Miniature Painting
Art of Limning: Portrait Miniatures & Manuscript Illustrations.


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Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry By the Limbourg Brothers
Miniature from the Month of May,
Part of Les Tres Riches Heures (1413)
By the Limbourg Brothers. Regarded
as one of the greatest paintings within
the genre of illuminated manuscripts.

Miniature Painting (c.600-1850)


Origins and History
Earliest Miniature Portraits
Development of Portrait Miniatures (1550-1850)
Best Miniaturists

Miniature Portrait of Artist's Wife
(1578) By Nicholas Hilliard, one
of the best miniaturists of his day.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to different
categories, see: Types of Art.

For details of the best painters:
Old Masters (Painters to 1830)


In fine art, the term "miniature" refers to two types of pictures: (1) illustrative images (c.600-1400 CE) in illuminated manuscripts; (2) miniature portraits (1500-1850) small enough to be worn as an item of jewellery (locket), including small-scale memento portraits capable of being held in the hand. The actual term miniature derives not - as is popularly supposed - from the word "minute", but from the Latin "minium", the red lead used in illustration by medieval illuminators ("miniators") to decorate initial letters in illuminated manuscripts: red being one of the earliest colours to be used in such texts. During the Middle Ages, miniature portrait art was known as "historia" (hence the term "historiated" initial), while the tiny portraits painted by the Elizabethan artist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his contemporaries, were called "limnings" (pictures in little). Miniatures became especially popular in 16th century Europe and were in widespread use during the 17th/18th centuries. They included some of the greatest portrait paintings in fine art. They were particularly useful in conveying a person's looks and thus facilitating introductions between people over distances. Other customers included sailors, explorers and other travellers - who carried personal mementos of their loved ones while abroad - and conversely wives and sweethearts who remained behind. The best portrait artists involved in the genre included specialists like Jean Clouet, Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver, Samuel Cooper, Jean Petitot, and Richard Cosway, along with regular portraitists like Jean Fouquet, Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Henry Raeburn.

Nail Art featuring miniature paintings
of Snowmen.


Until 1400 at the earliest, all illustrated manuscripts were created on animal skin (vellum), usually the skin of a sheep, cow or goat. Vellum is also known as parchment. The miniature pictures used to decorate the text were painted in a variety of vegetable and mineral-based colour pigments, including reds, blues and greens, yellows and purples. Occasionally, precious materials like gold leaf (laid on glue and burnished, or laid on a slightly raised ground of gesso for a more three-dimensional effect), or powdered gold (mixed with gum arabic to make a kind of gold paint, applied with a brush).
See: How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made.

Portrait miniatures were produced mostly in gouache on vellum, but also in oil. Many German and Dutch miniatures, for instance, were painted in oil, usually on copper. From the mid-17th century onwards, many high-quality miniatures were executed in vitreous enamel on copper. Jean Petitot (1607-91), official painter to Louis XIV of France, and one of the best miniaturists of the seventeenth century, was the greatest enamel miniaturist. The finest English enamel portrait painter was Henry Bone (1755-1839). Later, during the 18th century, the standard medium for miniatures was watercolour on ivory.


Origins and History

Although abstract miniatures appeared in the earliest illuminated Biblical art such as the Ethiopian Garima Gospels (c.390-660 CE) and the Syrian Rabbula Gospels (c.586 CE), it wasn't until the early medieval art of the 7th century that the first representational miniatures appeared, in gospel texts like the Irish Christian Book of Dimma (c.620). Medieval miniatures are exemplified by the exquisite religious paintings and decorations of the Book of Kells (c.800, Trinity College Dublin Library) - see, in particular, the spectacular decoration of its Monogram Page (Chi/Rho). Other examples include: the Psalter of Henry de Blois (c.1140, British Library), the Belleville Breviary (1323-26, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1324-28, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art), as well as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413, Musee Conde, Chantilly). Another example is the series of sixty-one miniatures produced between 1438 and 1444 by Giovanni di Paolo (1400-82) in order to illustrate the "Paradiso", the third part of Dante's Divine Comedy (British Museum). This tradition of miniature medieval painting flourished until the fifteenth century, when painted illustrations were gradually superceded by printed images.

Earliest Miniature Portraits

The earliest portrait miniatures, designed to fit inside a locket or special portrait-box, were probably made by Flemish painters (illuminators) in Bruges, Ghent or Tournai, such as Simon Bening and Gerard Horenbout, or by French artists like Jean Pucelle (c.1281-1334), Enguerrand de Charenton (Quarton) (c.1410-61), and Jean Fouquet (1420-81). However, the earliest dated portrait miniatures were French, and were painted by Jean Clouet (1485-1540) at the court of King Francis I (1494-1547). The first recorded portrait miniatures painted in England were made during the reign of Henry VIII, by the Flemish painter Lucas Horenbout (1493-1544), who passed on the technique to the celebrated German portraitist Hans Holbein (1497-1543). It was Holbein who took miniature painting to new heights, creating a number of masterpieces. Of all the painters who were inspired by Holbein to take up this relatively new artform, only Nicholas Hilliard proved a worthy successor.

Development of Portrait Miniatures (1500-1850)

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) was the first native-born master of miniature painting in England. Preferring the oval form (rather than the circular form) for his portraits, Hilliard was miniature painter to Queen Elizabeth I for over thirty years. His chief pupil, Isaac Oliver (1568-1617), was a more technically sophisticated artist who became the chief miniaturist during the reign of King James I (1603-25). But it was Oliver's pupil, Samuel Cooper (1609-1672) who is now considered by many to be the greatest English portrait miniaturist, although few details are known of his career.

While most of the early miniaturists painted in watercolour on vellum or paper, things changed during the 17th century in France when a new technique was introduced - that of painting miniatures in enamel on a metal surface - which was mastered by Jean Petitot (1607-1691). Then, from about the beginning of the 18th century, the Italian painter Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) introduced the use of ivory as a ground, which gave miniaturists a much more luminous painting surface. This innovation triggered a significant revival of small-scale painting in the second half of the eighteenth century. Eminent European miniaturists of the period included Jeremiah Meyer (1735-1789), Richard Crosse (1742-1810), Richard Cosway (1742-1821), Ozias Humphrey (1742-1810), John Smart (1741-1811), Samuel Shelley (1750-1808), George Engleheart (1750-1829) and William Wood (1768-1808), in England, and Peter Adolf Hall (1739-1793), Niclas Lafrensen (1737-1807), and Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855) in France.

Note: India has a rich tradition of miniature painting, which was mostly developed during the eras of Post-Classical Indian Painting and Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century).

Isabey continued the tradition of miniature portraiture into the nineteenth century, as did John Cox Dillman Engleheart (1784-1862), nephew of George Engleheart. Other 19th century English miniaturists included Andrew Robertson (1777-1845), William Corden the Elder (1795-1867), the easel-painters Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). However, in the second half of the 19th century the genre was rapidly overtaken by the new medium of photography, and survived only as an expensive luxury.

Portrait miniatures can be seen in some of the best art museums and collections in the world, notably the Musee Conde (Chantilly), the Louvre (Paris), the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the British Royal Collection (Windsor) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).

• For an appreciation of portraits in oils and watercolours, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about book painting and miniatures, see: Homepage.

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