Best Miniature-Portrait Painters (c.1300-1850)
The tradition of miniature painting, that is small scale portrait art designed for lockets or portrait boxes, originated during the era of medieval art, notably in the techniques used in illuminated manuscripts. It then flourished in England and on the Continent during the period 1500 to 1850, before being superceded by the new medium of photography. Although it developed into a highly specialized form of fine art painting, it was practised by many of the best portrait artists including Jean Fouquet, Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Henry Raeburn. See also Greatest Portrait Paintings (50 Greatest Portraits).
Here is a short selection of the greatest portrait miniaturists in England and Europe, together with a brief outline of their career and their importance as artists. Full biographical details will be added in due course.
EVOLUTION OF VISUAL
Jean Pucelle, a French contemporary of Giotto and one of the great Medieval artists of his day, was among the most important Gothic book painters and miniaturists in early 14th century Paris. Little is known of his career, except that he established an active workshop producing illuminated manuscripts and miniature paintings. A favourite of the French court, his naturalist painting indicates that he had a good grasp of contemporary developments in Florentine Proto-Renaissance art (c.1300 onwards), as well as advances in the Netherlands. His work is seen as a bridge between Gothic art and the new International Gothic style. Had no worthy successor until the emergence of the Limbourg Brothers at the end of the century. His masterpieces include: The Belleville Breviary (1323-26, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1324-28, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art). See also also the illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, by the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82).
Son of the Flemish painter Jan Cloet the Elder, no documented works survive of his life and work. He is known solely through a small number of portraits, including Man holding Petrarch's Works (British Royal Collection, Windsor), together with a number of drawings (Musee Conde, Chantilly). Stylistically, his works belong to the naturalist school of Flemish Painting, and are sometimes compared to those of his contemporary Hans Holbein (14971543). Curiously however, while Holbein's paintings are essentially linear in composition, Clouet's are marked by greater modelling and use of light and shade, reminiscent of Leonardo's later sfumato.
A descendant of the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout, the book painter and portraitist Lucas Horenbout was appointed court painter to the English court of Henry VIII in 1531. Unfortunately, he has left behind no authenticated works. It was Lucas who is said to have introduced the visiting Hans Holbein the Younger to the art of miniature portrait painting. Horenbout has also been credited by some art historians with producing the earliest of all English portrait miniatures. These are likely to have been pendants depicting King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
The goldsmith/limner Nicholas Hilliard (known in France as Nicholas Belliart) is England's best known miniaturist, noted for his oval portrait miniatures of the Elizabethan court, and its successor under James I. Both monarchs held him in exceptional regard. In addition, he produced at least two famous panel paintings of Elizabeth I. Technically conservative, his works are beautifully executed with a fine use of line, an aversion to shadows, and great intimacy and charm. Quite willing to distort the proportions of his figures to enhance the composition, his portraits often functioned as coded messages in the game of courtly love. Many are embellished with gold and include his signature together with a Latin motto. He also wrote a major treatise on miniatures called The Art of Limning (1600, Bodleian Library, Oxford). He was succeeded as head of the Hilliard workshop by his son Lawrence (c.1579-1640). The largest single collection of his work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
From the 1590s on, Hilliard's pupil Isaac Oliver became a major competitor, although the pair were head and shoulders above their contemporaries. Oliver was the son of a Huguenot goldsmith who fled to England from France in 1568. After training under Hilliard, by 1590 he was established in his own practice. In 1604 he was appointed Limmer (miniaturist) to Queen Anne of Denmark, and afterwards to Henry, Prince of Wales, and his circle. Oliver's style was more modern than Hilliard's: it included greater use of linear perspective, along with more light and shade for greater three-dimensionality. Oliver also executed a number of miniature history paintings, along with several life-size portraits. He was succeeded by his son, Peter (1594-1647), noted for his miniature-size copies of Old Masters.
Samuel Cooper, the greatest English miniaturist of the seventeenth century, was born in London, the nephew and pupil of John Hoskins, the miniature painter. According to Samuel Pepys (who commissioned him to paint a portrait of his wife), Cooper was a talented musician, fluent in French and a regular customer of the Covent Garden Coffee-House. He painted members of both sides during the English Civil War, including Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. Noted for his compelling style of Baroque painting - quite different from the more parochial style of Hilliard, Cooper was also commissioned by Charles II to produce royal portraits for the new coinage. His elder brother Alexander (1608-60) was also a miniaturist, active mainly on the Continent. Typical examples of his portraiture are in the British Royal Collection (Windsor Castle), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) as well as Belvoir Castle, Montague House and Welbeck Abbey (England).
Born in Geneva, the son of a Huguenot wood-carver, the French-Swiss enamel painter Jean Petitot first trained as a goldsmith, before travelling to England where he executed a number of portraits for Charles I. On the latter's death Petitot went to Paris where he collaborated on miniatures with the enamellist Jacques Bordier. Housed in luxury apartments in the Louvre Palace, Petitot became official painter to Louis XIV, and duly painted portraits of almost everyone of significance at the French court. He is now considered to be the greatest enamel miniaturist in the history of art. The greatest collection of paintings by Petitot is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, although significant numbers are held by the Louvre, the Musee Condee Chantilly, and the British Royal Collection (Windsor). Petitot remains of the great figures in 17th century French painting.
The highly popular Venetian pastellist and miniaturist Rosalba Carriera worked in Paris, Rome and Vienna, as well as her native Venice, painting snuff boxes for English tourists on the Grand Tour of Europe. Her miniatures were executed mostly on ivory, a technique she pioneered. She was also a prolific portraitist in pastels of the European aristocracy, and in addition produced a range of erotic pictures. In 1705 - by then a famous figure in Venetian painting - she was elected an honorary member of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca (Academy of Art in Rome). Many of her works are in the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other art museums.
Appointed the official Painter in Miniatures and Enamels to King George III, the 18th-century English miniaturist Jeremiah Meyer also drew the king's portrait for various sets of coinage. No relation to the French artist Constance Meyer, along with Richard Cosway, Ozias Humphrey, and John Smart, he was one of the leading European miniaturists of the period.
A highly talented artist from a young age, the English miniaturist, drawing master and art collector, Richard Cosway trained under Thomas Hudson before attending Richmond House Academy, founded by Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond. It was here that he met the Florentine decorative painter Giambattista Cipriani (1727-85). In 1760, at the age of 18, he first showed at the Society of Artists. He also exhibited at the Free Society of Artists, and later at the Royal Academy. In 1769, he entered the schools of the London Royal Academy where he was elected a full member in 1771. A friend of the Prince of Wales, Cosway was the most fashionable miniature painter in London, noted for the tactful flattery of his portraits.
Born and educated in Devon, Humphrey trained at Shipley's Drawing School in the Strand before completing his studies in Bath under Samuel Collins. As well as this he received valuable advice from the portraitist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and the Devon-born master Joshua Reynolds (1727-92). Setting up in business in 1762, Humphrey went on to become one of the best miniaturists of the 18th century. Elected to the Royal Academy in 1791 (some 20 years after the better-connected Cosway), he was appointed Portrait Painter in Pastels to the King in 1792. A close friend of the artist George Romney, Humphrey is also known for his supposed 1790s portrait of a teenage Jane Austen, better known as the "Rice" portrait, although modern opinion is doubtful. Humphrey was also a close friend of the animalier George Stubbs, whose biography he authored. Many of his miniatures of members of the British royal family are still in the Royal Collection at Windsor. See also English Figurative Painting (1700-1900).
Active mainly in London, Smart was one of the leading miniature painters of his period. Despite learning his craft under Richard Cosway, his own style was quite different, being more delicate and refined with a greater understanding of anatomy, and better modelling. The silky texture and polish of his paintings lent them a distinction unlike that of any miniaturist of the eighteenth century.
The Swedish painter Peter Adolf Hall took up drawing at the age of 16 after spending two years studying medicine at Uppsala University. At 20, after deciding on a career as a full-time portraitist, he enrolled in a drawing course in Stockholm given by the French sculptor Pierre-Hubert Larcheveque (1721-78) and studied painting under Gustaf Lundberg. In 1766 he was awarded a commission to paint the pastel portraits of Princes Karl and Fredrik Adolf, as well as a miniature portrait of the Swedish Crown Prince Gustav to celebrate his engagement to Princess Sophia Magdalena of Denmark. After this he spent time in Paris where - using gouache on ivory sheets - he pioneered a new method of looser, freer brushwork together with a fresh range of colour in miniature painting that facilitated a more lively characterization of subjects. Another of his specialties was the painstaking attention to detail which he devoted to the costumes, drapery, attributes and accessories of his sitters. Hall went on to become one of Europe's greatest miniaturists.
The French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey trained under Jean-Baptiste-Charles Claudot (1733-1805) - who also taught Jean-Baptiste Augustin (17591832), France's other great miniaturist of the period - before settling in Paris in 1785 where - like the greatest Venetian miniaturist Rosalba Carriera - he began his career by painting snuff-boxes. During this period he was also taught by the celebrated Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Active before, during and after the French Revolution (c.1789-93), Isabey painted portrait miniatures of Queen Marie-Antoinette and various nobles, as well as more than 200 portraits of deputies in the National Assembly, many of which he exhibited at the Salon of the French Academy. Later he was given numerous commissions by Napoleon, after which he also found favour with the restored King Louis XVIII, whose portrait he completed in 1814. Later, he was granted a pension by Emperor Napoleon III: Isabey's miniature portrait of the Emperor at Malmaison is regarded as one of the best ever made.
Works by miniature portrait painters can be seen in some of the top collections and best art museums in the world.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY