Collecting and Researching Miniature Portraits   

By Don Shelton

The fascination in collecting miniature portraits arises from an awe of the skill of the artist, with each portrait being a unique and original work of art. This is enhanced by the opportunity to research individual sitters and the historical events associated with them.

As with collecting of any nature, there is also the thrill of the hunt, and in no other branch of art collecting is it possible for a collector of average means to acquire original works of art by a range of artists whose other works hang in major art museums around the world. However, even works of unknown sitters by unknown artists can be very appealing, such as this young girl in a pink dress painted by an American artist not yet identified.

Broadly, miniatures fall into two categories. Firstly, those painted at the specific request of the sitter, normally only a single version, but sometimes multiple versions for different family members. Secondly, those made in the 19th century and early 20th century as copies of well known large paintings and sold as decorative items. Miniatures in this latter category are often housed in frames made of old piano keys or ornate filigree brass, sometimes with pages from old books on the reverse to give the impression of great age. While both categories are collectible, those painted at the request of the sitter are usually preferred. It is best to avoid items with damage.

Although the earliest miniature portraits date back to the 16th century, collectors are most likely to come across those painted in the 150 years between 1780 and 1930. The peak was 1790 to 1840, after which the introduction of photography made it difficult for artists to compete commercially, although there was a revival around 1890-1910 as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The more that is known about the artist and sitter, as with the example shown by John Henry Brown, the more interesting and the higher the value.

John Henry Brown of Philadelphia was one of the few who could compete with photography. In 1860, he painted a miniature portrait of Abraham Lincoln for which he charged $175. That miniature is now a prized exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

In the same year, he charged $180 to paint this miniature of Maria Gouverneur Cadwalader. Brown was renown for his ability to paint miniatures that looked like photographs. His day-book reveals that he worked six days a week, for a month, on the Cadwalader miniature. The quality of his lace work is incredible.

As in any collecting field, collectors can buy from dealers or set sail into the world of the public auction. Buying from a reputable dealer gives confidence a purchase has been properly researched and described, but one is unlikely to make a "find."

Conversely, buying at auction is generally cheaper, with the risk of error somewhat offset by a lower cost, and a much better chance of making a find. Needless to say, good reference books can pay for themselves many times over in identifying an artist.

Known artists and/or sitters also allow a collector to apply simple genealogical skills, such as census records, to research them. This can add substantially to the interest and value of a miniature. To illustrate this, several miniatures are shown here, although there is space to show only a fraction of the research. They were all purchased at public auction at an average cost of under $500, but their value has been much enhanced as a result of the research.

This Swiss miniature of a man in a wig by Johann Heinrich Hurter was painted in enamel on a copper ground in 1788. No knowledge of the sitter accompanied the miniature, although the reverse is engraved "I N S Allamand obit d 2 Maart 1787."

Research into his identity has revealed that he was Jean-Nicolas-Sebastien Allamand, a well known naturalist of the 18th century and member of The Royal Society. He was friendly with Benjamin Franklin, and his experiments in reducing the effect of rough waves on distressed ships by using oil, led to the common phrase "pouring oil on troubled waters." It also appears Hurter completed the miniature after Allamand's death and then married his widow.

This miniature of a young lady with a pink wrap was purchased as an unknown sitter. The value of reference books was proven several months later when an identical image of another version was found in the Carolina Arts Association Catalogue.

This revealed the sitter as Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Vice-President Aaron Burr and wife of the Governor of South Carolina. She was tragically lost at sea on a voyage to New York in 1812. The portrait is now attributed to John Wesley Jarvis and a third version of the portrait appears on the cover of a recent biography of Theodosia.

An interesting sitter was Esther Tobin. This British miniature had an attached tag saying only "Esther Tobin b 1779, m 1806, and d 1857", but this enabled her identification. Although the miniature does not look special, her family is fascinating. She was the wife of an English sea captain and merchant who made a fortune from slavery, smuggling, and gunpowder.

Researching the family's involvement in slavery led to a greater awareness of history as well as some little known aspects of the slave trade. Such as, that the average mortality rate for a ship's crew was generally over 20%, more than twice the average mortality rate of the unfortunate slaves.

Sometimes it is possible to attribute an artist to a portrait based upon a comparison of style. The recent auction description for this miniature of an older lady stated only that the sitter was believed to come from either North Carolina or South Carolina.

A search of reference books and comparison with other examples of his work has determined the painter is most likely to be the famous Charleston artist, Charles Fraser.

Another recent acquisition now attributed to an important American artist is one of a young man sitting on a chair. This was described at the auction only as an early 19th century miniature portrait of a gentleman. Confusing to bidders, it was housed in a cheap 1970's frame together with another early miniature of a lady. It has now been fairly confidently attributed to the New York artist Nathaniel Rogers and shows the importance of not being distracted by the frame a miniature may be housed in. In this instance, it seems possible the original 19th century frame was reused for a modern family photograph.

As already mentioned, from 1850 to 1890 miniature painters increasingly tried to make their portraits replicate photographs. As a result, they tended to became darker and more sober in appearance, but commercially, it was a losing battle.

Then in the late 19th century Europe, there was the rise of Impressionism. This miniature of a young lady is believed to be one of the first American paintings of any nature to show the influence of the brighter colors used by Impressionists. It is signed "R C P 1889". Although reference books describe him as British, the research of this miniature has shown the artist was in fact an American, Richard Curzon Poultney, the eldest son of a wealthy Baltimore family who travelled to Europe to study. He died young in 1896.

Another American artist of the early 20th century was Margaret Burnham Kelly. This miniature was already described as a self portrait painted in 1910 for her husband, but further research has revealed she was also the daughter of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the architect of the famous Flatiron building in New York. Self-portraits are highly prized as they really do show how the artist saw themselves.

Although, it can only be a whiff, it is hoped these few examples do give an indication of the pleasures in collecting and researching miniature portraits.


Don Shelton is a private collector of miniature portraits who resides in New Zealand. Since he purchased his first American miniature in 2000, he has developed a particular interest in them and now has more than 300 American miniatures in his collection (which totals 800). However, he readily concedes collecting miniatures has kept him cash poor and pleasure rich. Readers with a greater interest in miniature portraits can view the full collection on the Internet at www.portrait-miniature.blogspot.com . In an upcoming issue, Don will offer advice on how other collector's can display their own collections on the Internet.
 

 

 

 

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