A portrait miniature is a miniature painting which came out of manuscript illumination. The miniature portrait paintings were made with watercolor and gouache paints.
These mini portraits had many purposes from the 16th to the 18th century. They remained highly popular until the development of photography. Painted on a square piece of vellum as a round image in the center surrounded by a painted frame, the miniatures were first invented in the 1520s. Like medals, they were portable but also had realistic color.
In the 16th century, they were mainly popular in England and France and the earliest known portrait miniature is the one of young Henry VIII by Lucas Horenbout in Cambridge. Famous manuscript painters were the first portrait miniaturists like Lucas Horenbout, Jean Fouquet, Levina Teerlinc and Simon Bening.
It was a unique art form because it was a gift or lover’s token that introduced people to each other over distances. Also, they were worn like jewelry around the neck, or they could be worn from a belt of chain or pinned next to the heart.
In the mid-16th century, in France, these kind of paintings were made on larger images and looked more like finished drawings with some color than portrait miniature. The first miniaturist that produced them was Francois Clouet.
In the 18th century in England, there were a lot of miniature painters and the most famous was Richard Cosway who was a leading portrait painter of the Regency Era. Some of the most famous portrait miniatures that he made were the Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington and King George IV who appointed him as the painter to the Prince of Wales.
Another famous English miniaturist is George Engleheart who produced more striking portraits than that of Cosway. In his life, he painted over 4, 900 miniatures. The greatest of the 18th-century miniaturists was John Smart, and his last miniature can be seen in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Smart is the first who represented the portrait miniature in India which made the exchange of portraits between Britain and India cheap and easy.
In Denmark, in the 18th century, the most famous miniaturist was Cornelius Hoyer who was appointed miniature painter to the Danish Court. One of his most famous portrait miniatures is the portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. In Spain, miniatures were produced by very few artists, and one of them was Francisco Goya.
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In the United States, the first American woman that worked on miniatures was Mary Roberts. After her work, around 1900, many women worked on this kind of forms such as Lucy May Stanton, Cornelia Ellis Hildebrandt, and Virginia Richmond Reynolds.