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Miniature work is fragile

July 06, 2008|By ELIZABETH JOHNS

It is hard to imagine that this object, painted in 1814, measures only 2 5/8 inches by 3 inches.

Created before the invention of photography, a portrait "miniature" met the desires of patrons who wanted an image of a loved one but who could not afford a standard-size oil portrait. The small miniature could be carried in a purse or pocket, stored in a bureau or desk drawer, or sent to distant relatives.

The creator of this miniature, the American painter Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), was one of the talented children of Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale. The elder Peale named all his children after artists. Raphaelle, the oldest, specialized in miniatures, portrait profiles, and, in his last years, still life.

Miniature paintings got their start in the 16th century in northern Europe, when artists trained themselves to paint on a very small scale in order to broaden their market for portraits. For two centuries, they painted on vellum (animal skin scraped thin and smooth). By the 18th century, artists painted on small chips of ivory, and early American painters learned the technique.

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The technique involved watercolor paint and brushes of only a few hairs. Often, miniaturists backed the ivory with white paper to heighten the effect of light radiating from the portrait.

The subject of this portrait, Anthony Slater, is identified on the paper backing. Slater was born in England in 1779 but became an importer and wholesaler in Philadelphia. The tiny portrait, painted possibly in celebration of Slater's business success, is still encased in its original square gold frame.

Peale's miniature of Slater is in the collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown's Cit Park but it's rarely shown because of its fragility. It will be included in the book and exhibition "One Hundred Stories: Highlights from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts," both coming in October 2008.

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