This morning, when hunting for a copy of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat on our bookshelves, I happened on a forgotten but delightful little book of portrait miniatures published in England some while ago. I promptly sat down to savour of the wondrous skill of the heirs of Jean Clouet who had pioneered such tiny portraits when he was Court Painter to Francois I of France in the early 1500s.
His son, Francois Clouet, and Hans Holbein the Younger followed and developed this genre of limning, as miniature-painting was called. During Elizabeth I's reign, the English Court enthusiastically favoured miniature portraits for political purposes as well as love and desire as they were expressed in that era of courtly love. Luxurious, bejewelled frames surrounded gems painted by Nicholas Hilliard, Hans Ewoth, Hilliard's pupil, Isaac Oliver, and others.
The next generation was equally gifted in limning, with Isaac's son, Peter Oliver, and Samuel Cooper producing extraordinary works. Cooper's miniature of Oliver Cromwell has an amazingly contemporary feel to it and an almost photographic quality in the likeness, including the warts which apparently Cromwell expressly instructed him to record!
First painted on paper in watercolour and gouache, the miniaturists gradually evolved towards painting on ivory, with later artists such as Rosalba Carriera achieving great luminosity on this surface. Miniatures continued to be greatly esteemed, especially in England, but their second great flowering came when court painting was revived under the influence of Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough. Miniaturists George Engleheart and Richard Cosway were among the leading artists during the period 1750-1850. In France, too, even after the Revolution, miniatures enjoyed great success, with Jean-Urbain Guerin and Jean-Baptiste Isabey using their great skills to combine simplicity of line and form with exactitude of subject matter. Photography's invention sounded the death knell for miniatures. As I gazed at the exquisite small images in the book I had found, I could not help reflecting on the difference between these works of art which served as portrait-records of all manner of people down the ages and the small thumbnail photos we all post on websites like Facebook today as representative of ourselves for others to see.
One of the most wonderful collections of miniatures is held by the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, in London's Manchester Square. The collection dated mainly from the 17th and 18th century, and the variety and jewel-like quality of these miniatures have always remained fixed vividly in my memory. Well worth a visit. Of course, the other two London museums boasting important collections of miniatures are the V & A and the National Portrait Gallery. Another small and lovely collection I happened on is at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, SC - again with the British heritage influencing the commission of many of these miniatures by the early South Carolinians.
I always love the many coincidences in life that come along. In the case of finding this book on miniatures, it drove home to me the interesting technical considerations a miniaturist has. Size and thus proportions, the amount of information to include and the technical considerations of surface, paint medium and even the format of a circle, the normal shape for a miniature (although rectangles were used)... these are very specific parameters. The coincidence in this case was that I have been recently using the format of artists' trading cards, 2 1/2 x 3 1/2", to paint and draw as an experiment. This small size presents a whole new set of considerations and requirements, particularly in terms of composition - fun to try out! But it has already left me with a heightened sense of respect for those great limners of earlier times. They were great masters.