Style and Technique in Miniature Art
First and foremost, miniature painting is about the development of the finest and most demanding of practical skills of all the painting arenas. It is the mastery of handling of the tiny brush to produce the quality work which still maintains the quality when magnified, say, six times. Stipple, line, hatch work, so fine, that much of the technique is lost to the eye. Sydney Shorthouse[i]
Initially, limning referred to specific stylistic techniques that were requisitely different from methods used in other genres. It was these demanding qualities that identified them as limnings with no conscious concern for size or scale.[ii] These techniques were modified and evolved both to meet with public acceptance and to facilitate the copying of works in large, ‘in little’.[iii] In scrutinizing the historic production up to the present day, with little exception, one artistic style has dominated the genre of miniature art – Realism. The initial function of a representative memento established a foundation for realism in miniatures. The antecedent illuminations, and later parallel development in the branch of Far Eastern miniatures, were also centered on recognizable imagery for illustrative purposes. It was not until the mid 19th century when the advent of photography stole the public’s affection for the function of cherished realistic images of loved ones that miniaturists had great need of exploring different styles. It would take several more decades before the artists would begin to fully implement these new arenas as reflections ‘in little’ of the current trends of their day. Both as an attempt to remain relevant and to directly counter what they perceived to be flaws in their nemesis of photography, miniaturists explored new realms in color, composition and even subject matter. The revival period focused on trying to achieve what Robertson and Ross had initiated so many years before: a general appreciation for miniature painting as fine art in its own right. Opening the exhibitions to sculpture broadened the possibilities for creativity and further asserted the genre’s push into a classification of fine art. As artistic trends and styles developed in the art world at large, many of the artists responsible for them pursued new ground in the realm of the miniature world. It is far more common for an artist to work in conventional sizes and create miniatures on the side than it is for any to be specialists in miniature today.
Stylistic techniques for rendering miniature art have also been wide-ranging over the scope of the genre’s history. Despite this variety, consistent attributes remain that helped shape the identity of the art form. Intricate and precise brushwork employing manners of stippling, hatching and pointillism are used to achieve the refined character associated with fine miniature painting. Washes are generally relegated to under layers and backgrounds, and any seemingly carefree brushwork found will be used sparingly, to avoid distractions, to suit style, while still focusing attention typically on a tightly rendered subject. Polished refinement overall is typical but exceptions can be found historically in the works by miniaturists such as Fragonard and the establishment of the ‘free technique.’ Initiated by Virginia Richmond Reynolds, this technique allowed a few boldly apparent brushstrokes and several miniaturists were known for working with this method.[iv] Lucy May Stanton, took this style a step farther by introducing a ‘puddling style.’ She worked with pools of color on the ivory allowing the final effect to be a product of evaporation.[v] Still, the genre has acceptable margins limiting freedom and experimentation to remain true to its intrinsic attributes.[vi] In the words of Lucia Fairchild Fuller: “… law is an integral part of freedom/guarded freedom working within the constraints of the genre.”[vii]
Portraiture dominated miniature painting from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The demand for representations of loved ones as tokens of affection, usually to commemorate life events, supplied miniaturists with abundant work until usurped by the quicker and cheaper photograph. However, the highest esteem was still allocated to the painted miniature as reflected in the mimicked attempts of hand-colored photography and continued requests for paintings by society’s elite. Realism defined the genre until the revival period when artistic tastes in miniature reflected the broader full-scale movements. Today, realistic representations of subject matter are still the norm in exhibitions that cover nearly every imaginable style in practice. Whatever the style, from realism to abstraction, the fundamental tenet qualifying miniatures today, and reflective of miniature art through history, is refined detail. The function of miniatures both past and present, being up-close personal objects of inspection, demands the quality to beg further inspection from the viewer. Failure to please the viewer, when examined intimately, leaves a work of art outside the realm of a true miniature.[viii]
Modern miniaturists and miniature art societies usually display magnifying lenses alongside the works to encourage close examination and to amaze and educate the unfamiliar. Horace Walpole’s oft quoted statement, “Magnify the former, they are still diminutively conceived: if a glass could expand Cooper’s pictures to the size of Vandyck’s [sic], they would appear to have been painted for that proportion.” indicates not just the level of refined detail and accuracy qualifying a miniature. It also admonishes miniaturists to pursue this excellence, despite the challenges in scale and size, to stand equally alongside their full-size counterparts.[ix] Propert insightfully restates another thought by Walpole that it is doubtful if Van Dyck ever produced a work in large that could surpass the diminutive art of Cooper.[x] Miniaturists today use magnification as a work aid, especially to refine their works and in removing dust embedded in the paint. Miniaturists of the past did not rely on magnification to the degree that we do today. Alfred Praga, around 1900, asserted with a disdainful tone that magnifiers were not to be used to render the painting but only to refine and clean it.[xi] A sentiment echoed by Cyril Davenport in his writings on miniature painting.[xii] Most notable with this regard are the comparatively younger ages of the miniaturists of the past who, in the peak of their production, were nearly half the age of today’s average miniaturists who typically take up miniature painting later in their career.[xiii]— The dominance of detailed realism defining style is not without a major pitfall that was lamented over a century past; a tendency to overwork and destroy all subtle effects of fine art by obfuscating them with distracting marks.[xiv] The best miniaturists have learned to master methods of masking these distractions through employment of conventional fine art wisdom and by not mistaking the means for the end.[xv] The time and effort are present but noticed only upon intimate inspection. It would be more accurate to describe a true miniature as possessing polished refinement contrasted with detail defined merely as a preponderance of marks.[xvi] The RMS states the proper technique for defining miniature today is “infinite patience, precise composition and an extreme delicacy of touch, all of prime importance, for generalities would not be permissible in a miniature.”[xvii]
American miniaturists, at the founding of the American Society of Miniature Painters (ASMP), treated “old-time serious artistic methods, with a direct and fresh point of view”. They aimed to demonstrate that high art was attainable within the confines of diminutive space and despite perverted public taste, worked diligently to regain proper respect for miniature art.[xviii] They [American miniature painters, ca. 1905] realize the especially personal application of their respected field. Accordingly, they seek less for details than for intimate mystery. They leave the stiff, stippling traditions that preclude rich decorative effects or atmospheric qualities for strength and depth of color, for adequate drawing, for intelligent composition, for a grasp of the meaning of values, and for a broad and easy brushwork.[xix]
Revival miniaturists, and those populating the societies today, do not consider themselves bound to the traditions of the past and while they comprehend the difference between the skill of a craftsman and the creative genius of an artist, they realize the consummate miniaturist is a master of both. The beneficial influence of American innovation, unhindered by centuries of esteemed style, unfettered miniature art and helped it survive the onslaught of photography.[xx]— Photography influenced all painting but similarities in size, scale and function directly impacted miniature painting the most. Alyn Williams, founder and President of the world’s first miniature art society, the Society of Miniature Painters which is known today as the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers (RMS), bemoaned the fraud perpetrated on the art world in the unscrupulous use of photography with miniature art: the labeling of a colored photograph as an original miniature.[xxi]— Such deceit was common during the formation of the revival period but other changes affected by photography were not as overtly malevolent.[xxii] The most poignant of these effects was the altered experience of observation as artists now could work from a captured moment in time versus an interactive experience with their sitter. In this sense photography reverted miniature painting based upon its processes back to the time before the golden age of pursuit of nature and miniatures became more copies than individual expressions of fine art.[xxiii]The static image was immune to tiring as a live sitting had obvious time restraints. Technically this inspired the production of copyists more than artists with the need to quickly grasp composition, gesture, and light being replaced by the frozen photographic image.Early miniature art societies, however, acknowledged benefits of using photography in its place. Alfred Praga insisted photographs should be used as aids only after an artist is capable of working without them and stressed drawing from life.[xxiv] Alyn Williams praised the camera for freeing him from efforts at babysitting unruly child sitters.[xxv] While initial importance of working from life was stressed by revival miniaturists, today the use of photographs is the norm. Such usage mirrors attitudes in conventional sized fine art, limiting the photo to a reference tool. The ubiquitous nature of photography today has acclimated artists to viewing it as beneficial in its place versus the perception of the challenging upstart known by artists of old. Murrell’s conclusion that “miniature painting committed a logical, but undignified, suicide, by attempting to imitate photography” perhaps overstates the damage done to the genre, in that not all miniaturists pursued such a degree of imitation and overlooks the positive results future miniature art societies had in proselytizing the amateur copyists into the ranks of proper miniaturists.[xxvi]
Harry B. Wehle, former Curator of Paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, summarized the two qualities that best define a proper miniature. To be ideal, a miniature should possess a quality of ‘preciousness’ seen in the perfection of its forms and textures. The tiny space must return more visual satisfaction than we expect to increase its value and charm. Additionally, a miniature should have a quality of ‘marvellousness’ [sic], an attribute inherent in its diminutive size. The viewer should marvel at the technical skill and dexterity of the work’s production.[xxvii]
American miniature painting of the revival period established a school immeasurably in advance of the previous generations with attributes of “epoch-making” breadth and strength essentially different and characterized by “sincerity of purpose, originality, creative ability, and careful detail finish.”[xxix] They established a foundation in which proper technique in miniature produces work that is recognized by viewers first by subject, then as art and finally, after appealing to their aesthetic senses, impresses with the characteristics inherent to miniature alone: size, scale and technique.The final desired impressions are the patient and dexterous finishes solely of the miniaturist.[xxx]Miniatures usually mirror conventional scaled work done by the same artist and the individuality of style and finished quality of the artwork matter more than the methods used to create them. “… the bottom line is the image, the work of art, not the size or technique that has the ultimate value. A successful miniature will be a successful work of art, not just a successfully executed technique.”[xxxi]
[iv] “Art: Paintings in Little.” Time (Time.com 19 Feb. 1934), <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,746984,00.html> access 8.8.2009; Richard Walker. Miniatures: A Selection from the Ashmolean. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), 56; Alice T. Searle. “The Twelfth Annual Exhibition of the American Society of Miniature Painters.” The International Studio Vol. XLIII. (New York: Lane, Mar. 1911), xxi; Barrat. American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art., 240. (Alice Schille, Laura Coombs Hills, Lucy May Stanton and Rosina Cox Boardman were all known to work in this method.)
[v] Barratt. American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art., 256. (Stanton’s technique actually took Nicholas Hilliard’s technique for backgrounds and draperies a step further with her exploiting the freedom of the Watermedia.)
[xi] “Painting a Miniature. A Demonstration by Mr. A. Praga, President of the Society of Miniaturists.” Arts & Crafts Magazine Vol. 1-2. (London: Hutchinson, 1904), <http://chestofbooks.com/crafts/general/Arts-And-Crafts-Magazine/Painting-A-Miniature-Part-First.html> accessed 9.2009.
[xiii] Barratt. American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art., 24. (The founders of the ASMP and many early miniaturists were in their late 20’s to early 40’s whereas most miniaturists in 2010 are past their 60’s. Only a handful of active miniature artists in 2010 are under age 40.)
[xx] Revival period miniaturists were often harshly criticized for departing from established perceptions of miniature art to make their work more relevant. Half and full-length portraiture, elaborate compositions, nudes and landscapes were frowned upon as small scale copies of easel painting versus proper miniatures. It was a testament to the artistic spirit and foresight of these miniaturists that our genre has such variety today. (See: New York Tribune 3 Feb. 1901)
[xxi] Alyn Williams. “Light and Shade in the Miniaturist’s Path.” The Art World Vol. 2. (New York: Kalon, July 1917), 337. See also: Carmela Arturi and Frederick Roger Phillips. The Arturi Phillips Collection. (Faux, France: Portrait Miniature Club, 2010), 376.
[xxiv] “Some Miniatures Shown at the Exhibition of the Society of Women Artists.” Arts & Crafts Magazine Vol. 1-2. (Hutchinson, 1904), <http://chestofbooks.com/crafts/general/Arts-And-Crafts-Magazine/Some-Miniatures-Shown-At-The-Exhibition-Of-The-Society-Of-Wo.html> access 9.2009