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

Chapter 6: Size in Miniature Art

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

Size in Miniature Art

The first limitation of a miniature is the size … a miniature must always be designed for close inspection.  It is meant to be held in the hand, to be pored over, even to be looked at with a magnifying glass; therefore all impressionist effects and all violent contrasts of color are out of place, and beauty of touch and delicacy of workmanship must be essentially aimed at. Barbara Hamley[i]

[The] … matter of size has always acted as a slur on the esteem in which miniatures have been held. Charles de Kay[ii]

This notion of the smaller being equal to, or even greater than, the larger is atypical. Viewers stop and gape at the monumental but rarely pause to notice the miniscule unless it is forced upon them. Miniatures on display never flaunt but whisper for attention.[iii]The scholar, J. L.Propert’s analogy between the Regent and Koh-I-Noor diamonds in comparison to a boulder on a hillside dramatically condenses these thoughts and the reward that inspecting the miniature can provide to those who take the time to see.[iv] Miniatures, through constraints in size and scale, either inherent or designed, beg inspection by concealment. A glance intrigues us but what we examine further, up close and even under magnification, is what captivates us. The derivative sources for miniature had no explicit references to size. Manuscript illuminations varied by size according to the format of the pages and detached limnings’ smaller dimensions owed more to function than design. Size, as inherently perceived in miniatures, was dictated by function as these delicate mementos were primarily intended to be portable. Additionally, subject miniatures, often referred to as histories, were ordered as reductions in size and scale of larger works. Despite scholarly diatribes on the subject and whether or not any conscious thought was given to dimensions by the early miniaturists, their extant body of work was typically small and repeatedly contrasted with larger works over the past 500 years.[v] The common vernacular of referring to limnings as works ‘in little’ implies small size as well as scale to the public, patrons and practicing artists. The wide acceptance through the generations that this branch of the arts equates with anything extremely small and tiny cements size in the definition. In spite of etymologies seemingly at odds with this result, the attribute held steadfast, and progressively miniatures were described by size.

By the 1600s small size was seen as intrinsic to miniature. Limits on dimensions were non-existent but common perceptions limited miniatures to portable, held-in-the-hand formats. Works growing larger than the average, often called ‘cabinet miniatures’, are referred to with non-typical adjectives: large, huge and even gargantuan.[vi] It should be equally noted that extremely small works are often singled out and described as a departure from the norm, but tantamount to the argument that diminutive size contributes to the definition of miniature, these minute works are not considered precursors to a new art form or reactionary attempts to compete with other established art forms.[vii] Historic miniature art size limitations hinged upon available working surfaces. Techniques were introduced to allow for ivory veneers and thin sheets of marble but even these had their limits. Additionally, the level of effort, patience and financial compensation proportionately increased with these larger sizes contributing to their rarity and oddity in the comprehensive oeuvre of the class.[viii] The smaller also passed the test of time while larger dimensions are still questioned as appropriate for inclusion in the genre.[ix] Increasing size was repeatedly seen by scholars, critics and the artists themselves as reactionary to the influence of larger works.[x] As miniatures began to be used as decorative objects in addition to functional mementos, and as they increasingly found themselves competing alongside conventional-sized works in exhibitions, their size increased.[xi] The miniaturists,Andrew Robertson, Robert Thorburn and Sir William Charles Ross were all proponents of larger format miniatures as an attempted means to achieve for miniature painting a level of academic respect. They did not wish their work to be seen as trivial trinkets or faint impressions of real art and struggled to achieve equal respect by adjusting their works to reflect popular styles. Their cabinet miniature formats allowed for variety in composition and appealed to public demand for miniatures as works of art versus intimate mementos. The changes wrought by these men upon the genre blurred the lines of distinction between miniatures and works in large and departed from what made the miniature ideal and unique.[xii]The shift from memento to an object of decorative display also moved the direction away from intimacy towards distance which further detracted from the miniature’s personal charm.[xiii]

Size did not become rigidly established until the development of the miniature art societies in 1896 when constraints were initially applied solely for the logistics of exhibition display. Initially set at 10 x 12 inches, the Royal Miniature Society dropped down to 5 x 7 inches by 1898. A 1927 exhibition catalogue acknowledges the ambiguity relating to size during the developmental years but stresses the almost exclusive associations with small dimensions pertaining to the term miniature. The catalogue further emphasizes that a miniature should be diminutive enough to be easily held in one hand.[xiv]The 1960s saw the general size restraints fall further to 6 x 4 ½ inches where it remains today with this Society. These sizes refer to overall dimensions including the frame. Modern specifications on image size range from 15 to 35 square inches with 24 to 25 square inches being the most prevalent. By establishing clear parameters on size, miniature art societies solidified small dimensions as intrinsic to the widely accepted definition of miniature and requisite to distinguishing a ‘true, traditional or classical’ miniature from competing namesakes in the public arena. Small size creates a charming appeal and invites intimate inspection. This enchanted interactivity between art and viewer hinges upon the diminutive size. Ideal miniatures are distillations of the best in art of conventional size and they lose this endearing quality when they grow larger. Perhaps an appropriate quote would be: “The innocence of babyhood is to humanity what miniatures are to art.”[xv]

The rise in popularity of small-dimensioned art exhibitions in the 20th century, adopting the name miniature, created additional confusion to the genre especially due to the upstarts having more acumen in marketing to the general public. Gallery and museum ‘miniature’ shows featured works as large as 120 square inches with 80 to 96 square inches being typical and placed no limits on styles, techniques, media … essentially an ‘anything goes’ venue. With no regard to the established art form of miniature painting, these exhibitions assumed the title based on the descriptive adjective of size and the marketing angle that these smaller productions by artists of conventional larger-scale works were more affordable. The wide-sweeping effects of this influence literally eclipsed public perception of the traditional world of miniature art and forced miniaturists to struggle to retain their unique identity.[xvi] The proliferation of these competitors was dramatically reinforced in 1997 with the development of the Artist Trading Card. Conceived by M.Vänçi Stirnemann in Switzerland, these 2 ½ x 3 ½  inch works of art, now recognized simply as ATCs, were to be created for the sole purpose of free exchange between artists to establish rapport.[xvii] The concept was soon altered to allow for non-artist collection and exploited by some for financial gain. By 2004, an offshoot known as ACEOs or Art Cards, Editions, and Originals was organized on eBay by Lisa Luree [bone*diva on eBay].[xviii]Both of these genres vary greatly, from highly refined quality work of value to quickly produced sketches that can sell for a mere pittance. Both ATCs and ACEOs claim the same heritage as the portrait miniature primarily from the perspective of function and size. The year 2005 saw another competitive genre known as SFA, meaning Small Format Art. Conceived by Jillian Crider [artistjillian on eBay], SFA allows a great diversity of works “no more than 14 inches in any one direction”[xix] Crider’s Small Format Art *SFA* eBay group has over 1,000 participants and her ATC & ACEO Enthusiasts eBay group stood at just over 7,000 as of the end of 2009.[xx] All three of these genres quickly dominated the online market for contemporary small works and convoluted the public notion of miniature to the further dismay of miniaturists and societies adhering to traditions and attempting to promote their unique genre. Crider, herself a miniaturist, does offer a degree of delineation for true miniatures in her groups and activities.

If the threat of similar size and hijacked heritage were not enough, another influence had entered the market in 2004 known as the Small Works, or ‘Painting a Day’ Movement.[xxi] The highly successful brainchild of Duane Keiser, this genre associated small size with speed of production and affordable/inexpensive artworks. Keiser avoided the pitfall of discounting and exploited many of the proven advantages to producing and collecting small works by using key concepts in art marketing. With thousands of artists now mimicking his methods, public perception has moved towards the notion that smaller is both faster and cheaper; an antithesis in creating ideal miniature art.[xxii] Janet Laird-Lagassee reflects most miniaturists’ efforts, noting that, on average, traditional miniatures take nine times as long per square inch to produce as conventional-sized works.[xxiii]

The numbers of artists working in these competitive genres greatly outnumber traditional miniaturists, and their continuing effects upon public perception and the world of formal miniature art societies and exhibitions, will persist indefinitely. Positively, some of these artists, after being exposed to the miniatures, are pursuing the direction of the formal miniature movement. Their sheer numbers and close parallels to miniature art make them obvious candidates for invitation to join in the more restricted arena of formal miniature art societies and shows.

The artistic difficulty of the reduced scale renders it in some respects more precious, for we all know that a diminished resemblance of an object affords a special pleasure and illusion … the minuteness of such works does not preclude the possibility of their possessing all the qualities of high art. Thomas John Gullick[xxiv]


[i] Barbara Hamley. “Miniature Painting.” International Congress of Women. (London: Fisher, 1899), 80.

[ii] Kay. “The Miniator’s Art.”, 333.

[iii] John Mack. The Art of Small Things. (London: British Museum, 2007), 186.

[iv] Propert. The History of Miniature Art., VI.

[v] Davenport. Miniatures Ancient and Modern., 2-3.

[vi] John Murdoch et al. The English Miniature. (London: Yale UP, 1981), 205. 

[vii] Ibid., 54 and 199.

[viii] Ibid., 205. 

[ix] Ibid., 54.

[x] Ibid., 199.

[xi] Johnson. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection., 23.

[xii] Rosetti. “The Exhibition of Miniatures at South Kensington.”, 94.

[xiii] Strickler.  American Portrait Miniatures: The Worcester Art Museum Collection., 15.

[xiv] Royal Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers Society. Exhibition Catalogue. (London: RMS, 1927), 9.

[xv] Francis Trevelyan Miller. The Connecticut Magazine Vol. VIII. No. 2. (Hartford: Connecticut Magazine, 1903), 307.

[xvi] Miniature Art Society of Florida. Exhibition Catalogue. (Clearwater, FL: MASF, 1993), 10.

[xvii] “Artist Trading Cards History” (n.p., n.d.) <http://www.artist-trading-cards.ch/history.html&gt; accessed 7.2009; “What are ATC or Artist Trading Cards?” Ming. (Artmakr.com, 11 Sept. 2007) <http://www.artmakr.com/what-is-atc-or-artist-trading-cards/&gt; accessed 1.2010.

[xviii] “ACEOs – A Flourishing Art Form Born on eBay.” The Chatter Newsletter. Nino. (eBay, Mar. 2006) <http://pages.ebay.com/community/chatter/2006March/feature.html&gt; accessed 7.2009; Jillian Crider email: “Re: Book Chapter Draft” 6 Jan. 2010. (According to Crider the person to suggest ‘Art Cards, Originals & Editions’ was an eBay user ‘withoutego’.)

[xix] Jillian Crider’s Small Format Art Group. <http://www.smallformatart.com/&gt; accessed 1.2010; Jillian Crider email “RE: AMA – join” 6 Jan. 2010.

[xx] Jillian Crider’s eBay Small Format Art Group. (Jillian Crider, 6 Oct. 2005) <http://groups.ebay.com/forum/Small-Format-Art/Welcome/100037616>accessed 1.2010; Jillian Crider’s eBay ATC & ACEO Enthusiasts Group. (Jillian Crider, 27 Dec. 2005) <http://groups.ebay.com/forum/Atc-Amp-Aceo/Welcome/300009044&gt; accessed 1.2010.

[xxi] C. Sharp. “12 Tips for Selling More Art in a Recession.” (Artistsnetwork.com, 17 Feb. 2009) <http://www.artistsnetwork.com/article/sell-more-art/&gt; accessed 7.2009.

[xxii] Burton. The Techniques of Paintings Miniatures., 9.

[xxiii] Janet Laird-Lagassee email “The Book” 5 Oct. 2009.

[xxiv] Gullick. Painting Popularly Explained 2nd. Ed., 111.

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