COLLECTING PORTRAIT MINIATURES

  



Portrait miniatures are truly wonderful objects. Look at the  image and imagine the sitter holding her posture for the artist. Who is she? How old is she? what is her name? What is the purpose of the sitting? Does the sitter want a keepsake or an heirloom? Is it a present for a lover? Perhaps it is a present from or for her patron.


The miniature itself can immediately offer up clues as to the sitter. Look at the style of dress, the jewellery, the hairstyle, the quality of the piece (which will give clues as to the status and wealth of the sitter or their patron) and even the pose. Some miniatures given as love tokens or in memory of the life of a departed loved one, are backed with hair. Imagine that; holding a piece that depicts a real person from a time when perhaps there were no photographs or other means of recording the appearance of the individual and containing real hair which was intended to symbolise eternity (after all love transcends all) or perhaps immortality. And you are the guardian of this person's memory. You hold the copyright to their life. So look at the image and think of the person and the time and of the sitter's circumstances and whether they look flushed with love or, maybe, depleted by sadness and suddenly, what you are holding, has come to life.




 What to Collect?  The choice is for you. Some people collect particular artists. Some people collect from a particular time or period. Some collectors source paintings from the 19thC, or 18thC or earlier. There is a growing demand for later miniatures including from the iconic deco years of the 20th C. Some people collect from all eras, perhaps concentrating on women or men, or children, or types of military uniform (which speak not only of the sitter but of the time and of contemporaneous military conflict). Some collections are built on hairstyles or dress or even more quirky characteristics such as beards or hats. Alternatively your collection might cross all of these boundaries.




Original Portraits. Many of the miniatures you will come across  are "decorative miniatures" and are not original portraits as such. There was no actual "sitter" involved in their production which took place mainly after 1900 and before  World War II. The centres of production were mainly Germany, France and Italy.  These decorative miniatures were often presented  on Ivorine (a celluloid ivory substitute) and are frequently "signed" with fancy sounding French or Itallian names. They were mass produced to satiate demand for affordable decorative art from a growing middle class and a  flourishing tourist trade. Nearly all of these decorative miniatures depict famous historical figures, saints, or beautiful women. Some of them are well-painted, but many are crude paintings over a photographic base. Whilst some people deem these generic pictures collectable in their own right, most serious collectors avoid these decorative pieces in preference for the "real thing" -  paintings involving an actual person who sat for the artist, possibly over many days and at some significant expense.




Brief History. An original miniature portrait usually depicts a person's head and shoulders and will seldom measure more than five inches. The very earliest miniatures date from the 16th century, originally painted on card (including playing cards), copper, and vellum (animal skin). After the 18th century,  thin wafer like sheets of ivory,  began to take hold as the artist's favoured medium with its superior luminescent qualities. The majority of antique original miniatures on the market today date to the 19th and (less so) 18th centuries and mainly take the form of watercolour paintings on Ivory though miniatures on  paper and card are also widespread. 


Early miniature paintings tended to be smaller and were often worn as jewellery and set in precious frames. They were to be looked at in the hand, perhaps passed around or even hidden on the person.


Later miniatures were intended to be displayed on the wall and were often produced in plain black frames with acorn hanging loops or with easel backs for displaying on a piece of furniture. As photography took hold many miniatures were produced in a squarer format and a whole new specialism developed in overpainted photographs - which can be very difficult to distinguish from purely original portraits and which themselves have a following amongst some collectors.




Value, Collectability and Condition. Various factors determine the value of the piece including: rarity; age; the subject (gender of, age of); the subject's dress; the sitter; the medium; the frame; 

the condition etc etc. So a miniature of a beautiful perhaps famous,  young woman in period dress painted by a well known artist of the day is likely to be of some significant value and the same would apply to a handsome young man in military uniform etc. etc.


Some miniatures may come with provenance, perhaps having been passed down through generations, and much will be known about sitter and artist and this will inevitably enhance the value of the piece. Unfortunately many of the miniatures that we come across have become uncoupled from their historical context. This is where experience and research can come in.


Ivory in wafer form is a fragile. Check for cracks or splits or water damage. Check for paint smudging or signs of restoration and ask the dealer if in doubt. If damage is not so important to you check the piece anyway and ensure the price takes account of any flaws.


Keep viewing images and you will begin to appreciate the difference between a generic decorative miniature and the genuine article, and you will learn to date a particular piece and judge its quality and rarity. Familiarise yourself with different styles and dress represented in history for clues as to age. Ask questions and carry out any necessary research. Have fun and enjoy your acquisition! 


I collect portrait miniatures and always try and include them in my stock at Green Parrot Antiques & Collectables. Some recent items are included in the Photo Gallery section of the site.