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

Chapter 3: Considering Miniature as a Noun

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

Considering Miniature as a Noun

Are all objects rendered in techniques characteristic of miniature to be considered a miniature? As an objective noun, miniature refers to a tangible work of art that possesses certain qualities that define it as a unique art object. The most obvious of these qualities would be techniques of rendering inherent to all miniatures to a degree of being recognized as working ‘in miniature’. In an application of this ‘in miniature’ technique at what point is a work of art transformed into a miniature object? The debate as to what constitutes the definition of miniature also influences other art forms by way of comparison and contrast. Distinctive qualities of character build uniqueness, so the arguments as to which of these qualities define miniature are more than philosophical semantics.

In the historical periods of origin, miniature was perceived as a genre differing from all other diverse forms of art. The heritage of the modern miniature movement can be pinpointed to the mid-sixteenth century in Europe with the first great master specializing in miniatures acknowledged being the Englishman, Nicholas Hilliard. In his words “Limning is a thing apart….”[i] While Hilliard’s oft-quoted phrase may be misconstrued today, there is little doubt that we align our beliefs with the 1627 treatise by Edward Norgate emphasizing the exclusivity based upon techniques typical of miniatures.[ii] Historians, and practicing artists from each age, also reinforce the belief that miniature painting differs from other art with respect to all three primary components of established miniature painting. Miniatures stand apart as a combination of technique, size, and scale used as descriptive adjectives. These, when combined, always define miniature. Remove one of these attributes and the uniqueness and absolute definition are questioned. To miniaturists striving to pursue historical affiliation and maintain the contemporary distinction, a clear cut definition becomes a means of both legitimacy and self-preservation. The miniaturist of the 21st century faces competition for identity from a diverse onslaught of art forms. Any work on a greatly reduced scale is typically referred to as miniature. Any work of greatly reduced size is usually called miniature. Finally, there is an espoused belief by a very few, that any work, potentially as large as a wall, rendered ‘in miniature’, or characteristic of miniaturists’ techniques, has the right to be called a miniature.[iii]—

By themselves, size, scale, and technique all come short of adequately defining miniature as a timeless object. Individually they may sometimes adequately represent specific periods of the genre but without the additional qualifications, they find themselves lacking and even misleading at points over the timeline. All three attributes in combination have consistently been inherent to the genre with varying degrees and each act as a balancing measure with respect to the others to keep the perception of the genre unique.

Miniature art has always existed alongside art that possessed similar qualities of size, scale and technique to some degree yet the genre has always been perceived by the practicing artists, the public, and the academia of their times as different. While this individuality may be attributed to function, such qualities are lost in the milieu of the modern art world. Lacking a specifically written and accepted definition constrains an individual grasping for a solid, clear perception of what defines the class of miniatures to use a combination of size, scale, and technique. These elusive parameters are fluid but only within a measure.  Shrink down the size to microscopic proportions and work represents nothing more than incredible feats of craftsmanship and physical dexterity. Increase the size format larger than hand-held, or the scale to life-size or greater, and the work is outside accepted public perceptions, established definitions, and clear affiliations with the categorized oeuvre of miniaturists.[iv] Obtrusively apply paint in a method which distracts a viewer from overall appreciation and marvel, and you lose the refined qualities that distinguish the miniature among fine art. Artists may push these boundaries and even assert legitimacy with the genre but they risk crossing the line of perception to find themselves outside the walls of acceptance.

Participants require that a fine art miniature be measurable, provide scholarly solid ground for understanding, and be capable of codification in writing without becoming overwhelmingly divisive. Such an objective statement of definition for miniature was successfully established in 2007 with the formation of the Association of Miniature Artists (AMA). The AMA guidelines admit variety within the world of miniature, but for consensus among members, and uniformity in exhibitions, specify the following tenets to define miniature:

· Minute in scale vs. life-sized. For practicality following the general 1/6th scale for work sent to formal miniature exhibitions and shows.

· Delicate and painstaking technique that withstands magnification.

· Small in format and size: 25 inches or less for surface area. Sculpture should fit inside an 8 x 8 x 8 inch cube including the base.

· High in quality. The work should exemplify fine art – demonstrating mastery of composition, color, values, etc.[v]

[i] Strickler.  American Portrait Miniatures: The Worcester Art Museum Collection., 13; Murrell. The Way How to Lymne., 3.

[ii] Coombs. “European Visions: American Voices, A Kind of Gentle Painting.”, 82.

[iii] Some scholars, narrowly focusing on a specific technique to solely define miniature, set no limit on size.  Joan Willies echoed Roy Strong’s assertion that miniatures could potentially be as large as a wall although she acknowledged the loss of its preciousness. (Miniature Painting. Willies, New York: Watson, 1995, 13) Her publication, The Artists Workbook on Miniature Painting set a 5×7 inch limit on miniatures. (Willies, 56) Jim Murrell, isolating mainstream miniature painting as minuteness and specialized watercolor techniques discuss miniature paintings up to three feet in length. (Bardo. English & Continental Portrait Miniatures: The Latter-Schlesinger Collection., 29).  

[iv] Cyril Davenport. Miniatures Ancient and Modern. (Chicago: McClurg, 1908), 2-3; W. M. Rosetti. “The Exhibition of Miniatures at South Kensington.” The Intellectual Observer Vol. VIII. (London: Groombridge, 1866), 92; Charles Knight. Arts & Sciences: or Fourth Division of “The English Cyclopedia” Vol. V. (London: Bradbury, 1867), 667; The Encyclopedia Americana. 171; Julie Aaronson and Marjorie E. Wieseman et al. Perfect Likeness. (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2006), 29.

[v] <; accessed 7.2009.



  1. For an updated essay written by Wes Siegrist on the topic of “Does size matter in miniature art?” please download the following PDF:

    Click to access Does%20Size%20Matter%20In%20Miniature%20Art.pdf

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