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Faces of History: The World of Portrait Miniatures

June 16, 2022
Home / The Vault / Faces of History: The World of Portrait Miniatures

Portrait miniatures are a rare connection to those that came before us. These small works of art are not only significant in the artistic ability required to create them but hold a historical significance in the documenting of people in a time predating photography. Miniature portraits were commissioned for a number of reasons; to commemorate loved ones, significant figures or to document occasions such as marriage. They could also be used as a means of identification and introduction, in instances such as diplomatic meetings or in the arrangement of marriages. The world of portrait miniatures puts us face-to-face with people of the past and gives us insight into the lives, fashion and customs during the times of which they were created. 


The creation of portrait miniatures was a crossroads between the popularity of illuminated manuscripts and commemorative medals. “Arising from a fusion of the separate traditions of the illuminated manuscript and the medal, miniature painting flourished from the beginning of the 16th century down to the mid-19th century" (Kuiper, 2022). Illuminated manuscripts were highly prized from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance. The connection to the art of portrait miniature can be observed through the use of the word miniature deprived from the Latin word 'miniare'.  

The term miniature derives from the Latin word 'miniare' meaning 'to colour with red lead', and points to the origins of miniature painting in medieval illuminated manuscripts, which were illustrated using the pigment, also known as minium' (Wall, 2020).

Another connection can be drawn from the materials used in the early forms of portrait miniature. Vellum is a form of parchment used in illuminated manuscripts and was also used for early portrait miniature works. The portability and petite size of medals influenced the size of portrait miniatures and progressed them from small paintings to items that would adorn the body. Originally Portrait miniatures would be carried in specialized cases or boxes prior to their adaptation into items of jewellery. Portrait miniature art has a long history beginning in the 16th century and remaining popular through to the 18th century. The most notable production of portrait miniatures begun in the 1520's for the courts in France and England by artists Jean Clouet and Lucas Horenbout. “Portrait miniatures were employed by European monarchs as diplomatic gifts or to reward faithful courtiers but also in marriage negotiations" (Wall, 2020). Queen Elizabeth had portrait miniatures encased in precious metals and many members of elite society wore them to display loyalty to the queen. From there they were adopted as a fashionable way for people to commemorate their loved ones, or as tokens of love and friendship.


As portrait miniatures increased in popularity and in turn demand, various adaptations were made in the materials used to create these pieces of art. Early miniaturists used watercolour and gouache on vellum, a form of parchment created out of calfskin, to create their artworks. Across Italy, the Netherlands and Germany oil painting on copper became a popular medium, which later lead to enamel on copper. During the 18th century miniaturists reverted back to the use of gouache and watercolour but on the preferred surface of ivory (Lang Antiques, 2022). The invention of photography with the development of the daguerreotype in 1839 saw the demand for portrait miniature painting decrease. As photography become widely accessible, in regards to affordability and also with technological advancements, the need for portrait miniature painting eventually faded into obscurity. 

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Kuiper, K (2022). "Miniature painting", Britannica; https://www.britannica.com/art/miniature-painting

Lang Antiques (2022). "Antique jewellery university: miniature"'; https://www.langantiques.com/university/miniature/

The Cleveland Museum of Art (2022). "European art 1775-1825: portrait miniatures"; https://www.clevelandart.org/sites/default/files/documents/gallery-card/Portrait%20Miniatures_complete_final_032113.pdf

Wall, R (2020). "Media in focus: portrait miniatures", Art Web; https://blog.artweb.com/how-to/portrait-miniatures/

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