Collecting and Researching Miniature Portraits

The fascination in collecting miniature portraits arises from an awe of the skill of the artist, with each portrait being a unique and original work of art. This is enhanced by the opportunity to research individual sitters and the historical events associated with them. Such research often proceeds like a detective story.

As with collecting of any nature, there is also the thrill of the hunt. In no other branch of art collecting is it possible for a collector of average means to acquire original works of art by a range of artists whose work hangs in major art museums around the world. However, even works of unknown sitters by unknown artists can be very appealing, such as this young girl in a pink dress painted by an American artist not yet identified.

Broadly, miniatures fall into two categories. Firstly, those painted at the specific request of the sitter, normally only a single version, but sometimes multiple versions for different family members. Secondly, those made in the 19C and early 20C as copies of well known large paintings and sold as decorative items. Miniatures in this latter category are often housed in frames made of old piano keys or ornate filigree brass, sometimes with pages from old books on the reverse to give the impression of great age. While both categories are collectible, those painted at the request of the sitter are usually preferred. It is best to avoid items with damage.

Although the earliest miniature portraits date back to the 16C, collectors are most likely to come across those painted in the 150 years between 1780 and 1930. The peak was 1790 to 1840, after which the introduction of photography made it difficult for artists to compete commercially, although there was a revival around 1890-1910 as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The more that is known about the artist and sitter, the more interesting and the higher the value of the portrait.

John Henry Brown of Philadelphia was one of the few in the 19C who could compete with photography. In 1860 he painted a miniature portrait of Abraham Lincoln for which he charged $175. That miniature is now a prized exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

In the same year he charged $180 to paint this miniature of Maria Gouverneur Cadwalader. Brown was renown for his ability to paint miniatures which looked like photographs. His day-book reveals that he worked six days a week, for a month, on this Cadwalader miniature. The quality of his lace work is incredible.

As in any collecting field, collectors can buy from dealers or set sail into the world of the public auction. Buying from a reputable dealer gives confidence a purchase has been properly researched and described, but one is unlikely to make a "find". Conversely, buying at auction is generally cheaper, with the risk of error somewhat offset by a lower cost, and a much better chance of making a "find" Needless to say, good reference books can pay for themselves many times over in identifying an artist.

Known artists and/or sitters also allow a collector to apply simple genealogical skills, such as census records, to research them. This can add substantially to the interest and value of a miniature. To illustrate this, several miniatures are illustrated in this article, although there is space here to show only a fraction of the research. They were purchased at public auction at an average cost of under $500, but their value has been enhanced as a result of research.

The Swiss miniature of a man in a wig by Johann Heinrich Hurter was painted in enamel on a copper ground in 1788. No knowledge of the sitter accompanied the miniature, although the reverse is engraved "I N S Allamand obit d 2 Maart 1787".

Research into his identity has revealed that he was Jean-Nicolas-Sebastien Allamand, a professor at Leiden University, a well known naturalist of the 18C and member of the Royal Society. He was friendly with Benjamin Franklin and his experiments in reducing the effect of rough waves on distressed ships by using oil, led to the common phrase "pouring oil on troubled waters". It appears Hurter completed the miniature after Allamand's death and then married his widow.

This miniature of a young lady with a pink wrap was purchased as an unknown sitter. The value of reference books was proven several months later, when an identical image of another version was found in the Carolina Arts Association Catalogue.

  • 8-4-2008

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