The history of miniature portraits

Among the wide repertoire of antiques, the miniature portraits are a special section. So lets talk about The history of miniature portraits, this genre began to flourish in the 16th century and comes from two different iconographic models: portraits in relief on stamps, coins and medals and portraits in miniated codices and illustrative miniatures in books. These relics are characterized by the surprising and striking detail in a small format and the artistic, historical, and sentimental values of such refined objects and the characters represented. Artists like El Greco or Velázquez have left us samples of their art in such small formats.

Probably the most relevant characteristic is that since they were very small objects, the miniatures were easy to transport and distribute. For this reason, it was very common for people to give each other these portraits. The small format was extremely useful in case they had to be sent to other countries, and it also made their cost much cheaper. In fact, the small collection of miniature portraits commissioned in 1565 by the Queen of Portugal, Catherine of Austria, was a wedding gift for her niece Maria of Portugal, future Princess of Parma, so that in faraway Italy she could remember her loved ones. Because of its size, the miniature could be contemplated from a minimum distance and gave rise to an intimacy that the large format lacked, strengthening personal and emotional relationships.

The essence of miniatures lies precisely in their intimate character. Generally, they were used in the private sphere or as a gift between loved ones to have the image replace the physical absence. They could be a gift to a lover, a wife or husband, a son or daughter, or a friend. In the artist Hilliard’s portraits, we can see the love courtship: in one of them a lover takes the hand of a woman who emerges from a cloud and in the other, a stranger burn in tongues of fire, flames of passion. The romantic use of miniatures was very common. In dynastic portraits, they played a fundamental role in the field of state marriages. When initiating marriage negotiations, it was usual to send portraits that served as the first visual contact between the future spouses. This is how Philip II secretly sent a small portrait of himself made by Titian to Mary Tudor in 1553.

The miniatures had the particularity that they were personally carried by their owner. They were either kept in the sleeve or in a small purse or hung by a chain on the chest, near the heart. In women, they were also used as a complement of clothing, joining the two ends of the headdress, whose tips fell on the chest, rising if they were not attached. They were also often set with pearls and diamonds and used as fine jewelry. There are also, to a lesser extent, references to decorative use, hanging on the walls of a room, or simply kept in special boxes for the private delight of its owner. The obsession with miniatures was not as much for ostentation and expression of wealth and luxury, as for being a symbol of closeness.

However, the use of a miniature portrait is very varied. On some occasions, it was usual that when a family member died, they were portrayed dead next to a cross. This served to give the news of the event and to keep their memory alive. Unfortunately, no miniatures of this subject have been preserved, only records of their existence in different inventories. But also, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, the miniatures were used to form galleries of illustrious men of the time. In this case, the portraits were usually larger. Nevertheless, the women of the royal families used to make galleries restricted to family portraits that they kept in private. But the most striking thing is that the miniatures fulfilled a public function with an important political role, as a substitute image of the king.

Another prominent public use of these portraits was as a state gift to ambassadors, courtiers, and high-ranking visitors. They were often a sign of gratitude, like the portrait received by architect Juan Gómez de Mora from the hands of Philip II, on the occasion of his wedding to Inés Sarmiento and in recognition of his services. Also among the different European courts, whose family ties were very close, it was common to send both large format and miniature portraits. Catalina de Medici constantly sent miniatures to her family in Florence, as can be seen from the collection of French miniatures in the city, which included those of her granddaughters, the Infants Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela.

Frames are a key element in the preservation of a miniature. But they also possessed an artistic work as detailed as the portrait itself. They could be interesting complements that enrich and emphasize the value of the works, from the simplest in papier mâché and brass to the most spectacular in gilded bronze to ormolu or silver with cabochons. There are even many frames decorated with human hair. A curious case is the miniature of the Duchess of Alba made by Guillermo Ducker. When the back of the frame was removed, a carefully folded page was found between the frame and the miniature: it was a page from a book that describes in detail the benefits of an aphrodisiac called satirion or “dog’s testicle”.

All European countries then had outstanding artists in this field and Spain; there were a few authors who would enjoy notable prestige. However, despite the long history and multiple uses of miniatures, the advent of photography led to the progressive condemnation of that art. Although some specialized artists remained until the Art Nouveau period, daguerreotypes and photography, in general, were the most economical substitutes and managed to faithfully capture the physical features of the models. This is how the miniature portrait lost its meaning and unfortunately disappeared. Fortunately, complete collections full of incredible stories have been recovered and can be seen in the Prado Museum, the National Museum of Warsaw, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Astolat Dollhouse Castle, the National museum, or the Boston Museum of the Arts.

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