A portrait miniature is a miniature portrait painting, usually executed in gouache, watercolour, or enamel. Portrait miniatures developed out of the techniques of the miniatures in illuminated manuscripts, and were popular among 16th-century elites, mainly in England and France, and spread across the rest of Europe from the middle of the 18th-century, remaining highly popular until the development of daguerreotypes and photography in the mid-19th century. They were especially valuable in introducing people to each other over distances; a nobleman proposing the marriage of his daughter might send a courier with her portrait to visit potential suitors. Soldiers and sailors might carry miniatures of their loved ones while traveling, or a wife might keep one of her husband while he was away.
The first miniaturists used watercolour to paint on stretched vellum. During the second half of the 17th century, vitreous enamel painted on copper became increasingly popular, especially in France. In the 18th century, miniatures were painted with watercolour on ivory, which had now become relatively cheap. As small in size as 40 mm × 30 mm, portrait miniatures were often used as personal mementos or as jewellery or snuff box covers.
France also had a strong tradition of miniatures, centred on the court, although this came to concentrate in the mid-16th century on larger images, about the range of sizes of the modern paperback book, which might not qualify as miniatures in the usual sense. These might be paintings, or finished drawings with some colour, and were produced by François Clouet (c. 1510 – 1572), and his followers.
The first famous native English portrait miniaturist is Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1537–1619), whose work was conservative in style but very sensitive to the character of the sitter; his best works are beautifully executed. The colours are opaque, and gold is used to heighten the effect, while the paintings are on card. They are often signed, and have frequently also a Latin motto upon them. Hilliard worked for a while in France, and he is probably identical with the painter alluded to in 1577 as Nicholas Belliart. Hilliard was succeeded by his son Lawrence Hilliard (died 1640); his technique was similar to that of his father, but bolder, and his miniatures richer in colour.
Isaac Oliver and his son Peter Oliver succeeded Hilliard. Isaac (c. 1560–1617) was the pupil of Hilliard. Peter (1594–1647) was the pupil of Isaac. The two men were the earliest to give roundness and form to the faces they painted. They signed their best works in monogram, and painted not only very small miniatures, but larger ones measuring as much as 10 in × 9 in (250 mm × 230 mm). They copied for Charles I of England on a small scale many of his famous pictures by the old masters.
Samuel Cooper (1609–1672) was a nephew and student of the elder Hoskins, and is considered the greatest English portrait miniaturist. He spent much of his time in Paris and Holland, and very little is known of his career. His work has a superb breadth and dignity, and has been well called life-size work in little. His portraits of the men of the Puritan epoch are remarkable for their truth to life and strength of handling. He painted upon card, chicken skin and vellum, and on two occasions upon thin pieces of mutton bone. The use of ivory was not introduced until long after his time. His work is frequently signed with his initials, generally in gold, and very often with the addition of the date.
On 28 April 1733, there was a terrible destruction of portrait miniatures in a fire at White's Chocolate and Coffee House. Sir Andrew Fountaine rented two rooms at White's to temporarily hold his huge collection of portraits done by Hilliard, the Olivers, Samuel Cooper, and others. The entire house burned down; the number of paintings destroyed was so large that the ashes were carefully sifted to recover the gold from the incinerated mountings of the miniatures.
In Denmark, Cornelius Høyer specialized in miniature painting (often 40 mm × 30 mm or approximately 1-1.5 inches, or in many case, oval or round in shape) in the second half of the 18th century and was appointed Miniature Painter to the Danish Court in 1769. He also worked at several other European courts and won a considerable international reputation. He was succeeded by Christian Horneman as Denmark's premier proponent of the special trade of miniature portraits. Among his most known works are a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven from 1802 of which Beethoven was particularly fond—possibly because it presents him to a more handsome appearance than most other portraits.
The 18th century produced a great number of miniature painters, of whom Richard Cosway (1742–1821) is the most famous. His works are of great beauty, and executed with a dash and brilliance which no other artist equalled. His best work was done about 1799. His portraits are generally on ivory, although occasionally he worked on paper or vellum, and he produced a great many full-length pencil drawings on paper, in which he slightly tinted the faces and hands, and these he called "stayned drawings". Cosway's finest miniatures are signed on the back; there is but one genuine signed on the face; very few bear even his initials on the front.
George Engleheart (1750–1829) painted 4,900 miniatures, and his work is stronger and more impressive than that of Cosway; it is often signed E or G.E. Andrew Plimer (1763–1837) was a pupil of Cosway, and both he and his brother Nathaniel Plimer produced some lovely portraits. The brightness of the eyes, wiriness of the hair, exuberance of colour, combined with forced chiaroscuro and often very inaccurate drawing, are characteristics of Andrew Plimer's work. John Smart (c1740–1811) was in some respects the greatest of the 18th century miniaturists. His work excelled in refinement, power and delicacy; its silky texture and elaborate finish, and the artists love for a brown background, distinguish it. Other notable painters were Richard Crosse (1742–1810), Ozias Humphry (1742–1810), Samuel Shelley (c1750–1808), whose best pictures are groups of two or more persons, Henry Edridge (1769–1821), John Bogle, and Edward Dayes.
Although the popularity of small portraiture began to decline in the 20th century, some artists continued to accept commissions, among them Eda Nemoede Casterton, who was selected to show her work in the prestigious Paris Salon. Nemoede Casterton used thin sheets of ivory rather than canvas for her paintings, a common practice among miniature portraitists. The most celebrated contemporary English portrait miniature painter is Elizabeth R Meek, MBE, HPRMS, PPSWA, FRSA (born 1953), whose sitters include His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and HRH Princess Michael of Kent.
Andrew Robertson (b. 1777, d. 1845), his brothers Alexander and Archibald also painters, created a style of miniature portrait that became dominant in Britain by the middle of the nineteenth century.
Setting himself up as a miniature painter, he acquired an extensive and fashionable practice, patronized, says John O'Keeffe in his "Recollections," by ladies of the first rank, and making "a power of money by his pencil." From 1765 to 1768 he was living in Parliament Street, Dublin, then at No. 1 Dame Street, Dublin, at the house of Stock the hosier, and afterwards in College Green, Dublin.
He contributed miniatures to the Society of Artists in Dublin from 1765 to 1773. Shortly before his death he moved to Cork Hill, Dublin, and there died on 16 December 1775, aged 36. He was buried on 18 December at St. Werburgh's Church, Dublin.
Miniature self-portrait, by Louis-Marie Autissier. In the foreground, the artist's pencils, brushes, and tools for painting miniatures can be seen. Watercolour on ivory, 19.1 × 13.5 cm (7.52 × 5.31 in), 1817, Nationalmuseum.
Miniatures are painted in oil, watercolour and enamel, but chiefly in watercolour. Many Dutch and German miniatures were painted in oil, and as a rule these are on copper; and there are portraits in the same medium, and often on the same material, attributed to many of the great Italian artists, notably those of the Bologna school. Samuel Cooper is said to have executed a few paintings in oil on copper.
From about 1650 onwards many fine miniatures were executed in vitreous enamel. Jean Petitot 1607–1691 was the greatest worker in this material, and painted his finest portraits in Paris for Louis XIV of France. His son succeeded him in the same profession. Other artists in enamel were Christian Friedrich Zincke (died 1767) and Johann Melchior Dinglinger. Many of these artists were either Frenchmen or Swiss, but most of them visited England and worked there for a while. The greatest English enamel portrait painter was Henry Bone (1755–1839). A great collection of his small enamel reproductions of celebrated paintings is in the British Royal Collection.
During the 18th century, watercolour on ivory became the standard medium. The use of ivory was first adopted in around 1700, during the latter part of the reign of William III; miniatures prior to that time having been painted on vellum, chicken-skin or cardboard, by Hilliard and others on the backs of playing cards, and also on very thin vellum closely mounted on to playing cards.