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

Chapter 9: Debates Among Miniaturists

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

Debates Among Miniaturists

There was a period when the painting of these small portraits was considered the height of an artist’s ambition …[i]

From the outset of any type of competitive influence, miniaturists surely must have debated and defended their view of what constitutes a proper miniature. Semantic exchanges are recorded between Cosway, Robertson and their peers as they struggled to maintain their genre’s unique identity and remain relevant to their contemporary market in the 19th century.[ii]

Positions on definition, and the emotional fervor attached to these thoughts, solidified during the revival period and the development of miniature art societies. The advent of organized groups of miniaturists created the need for consensus of definition, the establishment of guidelines for exhibitions, and the concise wording of bylaws. From the onset, these organized societies struggled to set their genre apart as unparalleled among art forms, and specifically different from other object d’art, that laid claim to the title of miniature. The ASMP faced the question “when is a miniature not a miniature?” in their attempts to distinguish miniature from works simply on small scale. The leading conundrum of the day posed “[why] for the sake of coherency and harmony in our current miniature exhibitions, there could not be a clearer understanding … of the definition of the term ‘miniature’.”[iii]References to traditional, classical and true miniatures proliferate in society communications over the past century, highlighting the added emphasis by miniaturists to distinguish their works. The desire by these miniaturists to have their work regarded by the public and academia as a continuation of the historic genre both on the timeline and in terms of quality dictated their purpose as stated by miniaturist, Jane Blake:

What is the purpose of our miniature art societies? Is our purpose to exhibit and sell works of art in a specified few inches, or is it to educate the public and perpetuate this art form of antiquity?[iv]

She echoed sentiments written in 1900 contrasting miniatures with scaled down easel painting, which pointed out in miniature art there is the added dimension of altering and removing elements of the composition, to satisfy the demands of the miniature’s restricted format and dimensions.[v]Those debating her exposed the over-reliance on one specific technique reflective of a narrow time frame at the expense of innovation and individual characteristic style, but they also tended to sidestep the issue with oversimplification and lack of foresight. As mentioned in the preface, everyone recognizes that at some point not everything fits into the miniature box. An emphasis on fine art in miniature does not mean that all work recognized as fine art is necessarily identified as miniature. Sue Burton, author and co-founder of the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists (HS), bemoaned the impossibility of summation in rules of the emotive aspects of miniature art.[vi] American and Australian miniature art societies pursue a greater variety of style and technique than their European counterparts who tend to promote a more narrow focus on 16th century miniaturists’ techniques. The limit is natural given that the English perfected the art on ivory and have maintained an unbroken succession of miniaturists for the past 500 years on a variety of surfaces.

The increase in small works exhibitions, particularly in the United States in the late 20th century, with many calling themselves miniature shows, created a worldwide reaction among miniaturists struggling to remain distinct from their competitors while at the same time avoiding the pitfall of being completely dictated by tradition. Blake, in America, perceived the value of those miniaturists that had preceded her; forging policies and standards under the auspices of formal miniature societies and limiting the scope and performance of miniaturists. She was certainly correct in the prophetic pronouncement that the word miniature could denigrate to mean merely small. The miniaturist, Robert J. Humphries, had previously written in inter-society communication that in the absence of clear direction from the miniature movement, the definition of miniature, and its essence, was left to the whims of the public, the critics and the shows. He was among the leading proponents for a national organization in America to foster unity among American societies and demonstrate their concern and purpose for the miniature genre to the art world. This began as a ‘Correlation of Standards’ seminar in 1983 that ultimately birthed the Miniature Artists of America (MAA), in 1985. This Society, founded with a goal to honor outstanding miniaturists exhibiting in America, itself indirectly influenced the scope of miniaturism in America, through their policy of electing new members via a Candidate’s Circle, reflective of the award winning artists in the constituent societies. By limiting candidates to those exhibiting in approved shows or nominees from recommendations of three MAA Signature Members, they tacitly approached the standardization of parameters in miniature. This acquiescing was made easy by the five constituent societies of the MAA being in agreement with their individual definitions of miniature. When three societies eventually collapsed and a fourth altered their delineation of miniature in 2005, the old silent understanding was manifestly in need of solid clarification and this effort was undertaken in 2009 during changes to the MAA’s bylaws. The MAA officially adopted the AMA standard definition for miniature at their 2010 annual meeting with overwhelming support from the membership’s returned ballots.

The constant need of some to create a clear definition for miniature had resurfaced repeatedly, but apparently failed each time, specifically because the ability to broadly debate this topic among all represented miniaturists was discouraged by slow forms of communication and the physical distances separating them. Society newsletters provided some initial inroads into better communication but the lag time in posting responses and limited available space on the printed pages diminished these attempts. It was not until the application of the internet, with instant email communication, easily available research and specifically online forums that any progress was made in establishing a consensus of thought. Further impulse was forced upon the miniaturists of this digital age by the increase in competitive art forms asserting to be miniatures with some even going so far as to adopt the same claim to heritage. The need to clarify the established position became both a means to facilitate new participation and to prevent adverse changes to acknowledged traditional parameters. An agreement establishing the first ever standard definition occurred in July of 2007 with the founding of the Association of Miniature Artists. This grass roots movement, by constituents of the societies and online forums, conceived a plan to arrive at an established definition from the inside out. Individual miniaturists voluntarily chose to acknowledge the AMA standard as their own, hence establishing the specific definition across all societies and continents. The founding members of the AMA recognized the validity of works not conforming to their standard, but, in carefully wording their tenets to reflect the unique aspects of miniature art as espoused by their contemporary societies; their efforts took root and continue to grow.[vii]

While individual rules and guidelines provide the bulk of debate material among miniaturists, the revival movement, developing alongside the Modern Art movement, has also struggled with the arguments insisting upon no rules, guidelines or stipulations restricting artists in their creative endeavors. Balancing between relevance to the modern age and respect to established traditions has been a give and take among miniaturists for the past century. Despite the fluctuations in the evolutionary sea of fine art, miniature has kept an anchor in essential attributes of character. The leading exponents of the genre insist that freedom is possible within the established restraints. These thoughts were eloquently stated in 1905 as “within the cramping limits of a miniature” the best qualities of fine art on any scale can be seen and that a miniature, despite diminutive size, is a “tour de force” in which the best artists have “triumphed over them without violating what is essential to their character.”[viii] A New York Times critic had years before noted that great opportunities awaited miniaturists who were experts in adapting themselves to the genre’s necessary limitations.[ix] Artists not wishing to confine themselves to the restraints imposed by exhibitions and miniature art societies have the privilege of declining submission or pursuing other exhibit avenues. As Charles de Kay, a writer reviewing early efforts in 1901 by miniaturists to form societies and a standard for their art, stated: “What seems unfair and short-sighted is the noisy protest some artists make against those who are trying to improve the condition of their own branch of art along these cumbersome and imperfect lines. The burden of proof lies with the recalcitrants. Have they any better way to suggest, how the desired end shall be attained? If not, let them hold their peace and at least adopt a kindly attitude towards those who undergo the heat and burden of the battle.”[x] Satisfaction rewards those who work in harmony with the traditions and guidelines knowing they have assisted in the preservation and posterity of the miniature genre.

Contemporary artists are far more independent than their predecessors, with opportunities to achieve success not dependent upon restrictions imposed by formal societies or guilds. Those who opt to place their work and profession under the scrutiny of their peers are seeking aspirations of qualification, assistance in business and friendly interaction with like-minded artists. While “artists are the first to recognize the limited value of so-called authoritative opinions” … they eagerly welcome them when they are in line with their own thoughts and goals.[xi]The modern miniature movement walks a fine line encouraging diversity and novelty without being overly limiting with rules and guidelines. The latter some see as necessary evils and fear the exclusion of valid, quality work due to a rigid adherence to policy. Most prefer to seek a balance via allowing individual societies/shows leeway while acknowledging that an agreed upon core is essential to facilitating public understanding and new artists’ submissions.

The issue of reproducing miniature paintings has also been contested among miniaturists. The debate as to whether or not to mechanically mass produce reproductions of one’s work plays a more pivotal role in the miniature genre than in conventional art. Proponents pursue offering offset-lithographs, laser prints and giclees as a marketing angle to appeal to a broader public base. Opponents see the inexpensive offerings as detrimental to the uniqueness of miniatures while those familiar with the historical effects of photography warning of the danger in similarities.[xii]— In establishing value based upon rarity, or cost due to demand, clearly the benefits of avoiding mechanical reproductions outweigh any potential income from their sale. The complexity of the issue is compounded in our modern age where hand embellishment of reproductions is commonplace and sometimes falsely advertised as original art. The argument that proliferation of image copies enhances the value of the original is not easily swallowed by collectors who recognize that one-of-a-kind rarity is the ideal. Confusion also exists over the term “print” when applied to mechanical reproductions, versus hand-pulled media editions more properly known by that name (woodblock, linoleum, aqua tint, etching, etc.) which are considered legitimate original work in art exhibitions.

Debates increasingly play pivotal roles in clarifying the thoughts of miniaturists and formulating organized guidelines in miniature exhibitions and societies. The benefit of worldwide mass communication in the digital age has given the movement unparalleled ability to exchange thoughts and information to develop cooperation for the betterment of all.

The very marked attention which the miniatures in the Royal Academy attracted this year is one of the many things which show how great a revival there has been in the taste for miniatures–a revival which is one of the most significant features in the history of modern art. H. M. Tindall[xiii]

I am so glad that the beautiful art of legitimate miniature painting has come to the fore again to the exclusion of the so-called miniatures on photographic basis. King Edward VII[xiv]


[i] “Mr. Marie’s Miniatures.” The Sun [New York, NY] 4 Nov. 1894, 7.

[ii] Murdoch et al. The English Miniature., 196-199.

[iii] Searle. “The Twelfth Annual Exhibition of the American Society of Miniature Painters.” The International Studio Vol. XLIII., xxi-xxii.

[iv] Georgia Miniature Art Society. Thumbnails, July 1990.

[v] “The American Society of Miniature Painters.” Public Opinion Vol. XXVIII. (New York, 1900), 246.

[vi] Hilliard Society of Miniaturists. Newsletter, Aug. 1996. 

[vii] The Association of Miniature Artists. <http://www.miniatureartist.com/&gt; accessed 7/2009.

[viii] Royal Cortissoz. “Significant Art Books.” The Atlantic Monthly Vol. XCV. (Cambridge: Riverside, 1905), 275-276.

[ix] “Miniature Painters’ Society.” The New York Times. (3 Feb. 1901).

[x] Kay. “The Miniator’s Art.”, 338.

[xi] Heath. Miniatures., vi, 225.

[xii] Photographic developments in the mid 1800’s that negatively influenced miniature painting by offering quick and inexpensive representations included the collodion glass negative, albumen print, tintype, ambrotype, and ferrotype. These inventions allowed for multiple copies from a single negative. André Adolphe Disderi’s “Carte de Visite” introduced the mass production of photographic images on paper. See: <http://www.collodion-artist.com/History/&gt; and <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9-Adolphe-Eug%C3%A8ne_Disd%C3%A9ri&gt; accessed 2010.

[xiii] Tindall. “The Modern Miniature Craze.”, 197.

[xiv] “Faces on Ivory of Famous Men His Life’s Work.” The Washington Herald. (Feb. 20, 1910).

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Responses

  1. For an essay on the topic of “The Photo-Miniature and Paint-Overs” please download the pdf:

    The%20Photo-Miniature%20and%20Paint-Overs.pdf

    Modern miniature art societies (As well as those in conventional scale art) are currently dealing with artists working over printed substrates. This working method is not considered acceptable or original in modern miniature art.


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