In Pursuit of Excellence
The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, and the subsequent invention of the negative, had disastrous effects on the art of miniature painting. Despite the prediction of Ross, and the pronouncement of many scholars that miniature painting died, ca. 1860; it managed to cling to life.[i] Photography, as an inexpensive mechanical process to capture an image, severely cut into the function of miniature paintings as mementos. The general populace no longer required the expensive and laborious efforts of the miniature painter but there were still clients with discriminating taste who commissioned the services of the miniaturist. More detrimental to the art of miniature painting than a loss of function was the exponential growth of amateur miniature painters who, with the aid of photographic images as a base, were able to present an acceptable painting with minimal effort and little artistic training.* Miniaturists working as colorists tinting photographs flooded the market with competing products. Ironically, by the end of the 19th century, when many had pronounced miniature painting dead, the numbers of artists considering themselves miniaturists and the works they produced were greater than any previous period![ii]Amateur work abounded and the restrictive and repetitive procedure of tinting photographs had reduced most miniaturists to a baneful level of mediocrity in their work. A surge in interest in legitimate miniature painting in the late 1890s gave rise to artists copying fading photographs onto ivory for the perceived value and longevity of the painting versus the photo, but the intention remained to copy the photographic image.[iii] Such a lack of talent and a saturation of tawdry competitive namesakes reinforced the notion that miniature art was degenerate to the field of high fine art. It was in this context that the first of the miniature art societies were born. These societies, and their constituent members, no longer pursued the simple historical objective of capturing a likeness in their work but rather primarily sought to exemplify innovative techniques and appealing compositions based purely on artistic merit.
The last decade of the 19th century witnessed the formation of three societies dedicated to the genre of miniature art. All three did not spring forth spontaneously as a rebirth of an art form long since dead. Rather they lifted themselves out of the mire of their genre’s predicament to revive what they perceived as the merits of their field. Their goal was to preserve, protect and promote the best of miniature art. They knew, in order to combat public and academic perception and meet their goal; they needed to teach proper techniques of fine art in miniature and to produce a successive generation of able miniaturists which required organization and cooperation. In March of 1899, the American Society of Miniature Painters was created by ten artists. Each had been respected artists ‘in large’ that entered the world of miniature art with fresh perspectives and lofty goals in mind. They sought not to merely carve out or restore a market for painted mementos but rather to elevate their genre to the dignity it deserved. They were not encumbered with notions of proper techniques or styles and developed new aesthetics for miniature. They tenaciously promoted the equality of works ‘in little’ with those ‘in large’ a tenet mirrored, if not preceded by the first of the world’s miniature art societies, the Society of Miniature Painters in England. Known today as the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers, this group nicknamed themselves ‘The Academy in Little’ playing off their public standard for fine art, the Royal Academy. These groups were not unique in this purpose, as Members of the Royal Academy and National Academy of Design had promoted the same ideals before. It was their efforts to band together in purpose and pursue miniature as fine art apart from conventional works ‘in large’ that set precedent. Baer, the second President of the ASMP, erected a high standard for revival period miniaturists based primarily on natural observation and the pursuit of fine art. He, and the other founders of the new movement, used the traditions of the past and the examples of the masters of this time as their foundation, without allowing these precedents to dictate the scope and style of their new endeavor.[iv]
The pursuit of excellence establishing the criterion for proper miniature painting as fine art, reflective of the scope of works of conventional scale, culminated in 1985 with the formation of the Miniature Artists of America, MAA. This Society became the first organization to exist solely to honor outstanding practitioners of miniature art. Their Signature Members are considered the best the contemporary genre has to offer in the realm of miniature art displayed in America, with Members continuing today to make inroads into the arena of popular art both indirectly and directly with their miniature work. These Members of the MAA hold Signature Memberships in the world’s leading artistic societies and organizations. Their miniature works have been curated into museum exhibitions and acquired for museum permanent collections.[v]— Their minute gems of art have been recognized with awards in competition with the best work of their peers of conventional scale and the monetary value of their work is commensurate with peers in large despite the diminutive size. MAA Signature Members have reached the pinnacles of their respective fields as artists with miniature work. The founders of the first miniature art societies can be proud that their offspring remain vital and active in the pursuit of artistic excellence.
The content below has been added by the author as pertinent to the reader with the subject of the specific chapter. If you are a MAA Signature Member and have information relevant for this, or any other chapter, please contact the author.
– As of 2010, miniature art societies and exhibitions have made a concerted effort to address the issue of what constitutes “original” work due to submissions of photographic and printed paint-overs.
– For more information pertaining to the world’s miniature art societies, past and present, see: http://www.artofwildlife.com/miniatureartsocieties.html