Before the earliest known photograph was taken in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphone Niépce and the first picture of an individual taken in late 1839, miniature painted portraits were treasured by those who could afford them. The first known portrait miniature (and possibly the first self-portrait) was painted in 1450 by the artist Jean Fouquet, and until the late 1500s, portrait miniatures remained the possessions of those at the top of the social pyramid. The kings of both France and England employed court miniaturists whose earliest works are of royal spouses, children, and other close relations. From there, the painting of miniature portraits spread, encompassing the nobility then the gentry, in an expanding ripple. By the 18th Century, every European nation and the North American Colonies boasted both well-established and itinerant artists.
The English Regency-era portrait above of a pretty brunette with a ruff-like collar and giraffish neck is an example of the type of image available from a local artist. Painted in about 1818, it would have been taken from life, probably by a painter who journeyed to the home of the subject for the number of sittings required to complete the portrait.
“The miniaturist chose a high work surface or placed his easel—a box with an adjustable, slanted lid—on a table. This was moved nearer the window, and the painter sat down—so as not to cover his work painting with the shadow of his hand—then the light fell onto his work from his left. A room facing north had the advantage that the painter was not disturbed by direct or moving sun rays,” notes Bernd Pappe of the Tansey Collection of miniatures, housed in Bomann Museum in Celle, Germany.
At this date, the artist usually painted on a thin tablet of ivory glued onto a supporting card, using paints that either he or she mixed with binder, or—increasingly after 1700—were sold premade.
The new availability of premixed paints and ivory sheets turned those who could afford to dabble into portrait artists, too. Well-bred children were expected to have accomplishments, and within the family, portrait sketching was a laudable pastime. It was surely a family member or friend who painted the image beneath the crystal of the mourning brooch above. Of gold and black enamel, it dates to about 1820. The brooch is one of several that I own showing the deceased as portrayed by an amateur—clearly not by someone who made their living as a miniaturist. Because it dates from before the availability of a photographic portrait, one is left to wonder whether the portrait was painted before the brooch and was later repurposed after the sitter’s death, or if it was painted from memory later. In either case, the possibility of this being the only likeness of the subject is considerable. Ω