Portrait Miniatures

Among the treasures in the museum's collection is a group of over seventy portrait miniatures by American and European painters.

Portrait Miniature of Valentine Blanchard

Charles Cromwell Ingham, Portrait of Valentine Blanchard, c. 1836, portrait miniature

Portrait Miniatures a Brief History

The word miniature comes from the red lead pigment "minimum" used to decorate illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and had nothing to do with diminutive portrait size until the eighteenth century. Portrait miniature painting began in the 1500s and it became particularly popular between 1750 and 1850. Portrait painters strove to capture the individual character of the sitter in watercolor on thin disks of ivory. Portrait miniatures were regarded as highly as full-size portraits, and often took just as long to complete given the intricate work involved.

Portrait miniatures were meant to be worn or carried. By the mid-nineteenth century, slightly larger, rectangular miniatures, imitating oil paintings, competed for prominence. These miniatures were kept in folding cases or hung on the wall. After the invention of the daguerreotype and other photographic processes, miniature portrait painting fell out of fashion.

Portrait miniature with woven hair band

Dominicus Ducaju, A Young Women, 1849, portrait miniature bracelet with woven hair band

Portrait miniatures take the form of pendants, broaches, small framed pictures, bracelets, and rings. The reverse of many portrait miniatures contains a small glass-covered opening used as a receptacle for a lock of the sitter's hair. The hair is often braided or woven in a variety of patterns. The intricacies of their cases and the personal memorabilia contained within the housings continue to fascinate.