Small portraits have been impact on art history

January 14, 2011|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • Anna Claypoole Peale's "A Lady" is a watercolor on ivory, dating to 1825. The piece, which is 4 by 3 inches, is part of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' "Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles" exhibit. "The Lady" was a gift to the museum from Dr. W. Lehman Guyton, 2009.
Courtesy of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

"Most women are not so young as they are painted."   — Max Beerbohm, "A Defense of Cosmetics" (1895)

 "Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles," an exhibition currently on view at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, supports the wit, if not the cynicism of English caricaturist Max Beerbohm.

Before the invention of photography, portrait painting kept artists in business, especially among American citizens who were eager to establish a record of their people and responsibilities. American painters produced many bust or full-sized oil portraits that were richly framed, calculated for display in a comfortable home or even in public.

In contrast, most of the portraits in this exhibition are small, painted miniatures and cut profiles or silhouettes. Certainly flattering, according to the conventions of the period, they were for private rather than public use, as keepsakes of a special moment or person — a lover, a wedding, a child, a spouse, even a memorial to one who had died.

Typically women wore the miniatures as lockets and men tucked them in their pockets to have the images close by. Over the generations, many families framed their ancestors' miniatures and displayed them in special places in the home. Cut profiles or silhouettes, simpler and less expensive, were often placed in family Bibles and framed later. After several generations, all became part of history, detached from the original families and given to museums or sold to collectors.

This exhibition features such works, most by American artists and most from the years 1790 to 1840. The exhibition also includes two full-size oil portraits, one loaned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to indicate the choices that clients could make before photography transformed the market. Later in the century, the miniature experienced a revival, with artists typically relying on daguerreotypes rather than sittings, and a few objects in the show date from the 1880s.

One of the most active families in portrait-making in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was that of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Peale studied in England and returned to the Colonies in 1769, settling in Annapolis and then in Philadelphia. There he taught family members his techniques and, with them, "divided up" the market. Eventually, children of both Charles Willson Peale and James Peale (1749-1831), his brother, were prominent in the portrait market in the mid-Atlantic states, some traveling as far south as Charleston, S.C.

The exhibition presents several works by James Peale's daughter, Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878). Trained by her father, who had agreed to paint miniatures while his brother, Charles Willson, painted full-size works, she was hugely successful as a miniaturist. Her "A Lady," 1825, reveals the reasons for her popularity: She painted her sitters' costumes and features in close detail and used saturated colors that resembled the brilliance of oil.

An unidentified artist created a miniature of "Major Samuel Ringgold," 1820s also in the exhibition. Ringgold (1796 -1846) was the son of Samuel Ringgold (1770-1829), a Maryland congressman, who was married to Maria Cadwalader. Their home, "Fountain Rock," stood near the present location of St. James School south of Hagerstown. A graduate of the first class at West Point in 1818, Ringgold, the sitter, went on to conduct research on military saddles and light artillery, which led to his promotion to major in 1845.

Silhouettes and profiles are also included in the exhibition. Some profiles were cut, others drawn and used as a basis for engravings. Late in the century bronze profile medallions, like those by Truman Bartlett, became popular. The most well-known and accomplished profiler was Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852).

During the years 1796 to 1810, Saint Mémin created in the United States almost 1,000 engravings of important and "ordinary" citizens, including his miniature engraving of Gabriel Duvall (1752-1844), which is in the exhibition.

Duvall, descended from original settlers of Maryland, was a lawyer, and became a jurist in Maryland, and an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1811 to 1835.

For the affluent who could afford an oil portrait, (and, as Beerbohm would say, wanted to be made younger) the bust-size image was typically commissioned to mark a special time in the sitter's life. Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) painted an imposing oil portrait circa 1790 of a woman who is believed to be Franciska Krasinska, duchess of Courland (1742-1796). The portrait shows the European artist's sophisticated absorption of the soft-brushed, multi-layered style popular in London, where she lived in the 1760s and 1770s. The Kauffmann portrait in the exhibition is loaned by the National Gallery of Art. And indeed, the Duchess was much older than Kauffmann suggests in the portrait.

Kauffmann's miniatures are less well known, but two works painted in her style in the collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts reveal European copyists' admiration of her bright colors and gentle touch "Portrait of a Gentleman and Portrait of a Lady." With signatures that imitate Kauffmann's, such decorative miniatures were bought by American tourists in the 1880s as souvenirs on their Grand Tour of Europe.

Painted on ivory and possibly over a photograph, these may be copies of portraits by Kauffmann. Because the man and woman are facing each other, they are perhaps a married couple celebrating their honeymoon. In addition, these keepsakes were possibly painted in Rome, a must-see stop on the Grand Tour, and where the revered Kauffmann had settled after her stay in England.

Two years in the planning, the exhibition, "Keepsakes of the Beloved: Portrait Miniatures and Profiles, 1790-1840," sponsored by the Agnita M. Schreiber Stine Foundation, will be on view in the Baer Gallery of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, through April 17.

"The Treasures from the Vault" series was conceived by the museum's Collections and Exhibitions Committee as a way to bring lesser-known works of art from the museum's collection of some 7,000 works of art into the exhibition halls to share with the citizens of our community and museum visitors.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts has been recognized as one of the finest small museums in the United States. Admission to the museum is free and it is accredited by the American Association of Museums. The Baer Gallery, in which the exhibition is presented, was created through the generosity of Hagerstown residents Ed and Hannah Baer.

Elizabeth Johns, PhD, who lives in Hagerstown, is professor emerita in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania.

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