One of the most intimate forms of art, the miniature represents a compelling chapter in the history of art. While large-scale portraits served as a testament to one’s power and importance, the miniature had a far different purpose. Given as personal gifts to loved ones and bestowed as rewards for loyal supporters, they were meant to be kept close and private as a reminder of one’s love, faith or fealty. Today, they offer us a glimpse into a world that no longer exists — of courtiers and kings, of generals and revolutionaries — each rendered down to the most minute detail. Yet, the emotional impulses behind their creation remain familiar, and it is this dichotomy that makes them so captivating to contemporary viewers and collectors. 

The art of the miniature spans over 400 years, first finding popularity in the early 16th century when miniatures first appeared in French and English courts. The word itself derives from the Italian miniatura, meaning "manuscript illumination," which lends insight into the development of the art form. The very first artworks that were painted in miniature were those that illustrated 15th-century manuscripts and hand-written books. Artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger and Simon Bening soon began to produce small portraits and devotional miniatures on vellum to meet the growing demands of wealthy clients for luxury goods. The art of the portrait miniature was officially born.

EARLY HISTORY

Ferdinand III of Germany, Circa 1631, 1 3/4 in. x 1 1/8 in., M.S. Rau

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539, 2 1/2 in. (diameter), Victoria and Albert Museum (London)

Ferdinand III of Germany, Circa 1631,
1 3/4 in. x 1 1/8 in., M.S. Rau

Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, Circa 1695,
3 1/4 in. x 2 1/2 in., M.S. Rau

As early as the late 16th century and into the 17th century, portrait miniatures were primarily useful to royalty, who used them as a sign of a monarch’s favor. They were small enough that they could be privately gifted to a supporter, but important and luxurious enough that they could also be publicly bestowed, much like a medal.

Discover how this art form evolved in Britain, France and the United States through an exploration of important miniatures from museums around the world and M.S. Rau’s own collection.

 

BRITAIN

The art of the portrait miniature was arguably born in England, and it certainly gained its prominence in the country. The art form first rose to popularity in the mid-16th century, when Queen Elizabeth's noble and upper-class subjects began to wear her image as a sign of allegiance and devotion. When King James I gained the throne in 1603, he too recognized the power of the miniature as a propaganda tool; during his reign, the miniaturists Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard would produce innumerable miniatures of the king and the royal family.

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Portrait of Governor John Bance by Christian Friedrich Zincke, Circa 1735, 4 in. x 3 3/4 in., M.S. Rau

Unknown Sitter by William Prewitt, Circa 1740, 2 1/4 in. x 1 9/16 in., M.S. Rau

Charles Watson Wentworth by William Russell Birch, Circa 1786, 3 1/8 in. x 2 in., M.S. Rau

FRANCE

Emperor Napoléon attributed to André Léon Larue, 1812, 6 in. x 5 in., M.S. Rau

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Ignazio Pio Vittoriano Campana, Circa 1780, 2 7/8 in. (diameter), The Tansey Miniatures Foundation (Celle, Germany)

King Louis XIV by Jacques Antoine Arlaud, Circa 1690, 3 1/4 in. x 3 in., M.S. Rau

France also had a strong tradition of portrait miniatures that, like the British, was initially centered around the royal family and their court. Many of these portraits were also set in bejeweled frames, known by the French boîte à portrait, or “portrait box,” that were linked to the 17th-century taste for gem-encrusted jewelry and enamel cases.

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New and coming into its national identity, colonial America set out to create its own visual history. Without the noble families that were so often the subject of European miniatures, American portraitists focused instead on military and political leaders.

AMERICA

Martha Washington by M. Peel, late 18th century, 5 3/4 in. x 5 in., M.S. Rau

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale,
circa 1778, 3 3/8 in. x 2 3/4 in., M.S. Rau

American Naval Captain, John Paul Jones, circa 1780, 1 1/2 in. x 1 1/4 in., M.S. Rau

The history of American art begins with portraiture. Colonial America lacked the wealth of Europe, and if an individual could afford the luxury of a painting, they would most likely purchase a portrait of themselves or their family. Portraits were often commissioned to commemorate important life events such as weddings, births or deaths, and spending money on a landscape or a still life would have been considered frivolous. European settlers brought miniature portraits with them to colonial America, where the art form became wildly popular. The history of the portrait miniature in America is relatively brief compared to its long tradition in Europe, rising to prominence in the mid-18th century and flourishing for only the next hundred-odd years.

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To learn more about the M.S. Rau portrait miniature collection or our collection of important paintings and sculpture, visit our website or contact us at 800-544-9440.

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BRITAIN

FRANCE

AMERICA

At the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution brought intense social and political upheaval to France. It is perhaps the nature of the miniature as a remembrance of a loved one that ensured its continued popularity throughout this tumultuous age.

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Around the beginning of the 18th century, England’s population had exploded to nearly 4 million people thanks to a dramatic increase in the country’s wealth. Newly wealthy upper- and middle-class families sought ways to display their newfound riches, fueling the demand for portraiture. Miniatures were no longer a luxury that was limited to royalty and nobility.

Pocket-Sized Treasures: The Art of the Portrait Miniature explores this fascinating chapter in the history of fine art.

One of the most intimate forms of art, the miniature represents a compelling chapter in the history of art. While large-scale portraits served as a testament to one’s power and importance, the miniature had a far different purpose. Given as personal gifts to loved ones and bestowed as rewards for loyal supporters, they were meant to be kept close and private as a reminder of one’s love, faith or fealty. Today, they offer us a glimpse into a world that no longer exists — of courtiers and kings, of generals and revolutionaries — each rendered down to the most minute detail. Yet, the emotional impulses behind their creation remain familiar, and it is this dichotomy that makes them so captivating to contemporary viewers and collectors.