippi River region.

Elizabeth Depeyster Peale (1765–1804), by James Peale (1749–1831), 1795, watercolor on ivory (S/NPG.2009.49)

James Peale created a 1795 watercolor on ivory miniature of Elizabeth Depeyster Peale, the wife of his older brother Charles Willson Peale. Charles, a widower with six children, was impressed by Elizabeth’s character at their meeting in April 1791 during her visit to Philadelphia. She was a daughter of a New York City merchant; she married Peale after a brief courtship. James Peale had studied painting under his brother and specialized in portrait miniatures. James employed delicate, fine linear brushstrokes and soft lighting for this portrait of Elizabeth. He presented her in an engaged, relaxed manner with a slight smile.

Self-Portrait, by James Reid Lambdin (1807–1889), c. 1845, watercolor on ivory (NPG.78.213)

James Reid Lambdin’s c. 1845 watercolor on ivory miniature is a self-portrait in a dramatic style, depicting the young man’s head turned to the side with sensitive modeling and highlights on his face. This miniature recalls the general aura of the portraits of Lord George Gordon Byron, the poetic leader of the Romantic movement in England. Lambdin was an accomplished artist, educator, and leader in American art circles. He studied with the English miniature artist Edward Miles and local artist Thomas Sully in Philadelphia. In 1828 Lambdin founded the Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Fine Art, following the model of Charles Willson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. In 1837, Lambdin settled in Philadelphia and served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1845–64) and taught at the University of Pennsylvania (1861–66). During this period, President James Buchanan appointed him U.S. art commissioner, and Lambdin created portraits of fifteen U.S. presidents and other statesmen.

Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), by John Wood Dodge (1807–1893), 1849, watercolor on ivory (NPG.80.113)

John Wood Dodge painted a 1849 watercolor on ivory miniature of Varina Howell Davis in Natchez, Mississippi. The artist portrayed the young Varina with refined, directional brushstrokes that follow the structure of her face. She wears a miniature brooch depicting a King Charles spaniel. This portrait is encased in a gold locket with her braided hair preserved as part of the decorative backside. At age eighteen, she married Jefferson Davis, who became the future president of the Confederacy in Richmond during the Civil War. She was a devoted wife and mother of their five children and an accomplished first lady. Dodge was mostly self-taught, following an early apprenticeship with a sign and ornamental painter. He exhibited his miniatures in 1829 at the National Academy of Design in New York City and became an associate of the academy in 1832. Dodge was later commissioned to paint miniatures of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. He was a talented and prolific artist creating more than one thousand miniatures, as recorded in his account book from 1828 to 1864. A copy of the account book is held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), by George Lethbridge Saunders (1807–1863), 1849, watercolor on ivory (NPG.79.228)

In 1849, English artist George Lethbridge Saunders painted a watercolor on ivory miniature of Jefferson Davis. Saunders employed a colorful and varied artistic style, reserving the more detailed brushstrokes for Davis’s facial features, and surrounding his figure with soft washes for the landscape and cloudy sky in the English manner. Saunders painted this portrait when Davis was a senator representing Mississippi, before he became the president of the Confederate States of America. Saunders was already an established artist when he visited America in the 1840s. He created miniatures of prominent family members in cities along the East Coast, from Boston to Charleston. He met such artists as Thomas Sully and Charles Fraser and exhibited his works from 1840 to 1843 at the Apollo Association in New York City and the Artists’ Fund Society in Philadelphia.

The Silver Goblet (Self-Portrait), by Lucy May Stanton (1875–1931), 1912, watercolor on ivory. (NPG.72.24)

Lucy May Stanton created this 1912 impressionistic watercolor on ivory self-portrait, The Silver Goblet. She depicted herself in the miniature with soft, fluid washes, produced by a new innovative “puddling” technique, in which the artist controlled the flow of washes by tilting the workboard. Stanton looks directly at the viewer in a confident and celebratory manner in this portrait. She studied in America and France with such artists as J. Emile Blanche, Augustus Koopman, Virginia Reynolds, and James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Stanton in turn became an art educator and exhibited in the United States and abroad, receiving many awards for her works. She also promoted woman suffrage and in 1928 co-founded the Georgia Peace Society.

American portrait miniatures evolved from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. The artists adapted English and European styles and techniques, but they transformed their artworks in the process. The American miniatures emphasized simplicity, directness, and “truth in the likeness,” reflective of the new nation and culture. 

In 1966 the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery established the Catalog of American Portraits, a national portrait archives of historically notable subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present. The public may access the online portrait search program from the museum website of more than 100,000 records; more than 7,000 of these are miniature portraits. . Some of the most notable miniature collections are found at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, New York Historical Society, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

All images are from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Fortune, Brandon, and Ann Shumard. Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750–1920. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, June 17, 2011, through May 13 2012.

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “American Portrait Miniatures of the Nineteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Telling a Larger Story: Collecting Miniatures for a New Century. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, September 18, 2007, through January 13, 2008.

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Private Faces of Public People: 1750-1900. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, August 17, 2005, through June 1, 2007.


Aronson, Julie, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Exhibition catalogue. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 2006.

Barratt, Carrie Rebora, and Lori Zabar. American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.

Bolton-Smith, Robin. Portrait Miniatures in the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1984.

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Dale T. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Labels: 2014 Archives Month, Archives, Artists, Arts and Design, History and Culture, Museums

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