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

Chapter 2: In Little Versus In Large

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

In Little Versus In Large

In the context of time associated with the term miniature, to limn specifically meant to illustrate manuscripts or to produce detached artwork using these same illustrative techniques. Limning was perceived as a unique art both in reference to techniques of illumination as well as a stand-alone art form. The phrase ‘to paint in little’ was synonymous with this latter detached art and referred to the use of specific techniques as well as a reduction in scale. The ca. 1675 play, Country Wit by John Crown has the following lines:

Merry: Cannot you limne, Sir?

Ramble: Limne! What dost thou mean?

Merry: Why, Limne, Sir, draw pictures in little.[i]


The term miniature also was equated with ‘in little’:

… but rather to draw her in miniature, to take her in little; to look upon her through the wrong end of a perspective [telescope], and receive her images not only much less, but infinitely more imperfect than the life.[ii]


Apparently, the term limnitures was also used to describe the detached form.[iii] By the time miniature was first used in association with detached limnings, its meaning encompassed technique, scale, and to some degree of perception aligned with ‘in little’, size. It is often highlighted that miniature’s association with size results from a pseudo-etymological association with the Latin minor or mini pertaining to a small size.[iv] Written evidence for such misunderstanding is lacking but debating this association today is pointless when one considers that the link pertained enough to the origins of the term miniature to be a fitting and lasting adjective. Miniature art historian, Katherine Coombs, aptly points out that from the time the word miniature was first heard in England it carried connotations associated with size and she suggests the blending of terms by Sir Philip Sidney as a possible source of the confusion of miniature as the opposite of ‘in large’, which is our common sense today.[v] Henry Peacham, the author of an early 17th-century treatise on limning, hailed Hilliard and Oliver as “inferior to none in Christendom for the countenance in small” and he provides instructions for preparing to work on a “picture in small”.[vi] Hilliard, in his treatise concerning limning, contrasts the use of shadows in conventional sized art with “small pictures which are to be viewed in the hand”, where harshness is out of place, which he employs to be synonymous with limning.[vii] Scholars commonly use the phrases ‘in little’ contrasted with ‘in large’ to illustrate differences in technique due to size.[viii] Modern societies, from their inceptions, have used the phrase ‘in little’ to delineate their purpose and exhibitions from those of conventional scale. These societies have additionally stressed the importance of works ‘in little’ being recognized as complete works of fine art counter to nothing more than small and unusual articles. The Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers (RMS), with longstanding affiliations to prestigious academies and societies, have long fondly referred to their organization as the ‘Academy in Little’ to stress both the fine art of their genre and its diminutive size and scale against the academies of conventional art. In America the two largest miniature art societies, the Miniature Art Society of Florida (MASF), and Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers of Washington, DC (MPSGS), continue to pursue this tradition stressing their exhibitions as “fine art on a small scale” or as wondrous “gems of the art world”.[ix] The resurgence of interest in miniature art that began in 1970 with the formation of the Miniature Art Society of New Jersey (MASNJ) is often referred to as the second wave of the revival period but the age of Fine Art Miniatures is clearly the title active participants seek to best describe their efforts.

[i] George Charles Williamson. The Miniature Collector: A Guide for the Amateur Collector of Portrait Miniatures. (New York: Dodd, 1921), 4.

[ii] Edward Arber and Thomas Seccombe. An English Garner Critical Essays & Literary Fragments. (Westminster: Constable, 1903), 69; Dryden an Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Ed. Thomas Arnold. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889), 44.

[iii] “Manuscripts both Illuminated and Historical.” A Catalogue of Rare and Valuable Books. No. 151. (London: Quaritch, 1895), 1; Jim Murrell. The Way How to Lymne. (London: VAM, 1983), 79.

[iv] Talbot. English Etymologies., 455.

[v] Coombs. “From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature.”

[vi] Richard Redgrave and Samuel Redgrave. A Century of Painters of the English School Vol. I. (London: Smith, 1866), 25.

[vii] Horace Hart. The First Annual Volume of the Walpole Society. 1912. (  n.d.), n. pag. Web. 2009

[viii] William Dunlap. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States Vol. 3. (Boston: Goodspeed, 1918), 225.

[ix] Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers. Exhibition Catalogue. (London: RMS, 1927), 10-11; Miniature Art Society of Florida. Exhibition Catalogue. (Clearwater, FL: MASF, 2009), 1; Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers Society of Washington, DC. Exhibition Catalogue. (MPSGS, 2008), n. pag.



  1. For a general overview of the world’s miniature art societies and organizations please see:

    This information was compiled while I was doing the research for Modern Masters with much of it coming from miniature art society newsletters, catalogues and leaders. I heartily welcome additions and show catalogues.

    Thanks, Wes Siegrist

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