Posted by: Wes and Rachelle Siegrist | December 4, 2011

Chapter 7: Scale in Miniature Art

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

Scale in Miniature Art

Scale was unintentionally the result of size and compositional constraints within the traditions of illumination, limning and the later miniature. Life-sized depictions of flora and fauna that often were incorporated into the page designs in illuminated manuscripts found little place in the latter detached limning/miniature developments. This was not due to an established guideline dictating scale but a result of simple market demand from the buying public. Nearly all early miniature paintings were commissioned cherished mementos of loved ones and diminutive reproductions of classical full-sized works. Portraits dominated the oeuvre of historical miniaturists and few ventured into other realms. It was a rarity to sell a non-commissioned miniature.[i]

The issue of scale, as being part of the defining parameters of miniature art, was addressed in 1865 during the planning of the South Kensington Exhibition in England when the question arose as to what constituted a miniature with regards to the historical assemblage being prepared for display. It was agreed that any media and style was acceptable with the exception of paintings on porcelain. The curators sought not to establish a rule other than the proposed miniatures should be small in scale and reflecting a miniature’s character. Size was obviously not considered an issue, which some could take to mean it held no place, although it is more probable that the field of selections generally held to an established typical size.[ii]

Hard and fast guidelines dictating scale did not come to the forefront in the genre of miniature art until the Miniature Art Society of New Jersey (MASNJ), in 1970, under the direction of Bede Zel Angle, devised a 1/6th scale rule as a basis for competitive judging. This rule, which sought to answer the question of the pragmatic American artist’s “How small is small or little, little?”, specified that subjects of the work should be rendered 1/6th their actual size or less.[iii] To the degree that these miniature artists associated this specific scale with the historical oeuvre of miniaturists’ works is unknown but surely it is no coincidence that the majority of extant historical works would qualify for the rule. In the writings of additional revival period miniature art societies, the scale rule also became a de facto measure of distinction separating historically based miniatures from a myriad of others laying claim to the same name.[iv]This frustration of miniaturists to remain unique in a milieu of competing namesakes, alongside the constant confusion for new artists seeking to work in miniature, finally resulted in the formation of the Association of Miniature Artists (AMA). The debates that led to the development of the AMA helped miniaturists rectify the primary objection to the scale rule. The linguistic difference between the meanings of rule opposed to guideline exposed the issue of rigidity or leniency and reinforced the need for the parameter to facilitate uniformity for consensus of definition and public perception.

As of 2009 nearly all miniature art societies require a reduction in scale for work to be considered miniature. Those accepting life-size renditions stipulate that the subject’s life-size must fall under two inches in size thus limiting the available subject matter and forcing  all else to submit to reduced scale. Given the popular public meaning of the term miniature, and the continuing influence of small-sized works clearly not meeting conceded miniature standards, reduced scale guidelines will remain intrinsic to any definition. Modern miniaturists faced with the display of their work online and in print at uncontrollable reproduction size, adopted the use of including a penny alongside their work. The coin provides an instant sense of size and scale to the viewer and has become practically ubiquitous in recognizing contemporary miniatures online in the milieu of conventional sized works. Some miniaturists often include the penny when submitting their work to juries of non-miniature nature in an attempt to counter the disadvantage they face having their work enlarged by as much as fifty times on a projection screen.

The essence of miniature art is not to paint ‘Mount Rushmore on the head of a pin’, or microscopic detail, but it is a game of quality effectiveness for size. Bede Zel Angle[v]

These miniatures [by Don Giulio Clovio] were characterized by Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, as stupefying in their brilliant detail, emulating Michelangelo and conveying a sense of monumentality even in works that are physically small.[vi]

… miniature painting is as artistic and often more difficult than portrait painting in oils. The work is so delicate and minute that a great deal of time has to be spent upon the picture to make it satisfactory. It is more difficult to get the proper expression in a miniature than in a large painting, because it is such very fine and exacting work.Otto Sarony[vii]

‘My four-year-old could do that!’ is something you never hear at a miniature art exhibition. Lynn Pierson[viii]


[i] Katherine Coombs. The Portrait Miniature in England. (London: VAM, 1998), 95.

[ii] Samuel Redgrave. Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures on Loan at the South Kensington Museum. (London: Whittingham, 1865). x-xi.

[iii] Doris M. Liverman and Kay Petryszak. Catalogue of the Miniature Collection. (Clearwater: MASF, 2000), 10.

[iv]  In the MASF bylaws: ‘Fine art in small scale, with minute attention to detail, which can be enlarged or withstand close inspection without revealing its faults.’; Liverman. Catalogue of the Permanent Collection., 10.

[v] Bede Zel Angle. Miniature Art Today. (Indian Rocks Beach, FL: Expert Art Services, 1977), 7.

[vi] “Michelangelo in Miniature: The Towneley Lectionary”. Treasures of the New York Public Library. <http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/128&gt; access 7.2009.

[vii] “Miniatures Once More” Fort Worth Gazette Mail Ed. Part II. [Ft. Worth, TX] 21 Oct. 1894.

[viii] Lynn Pierson, Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Spoken at the 2010 MASF Awards Brunch, January 2010.

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