Gibbes Museum of Art

Charleston, SC



Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures

Blushing, virginal brides to be. Rare, intimate depictions of our nation's heroes. A behind-the-scenes look at formal society. Martha Washington in widowhood. Lonely wives of ship captains. A young bride on her deathbed...

Intimate stories behind love, life:and death and mourning are expressed through artistic detail m a landmark exhibition of portrait miniatures from Yale University Art Gallery: Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures, on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art through April 8, 2001. The curator for this exhibition is Robin Jaffee Frank from Yale.

Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the miniature stands apart from any other art form because of its highly personal associations. Revealing people's private selves and secrets, these treasures portrayed loved ones and were commissioned on the occasions of births, engagements, marriages, deaths, and other personal events. These tiny objects are weighted with meaning, illustrating how art represented joy or bereavement in the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Uniquely combining painting and decorative arts, most portraits are painted in watercolor on ivory housed under glass in finely worked gold lockets. The reverse side sometimes incorporates a decoratively arranged lock of the sitter's hair. Due to its imperviousness to time, hair is used to represent love and loss in rituals the world over.

This major exhibition examines intimate and rich role of miniatures in America through 100 exceptional works of art. The artists included read like a Who's Who of American miniature painting from around 1760 to 1830. The exhibition is unusual in that it includes artists' tools, microscopes and magnifying glasses, and support materials that illuminate the complex processes used to create them. (left: Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878), Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 1819, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1936.302)


Excerpts from exhibition section panels and artwork labels



Portrait miniatures, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, are unique among works of art for their highly personal associations. At the height of their American popularity, from 1760 to about 1840, miniatures, usually painted in watercolor on thin disks of ivory, were made by specialists, although renowned easel artists-including Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Charles Willson Peale -- also created them. Whereas easel portraits were displayed on the wall, miniatures usually were worn as jewelry or framed to be cherished in private. Painted upon commission, frequently on the occasions of births, engagements, marriages, deaths, and other unions or separations, these keepsakes were often substitutes for an absent loved one.

The miniature's rise in popularity in the North American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century coincided with a greater cultural emphasis an romantic love, marriage, and affection between parents and children. The growth of increasingly intimate, child-centered families made loss harder to bear and contributed to the miniature's widespread use as a token of mourning. Charles Fraser, who recorded the private faces of Charleston's most public citizens, defined miniatures as "striking resemblances, that will never fail to perpetuate the tenderness of friendship, to divert the cares of absence, and to aid affection in dwelling on those features and that image which death has forever wrested from us."

Robin Jaffee Frank, Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all miniatures are painted in watercolor on ivory.


Public Display of Private Devotion Section

Depictions of people wearing miniatures eloquently testify to the personal and social significance of these tiny mementos. Both sexes were portrayed in miniatures, and both commissioned, collected, and cherished them. However, paintings of miniatures worn as fashion accessories indicate that women were much more likely to engage in such public declarations of private devotion than men. Men carried portraits of their lovers, wives, children, and friends in a coat, vest, or breeches pocket, at the waist in closed cases together with seals and watches, or as a pendant around their necks --but hidden under an intricately knotted cravat or other neck cloth, It was the lady's role to publicly display on her person the family's wealth and affections embodied in one potent symbol, the miniature.


The Miniaturist as Craftsman Section

The small scale of miniatures and the range and fragility of materials used to make them demanded of the artist an exceptionally high level of skill and patience. Miniaturists had to master not only the painstaking task of applying watercolor to a slick sheet of ivory, but also the affiliated crafts of metalworking, jewelry making, and arranging and painting with human hair. In an era before established art academies in America, these skills, if not self-taught, were often acquired during periods of instruction with an experienced artist, much like those for an apprenticed craftsman.


The First American Miniaturists: Experiments in a Secret Art Section

Artists born in America in the colonial period had little opportunity other than experimentation to acquire the intricate skills necessary to paint a miniature. Instruction manuals and examples of the sophisticated Old World tradition brought by colonists were the basic teaching tools available to fledgling American artists. Benjamin West struggled to paint his self-portrait in miniature without instruction in Philadelphia and then escaped the cultural backwater of America to train in London. He settled there and came to be highly esteemed in London's artistic circles. West's prominent studio overseas served as a meeting point for American artists who followed in his footsteps to seek the: artistic training that Europe could offer. Although West himself did not paint miniatures after his early effort displayed here, he offered instruction and encouragement to several generations of American artists who flocked to his studio, including the leading early American artists Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley.


Miniatures and the Young Republic Section

American artists' inventive and hard-won mastery of miniature painting techniques in the colonial era prepared them to meet the public's demand for imagery in the early republic. After the peace of 1783, portraits of military leaders and statesmen celebrated the new nation and communicated political values. Americans eagerly acquired miniatures of their heroes and used the likenesses as primers to teach themselves lessons of character and citizenship.

John Ramage, Nathaniel Hancock, and Henry Benbridge, artists all born or trained in Britain, produced small, crisply modeled miniatures for this growing audience. Generally executed in opaque colors with a stipple technique, their works represent an enduring English prototype transplanted to the New World and modified for a republican market. At the same time, Pierre Henri and other Continental artists immigrating to America at the end of the eighteenth century provided a more decorative mode of miniature painting. Both foreign and native-born artists offered clients greater embellishment of miniatures through inscriptions, hairwork, and allegorical scenes, reflecting the miniature's increasingly important role at the turn of the century as a means of expressing affection, as well as civic pride.

The Cult of Washington Subsection

During the tumultuous revolutionary and early republican eras, America's greatest love affair was with its founding father. Portraits like that by James Peale of George Washington as both military hero and statesman conveyed allegiance to the man who led the fledgling nation into battle and assumed its presidency. By the time Washington was elected president in 1789, his face had become the recognized symbol of victory acid liberty. Because of the public sale of Washington's likeness in large-scale oil portraits during his administration, miniatures painted from life and given by him as keepsakes to family and friends offer rare glimpses of the private man. Yet even artists invited into his home and granted a sitting could not resist creating an icon for posterity and profit. Miniatures, like William Birch's enamel portrait of Washington set in a snuff box, melded the public and private realms, helping to fashion an American character based on the internalization of republican ideals through ownership of everyday objects.

The death of the country's father on December 14, 1799, marked a watershed in communal mourning and the powerful role of miniatures in that process. Washington's demise inspired the commercial production of songs, poems, images, and memorabilia in his honor. But as an 1840 pastel demonstrates, nothing so personally expressed the national grief as the unprecedented display of portrait and allegorical miniatures worn by men, women, and children well into the nineteenth century as a sign of prolonged mourning. The miniature, a token of affectionate admiration within families, was the perfect vehicle for expressing personal respect for Washington as the country's benevolent patriarch. The death of Washington gave impetus to a wider market for mourning iconography in America, a demand met by artists like Samuel Folwell, who fashioned commemoratives for the expanding middle class market. (left: Robert Field (1769-1819), Mrs. George Washington (Martha Dandridge, Mrs. Daniel Parke Custis) (1732-1802),1801, Signed and dated I.I. "RF/1801;" Reverse: JOIN'D BY FRIENDSHIP, CROWN'D BY LOVE, Chopped hair and watercolor or dissolved hair on ivory, Prong-set full pearls set in rim, cobalt-glass surround over embossed foil, and inner rim enameled in pale blue and white with bright-cut leaves around inset ivory on reverse of locket, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1947·222). Field's tender portrayal of Mrs.Washington, painted two years after her husband's death, allows a uniquely private view of George and Martha as a couple rather than as public icons. During his visit to Mount Vernon, Field captured what Martha considered "her everyday face," one marked with the universal sadness of someone who has lost a life's partner. Martha gave one of FieId's two portraits of her to her granddaughter, but she kept the miniature displayed here for herself. Its decorative reverse is adorned with sixty-seven pearls -- equal in number to George Washington's age. Field's romance allegory employs the Washingtons' intermingled chopped hair to symbolize their bodies joined forever, like the two hearts crowned with the wreath of immortality and wedded on the altar to Hymen, the Roman god of marriage. Two birds regretfully fly away from each other, clutching in their beaks a ribbon forming a lover's knot, an image interpreted in emblem books to mean "The farther apart, the closer united." The tiny scene expresses the triumph of George and Martha Washington's love over its most formidable foe, death.)

Private Faces of Public People Subsection

George Washington was not the only leader of the early republic whose character and deeds were celebrated by ordinary citizens through the commissioning of miniatures. Such commemoratives were often based on easel portraits that were displayed in new state buildings and other public venues. Miniature depictions of America's heroes offered individual citizens a means of integrating republican virtue into their daily lives through personal mementos. The prominent sitters, separated from loved ones during the performance of military duty or government service, also ordered portrait miniatures for their families and friends. (left: Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878), Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 1819, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1936.302)


The Flourishing of the American Miniature Section

At the turn of the nineteenth century the demand for miniatures grew, fed by the romantic sensibilities and affluence of an upper and burgeoning middle class. To compete in an intense market, miniaturists traveled the country selling their services, promoted themselves as teachers of drawing, dancing, and other refinements, and used the networks of cultured clients they formed to obtain commissions. Scores of miniaturists came to America to take advantage of the expanding market economy. Continental artists imported their own style, which set lyrical drawing against an opaque background. Most American-born artists, however, emulated new trends brought by immigrants from Great Britain. Abandoning the small, thick, and densely colored ivories produced in the colonial and early republican eras, American miniaturists created more luminous portraits painted on bigger, thinner wafers in translucent strokes against a paler ground. The larger lockets afforded more space on the reverse for decorative hairwork, inscriptions, or allegorical scenes professing friendship and love. These glowing miniatures harmonized with the spare, elegant aesthetic of federal-period clothes and interiors. (left: James Peale (1749-1831), Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), 1795, Signed and dated I.r. "JP/1795," Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan Collection, 1940.510)

"Your very looks and person in miniature on my heart" Subsection

Portrait miniatures resonate with the greater emphasis placed on romantic love in an era newly enthralled with family life. Throughout this exhibition, we have seen miniatures that were offered as love tokens, beginning with Benjamin West's early Self-Portrait given to a young lady along with a proposal of marriage. The miniatures grouped here offer an intimate glimpse into relationships between men and women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the vogue for exchanging miniatures to celebrate betrothal and marriage was at its height. After marriage, portrait miniatures, often decorated with locks of hair on the reverse, served as a surrogate for the absent loved one during long separations when husbands -- statesmen, merchants, salesmen, soldiers, and artists -- traveled to earn a living, leaving their families behind. In other instances, because these tiny tokens could he so easily hidden from public view, lovers gave one another anonymous miniatures to express a secret passion. (left: Charles Fraser (1782-1860), Mrs. Theodore Gourdin (Elizabeth Gaillard) (1766-1835), 1826; Reverse (right): Unidentified artist (formerly attributed to Fraser), Theodore Gourdin (1764-1826), probably 1813-15, Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan Collection, 1940.501) Charles Fraser was a lawyer, author, poet, and orator in Charleston. He retired from the law in 1818 to devote himself to painting, producing miniatures of Charleston's leading citizens. By 1846, Fraser's account book recorded 633 works. His early portraits follow his friend Malbone's luminous style and delicate cross-hatching. But Fraser eventually developed an energetic technique more in keeping with the boldness of contemporary oil paintings. The story of how these portraits came to be set back to back expresses the love of a wife for her husband. Charlestonian Theodore Gourdin, a wealthy land and slave owner, married Elizabeth Gaillard in 1785. Family tradition held that Fraser had painted both portraits, but only Mrs. Gourdin is listed in his account book. The stylistic distinctions between the portraits confirm that the more serene Theodore Gourdin cannot be attributed to Fraser, whose characteristic energetic stippling is seen only in Mrs. Gourdin. In the year Theodore Gourdin died, his widow commissioned her portrait from Fraser and requested the unusual round format to match the earlier portrait of her husband. This double locket remained a token of remembrance, descending in the family through one of their sons.)


The Miniature in the Public Eye Section

During the Jacksonian era, competition with large-scale painting altered the aesthetics, marketing, and social function of the miniature. Increasing demand for portraits by the middle class and, most important, greater diversity of housing formats changed the way miniatures were viewed, exchanged and held. Frequently painted in a bolder, more opaque style, they were often mounted in larger rectangular frames to be displayed alongside easel paintings in an exhibition or hung at home in a parlor, and thus they were no longer meant to be worn. Smaller miniatures set in lockets sometimes had a tiny reverse compartment for a lock of hair, but did not contain the elaborate designs and allegorical scenes that had enriched the private meanings of many federal-era miniatures. Nonetheless, the stories behind miniatures from the Jacksonian era attest to their continued value as the most personal form of artistic expression -- at least until photography challenged the miniature's monopoly of the small face. (left: Charles Bird King (1785-1862), Chief No-Cush (No-Cush), c. 1830, Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan Collection, 1940·505) No-Cush is the only miniature by easel painter Charles Bird King. Like his other portraits of Native Americans, this image was painted during his time at the War Department, which commissioned him to take likenesses of Indian delegations visiting Washington, D.C. on diplomatic missions. The sitter wears a silver peace medal, a medallion given to Native American chiefs by both trading companies and the United States government as a token of good will and mutual trust.)

The Miniature after Photography Subsection

The invention of photography in the 1830s did not herald the immediate death of the miniature but rather its continued transformation. Enamored by the seemingly objective accuracy of photography, the American public saw the photograph as a truer likeness than the painted portrait in all respects except color. The precision and sharp contrasts of photography had crucial effects on painted portraits, just as the expressions, poses, and props used in paintings influenced photography. The photograph's similarity to the miniature in scale, housing alternatives, private uses, and portability intensified the competition and correspondence of the two media. Miniaturists met their clients' altered expectations for quicker and more accurate likenesses by mirroring the meticulous qualities of the photograph in watercolor-on-ivory portraits painted exclusively from or aided by the photographic image. Gradually however, the photograph eclipsed the miniature as the primary means of expressing love and loss in portable form.


"Not Lost but Gone Before" Section

Mourning rings, brooches, and lockets convey how much our understanding of death and our relationship toward loss has changed over time. In the early and mid-eighteenth century, mourning rings often contained images of skeletons entombed inside coffin-like crystals. Such tokens, given out at funerals, in effect urged the wearer to "Prepare for Death and Follow Me," an injunction inscribed on countless colonial gravestones. But mourning rings bearing skeletons became less common later in the eighteenth century. Images of sorrowful mourners then appeared on the rings, brooches, and lockets. The shift from an emphasis on death itself to one on the lamentation for the dead developed in tandem with the new enthusiasm for family life being celebrated by portrait miniatures. The imagery of mourner, urn, tomb, plinth, and trees would be chosen from sample devices by maker and client and then arranged to fulfill an individual need. These tokens of bereavement often incorporated locks of the deceased's hair, which survives time and decay. During an era of high mortality rates,"Not Lost but Gone Before," a maxim offering consolation on gravestones and mourning miniatures, voiced faith in the family's future reunion in heaven. (left: P. R. Vallée, Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride) (1788-1804), 1804, Signed I.I. "Vallée." Inset compartment containing hair plaid on reverse of locket, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1936.300)

Promotion for this project is funded in part by Bell South. The exhibition is made possible by grants and support from the South Carolina Humanities Council, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., the J. Paul Getty Trust for the conservation of the miniature portrait collection, the Allen Wardwell Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency, and numerous individual and corporate donors.

Read more about the Gibbes Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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