Small painted portraits from the past centuries are highly sought-after collector's items because no room or gallery is required to create an overview of the styles and developments within this genre of painting. Portrait miniatures show us how people presented themselves to their surroundings, often proud and looking at their best. Portraits captivate by their versatility and insight into the past.
It is noteworthy to know that the word ‘miniature’ was initially used in connection with 15th century books illuminated on parchment, namely for the first letter of a chapter accented with red (minium), which through time became more and more detailed and illustrative.
In the 16th century small portraits became independent items, mainly at the royal courts in Europe, and were used to be donated and carried around. They continued to be painted on parchment, often reinforced with a piece of playing card. The framing was expensive, comparable to the price of jewels. Artists who stood at the cradle of the portrait miniature were Lucas Horenbout (c. 1490-1544) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries it became more common to have a portable portrait made, albeit still limited to the rich and powerful. More and more portraits were created to hang on the wall in order to create a collection. During this time copper plate became popular as a painting surface, in addition to parchment, and instead of tempera, oil paint was used to paint. These copperplated miniatures can sometimes be found and collected in the antique trade.
A signature, date or name of the person portrayed is very rare but with the necessary knowledge of fashion and hairstyle, one can place a portrait in its era and country. Sometimes a family coat of arms is painted with the portrait, or an attribute in the hand or on a table can teach us something about the person portrayed. Monarchs often show themselves with crown, scepter and ermine mantle. Because there are usually many portraits of these monarchs, identification is easier.
By comparing, a portrait can sometimes be attributed to an artist. In the Netherlands to, for example, Gonzales Coques, Caspar Netscher, Willem and Frans van Mieris, Gerard Ter Borch, etc. In England, Isaac Oliver, Alexander, Samuel Cooper and John Hoskins are well-known specialists in portrait miniatures.
About 1700 parchment and copper were replaced by ivory. The fashionable white skin could be easily created on ivory. This development can be attributed to Rosalba Carriera, who worked for a snuff box maker in Venice. She painted the ivory interior of his boxes so beautifully that the idea arose to create separate portraits. She was so successful that she sold her portraits throughout Europe and gained a large following. Bernard Lens was the first to apply her technique in England.
At this time a portrait became accessible to more and more people and the 18th century became known as the “Golden Age” of the portrait miniature. Richard Cosway, John Smart and George Engleheart are famous and highly sought-after portrait miniature painters from this period.
In the Netherlands, portraits were created on ivory but modestly. The Dutch had painters like Leonard Temminck, Pieter Lesage, Daniel Bruyninx and many others. At the end of the 18th century a new craze emerged for the so-called ‘silhouettes’, a simple, fast and cheap method of portrait miniature painting. In a domestic circle people portrayed each other in silhouette as a pastime.
Until the invention of photography, around the middle of the 19th century, people relied on the miniaturist to capture someone's image as a keepsake. The first photographers were often portraitists who could edit their products with paint to make them look like a miniature.
But the time of the portrait miniature would soon be over. There was another romantic revival around 1900, when many Marie Antoinettes and Madame de Pompadours adorned the ladies’ boudoirs in frames made from piano keys. But rarely were actual people immortalised in a portrait miniature anymore; people preferred the photograph.
But what would be nicer then to look at a wall full of portrait miniatures of gentlemen with white lace collars and shoulder-length hair, ladies in a cloud of shiny silk, erudite wielded regents, fashionable young men, monarchs who defined the history of their time? It is worth collecting.