Miniature portraits of family members and sweethearts were valued possessions before the advent of photography. They were as highly prized as full-size portraits in oil, and frequently they took as long to produce. Miniatures were meticulously painted in watercolor on ivory, a difficult medium that demanded considerable technical mastery. When completed they were set in decorative cases that enabled them to be worn as jewelry or placed on display.
The American tradition of miniature painting, like that of full-size portraiture, was adapted from European models, particularly English painting of the Rococo period. However, portraits painted in this country emphasize the individuality of the sitter with a penetrating realism that is characteristically American.
Some of America's best-known artists painted miniatures, among them John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, George Catlin, Thomas Sully, and Henry Inman. Other talented painters were miniaturists exclusively; miniature portraits by James Peale, John Ramage, Edward Greene Malbone, Benjamin Trott, Sarah Goodridge, Thomas Seir Cummings, Nathaniel Rogers, and a host of others were in great demand. Itinerant miniaturists possessing an entire range of skills plied their trade all across the young nation. In Richard and Gloria Manney's superb collection of over three hundred miniatures, almost every noted American miniaturist who painted between 1750 and 1850 is represented. An unusually large proportion of the miniatures are signed or documented. Remarkable for its comprehensiveness and high quality, the collection will be fascinating to the general observer and an ideal subject for the student of American portraiture. This catalogue presents a great deal of new material based on careful study of the miniatures and extensive research into the conditions surrounding their production. Many of the miniatures have been newly attributed. A full biography is included for every known miniaturist represented in the collection. Each miniature is catalogued with a physical description, an illustration at actual size, and a discussion that whenever possible includes information about the subject of the portrait. One third of the miniatures are also illustrated in color. In an introductory essay, Dale T. Johnson, author of the catalogue, traces the development of miniature painting in America, elucidating the relationship between American and European approaches and describing the growth of the art in different regions of the United States. An essay by conservator Carol Aiken brings together a wealth of information on the technique of miniatures. The catalogue contains full references and a selected bibliography.
Dale I. Johnson, Research Consultant in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is currently preparing a catalogue of the Museum's collection of American portrait miniatures.