Introduction to my blog

This blog will be dedicated to one of my passions, portrait miniatures. I started collecting at a relatively young age, and whilst there were periods of hiatus, it has been a constant source of joy during my life. I would love to share this enthusiasm with you out there, so keep an eye out for my posts.

So, why am I interested in these little treasures? It might come as no surprise that I am interested in art history and history in general. What first interested me was the craftsmanship, the sheer artistry which went into creating a painting in little. Creating portraits ideally convey the exact appearance of a sitter, but apart from catching the likeness on a superficial level, a successful portrait will capture the essence of a human being. Achieving this on a small scale demands a high level of technical skill, which is one of the reasons why I started collecting them.

Whilst these are my reasons for being interested in collecting them, it is more difficult to describe why I actually collect them. Why do humans collect? To possess items from another era, to find out more about their items- all those are factors that give a collector a thrill, and you will know what I talk about if you collect something yourself.

I will upload parts of my collection as time goes on, or interesting links, book recommendations etc. If you want to contact me then do so- I would love to hear from you!

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A Matter of Technique 

A recent acquisition of mine is an unsigned portrait miniature of a lady from about 1815, and whilst not in perfect condition, it shows a common technique employed by miniature painters quite well. But let us turn to the sitter and her fashionable attire first.

The lady is portrayed somewhat formulaically, although the condition of the miniature might contribute to this impression. The fashionable cap made with lace and ribbons is rendered with great attention to detail, and this focus on fashion certainly validates the argument by Emma Rutherford that portrait miniatures were used to document contemporary fashion in a more instant way than portraits of a larger scale (1).

It is interesting to note the interplay of the various transparent materials. Not only are we confronted by the sheer collar and the cobweblike lace within the painted surface, there is also the translucency of the ivory to regard.

On the back of the miniature we find a piece of shimmering silver foil that enhances the lifelike complexion of the sitter (see below).

Compare the contrast in the picture below between the area without (left) and with the silver foil (right). Notice the difference in the warmth and richness of the skin tone? 

Ivory had been used as a base from about 1700 onwards, and artists soon recognised that it imitated white skin tone strikingly accurate. Ivory sheets became thinner as the century progressed, which meant that the translucency was increased too. To enhance the vividness of the sitter’s complexion thin sheets of silver foil that backed the ivory were used, which were known as paillons. They are more common on miniatures of Continental rather than English origin (2).

Last but not least- note the paper that formed part of the back of the miniature which bears a slightly eccentric pattern!

References

1) Nina- Sophia Miralles, ‘Beautiful Objects: Portrait Miniatures’, Londnr, 9.11.2015 <http://www.londnr.com/fashion-art/beautiful-objects-portrait-miniatures&gt; [accessed 15.08.2017]

2) Bernd Pappe, ‘Kunst und Können in der Miniaturmalerei’, in: Miniaturen aus der Sammlung Tansey (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2000), p.25

A Mystery in Miniature

The miniature I discuss in this post is of a lady holding a miniature from about 1800, probably continental. Miniatures within miniatures are rare, which makes this miniature quite special. But more intriguing is the meaning of this tiny painting. 

It seems intuitive to assume that the lady holds the miniature of her beau. After all, portrait miniatures were often given as tokens of love, and this miniature seems no exception. One should note that both the man and the lady are painted in profile, and whilst the man is held in the lady’s palm so that he gazes at the lady, she does not look back to him. This might be out of stylistic reasons, as the depiction of her in profile is reminiscent of cameos from antiquity.

The influence from antiquity can be further found in the white dress she is wearing and the blue shawl embroidered with gold thread in a meandering pattern and fringes. The influence and interest in ancient Rome did influence female fashion at the end of the eighteenth century and beyond, which is what we see in this picture. One should note the clash in the attire of the lady, attempting to appear classical, and the more modern clothing of the man with his almost dandy-like apparel. Note the big lapels for example.

But does this influence from antiquity also extend to the symbolism found in the painting? The lady is depicted with a crescent shaped moon on her head. This is the symbol of the Roman goddess Diana, who often became identified with the moon goddess Luna. As such, she was portrayed with a crescent moon over her brow. Diana herself personified chastity, especially when shown with a shield that would have warded her off against Cupid’s arrows. This is not depicted in the miniature, though the contemporary mind would have been aware of this meaning.

The contemporary mind would have also known the story of Diana and Endymion, a platonic love story. The beautiful young man was granted eternal youth, but he had a price to pay. He fell into eternal sleep, but he was visited nightly and watched over by Diana, who loved him, albeit in a chaste way.

Whilst it cannot be determined if the story had a special meaning for the two, it is an interesting possibility. We will probanly never know the back story of the two; but what it shows is that there can be more than meets the eye, especially with objects that are linked to human passions.

A Decorative Miniature of Marie Antoinette: An Anatomy

Collectors: hands up if you started your collection with some items that you would not buy nowadays?

Well, this is my experience. The featured miniature is the first one I ever bought with my hard earned money, and I paid over the odds. But would I want to sell it or give it away? No!

So, who is this beguiling lady? It is Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the ill- fated Queen of France, and the original is by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) and was painted in 1783. The original is entitled “Marie Antoinette à la rose”, which makes sense, as the sitter is holding a rose, which is albeit not depicted in the miniature.

 
The original painting by Vigée-Lebrun was exhibited at the Salon, an important art exhibition in eighteenth century France, in 1783, after a previous painting by her of the queen had come under attack, as it depicted the monarch in an informal gaulle or chemise à la reine dress. Such an attire did not befit her high status, and the painting was withdrawn. Soon thereafter Vigée-Lebrun painted another portrait of the queen in a similar pose, this time in a more sumptuous silk gown. The painting proved more popular than the first version. 

Whilst the composition is different, there is also a very distinct change in the colour scheme of the dress. In the original the sitter is wearing a blue-green satin dress, which was changed to a soft peach tone in the miniature.

So, why this change? It seems likely that the artist had no access to the original or a correctly coloured reproduction  at hand. Why the rose was left out has probably a practical background, as it would have required less labour.

Miniatures like this are quite common and can be picked up relatively easy. The reason why they are common is that they were produced in large numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and they were more for decorative use than as a memento of a real person.

The miniature is signed, albeit it is uncertain if this is the real name of the miniaturist. Such decorative miniatures are often signed with the names of more famous artists, probably with the intent to deceive. I would make it out as “Sirren” or “Siwen”. It is painted in watercolours on the usual material.

This miniature has a special place in my collection, being the first one that I ever purchased, as mentioned before. I prefer ad vivum portraits, done from life, nowadays, but I think this first entry exemplifies how a collection can start, and how the focus can change after time. 


Picture credits

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, La Reine en Gaulle, 1783, oil on canvas, National Gallery, Washington D. C. Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marie-Antoinette_en_chemise_ou_en_gaulle_-_Vers_1783_-_Elisabeth_Louise_Vig%C3%A9e_Le_Brun.jpg

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette à la Rose/Marie Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, Palace of Versailles. Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louise_Elisabeth_Vig%C3%A9e-Lebrun_-_Marie-Antoinette_dit_%C2%AB_%C3%A0_la_Rose_%C2%BB_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg