Gallery 754 - Portraits in Miniature, 1750–1920
Part of The American Wing
View a Collection on the Map
View a Special Exhibition on the Map
View Facilities on the Map
The tradition of miniature painting—tiny watercolor portraits on ivory—emerged in America in the eighteenth century. Based on European models, portrait miniatures are related to ancient and medieval devotional paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Originally made to be worn or carried, each is inextricably tied to its function as memento, love token, or reliquary. The works in this gallery portray husbands, wives, lovers, and children, both living and dead, and commemorate births, deaths, and marriages. The miniatures have been placed in a range of mounts, including metal lockets, other types of jewelry, and pocket-sized leather cases. After the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, many miniaturists abandoned their art, but some chose to compete with photography. A later revival of the tradition endured into the early decades of the twentieth century.