Hi there! I am in the process of going through this blog and editing it so it reads better (artist type not a writing type) but if you want to read it as is please feel free!
I am just getting time to start some new blogs and decided to jump away from historical beads for a bit and introduce you to a huge passion of mine. Miniature portrait art. I worked for many years as a miniature enameled portrait artist for the J.A. Dedouch company based out of Oak Park IL until the company was bought out and production ended forever. Naturally, portraiture in miniature is a big passion and interest of mine.
I have done a bit of research in the past on this subject back when I was painting miniatures full-time but honestly, if you read my blogs on this you are learning about this topic in more depth with me. As I learn more about its history by researching and reading a lot, networking, and processing that information, I will share that with you.
There are several books out there that catalog the miniatures but not very many that go into detail of the time period and history. With that in mind I am really thankful for one of the books I have called “The Portrait Miniature in England” by Katherine Cooms. This book came out a few years before I had stopped painting miniatures for a living. The amount of knowledge that is contained in these pages is vast. The other books I have listed at the bottom of this blog are also very wonderful to read and provide a lot of information as well. The book “Portrait Miniatures Artists Functions and Collections” goes into some detail about paint and techniques as well. If you are interested in pursuing this art. I highly recommend all of the books I have listed as they all have information that is on point to creating and learning about this art. As I find more books an resources I will share them as well.
I also reached out in the SCA as I was in search of a Laurel that does miniature portraiture in period. To be able to communicate with and get feedback on my work. I found the name Countess Enriqueta Isabel de Reyes y Mora OP, OL from The Kingdom of Trimaris. When I reached out I sadly discovered out that she has passed. Her handout she wrote is still available to purchase on Etsy. I am waiting for mine to come in the mail.
Here is the link to that handout booklet. https://www.etsy.com/transaction/1578537937
The complete history of miniature portraiture is very colorful and vast. More than this blog. Miniature portrait art spans centuries. Whether it be watercolor on parchment, oils on copper, or enameled portraits. The portraiture miniatures are still being made by a small handful of artists and religious icon miniatures are still produced to this day.
This blog is about the very beginnings of this art. I am currently painting miniature portraits for lockets using the same techniques as some of my favorite miniature artists did! It is very exciting! My art will be posted on part two of my blog. I wanted to give a little insight and history of this amazing art before I jumped in and started posting my paintings and how they were made as well as the special vocabulary that they had for limning portraits. I hope you enjoy my blog!
“Limning. A thing apart… which exelleth all other painting whatsoever” ~ NICHOLAS HILLIARD- THE ART OF LIMNING (c.1598)
This writing that was written by Nicholas Hilliard talks about two things regarding miniature painting. That What we modernly refer to as miniature portraits were called linmings in England during his time. It also shows that the art od miniature painting was a distinct type of art that was different than other paintings of the time.
The word miniature comes from the Latin “miniare” meaning to color with red lead. It was originally related to book production before the invention of the printing press. In England, the tiny illustrations of sacred books painted in watercolor on vellum, were called illuminations or limnings. Both terms derive from the latin word luminare, meaning to give light. It was not long after this that the term miniature came to express all things which are small, by the size of the limnings as well as a misleading link to the words incorporating the Latin “min” expressing smallness. such as “minor”.
One of the misconseptions of miniature painting was that it was only an English practice. Probably becasue most of the books that have been written on the subject are on the study of English portrait miniatures. In truth, here were many artists all across Europe who painted miniatures. The first English portrait miniatures painted at the court of Henry VIII (r. 1509-47) was most likely by an artist from the city of Ghent, in what is now Belgium. The first two noble practitioners of the portrait miniature were the German Hans Holbien (1497/8-1543), who worked for Henry VIII and Francis Clouet (1516-72) who worked for the French court.
After Clouet’s death in 1572 no artist with the same talent took his place, although limning continued to be painted in France. At the same time in England, during the same year that Clouet died, the 25-year-old Nicholas Hilliard had his first sitting with Queen Elisabeth I (r. 1558-1603) and started a very productive miniature painting career lasting over 40 years. Hilliard established limning as a leading and separate art and secured a place for miniature art at the heart of Elizabethan culture.
(Limning) excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points… being fittest for the decking of princes’ bookes.. for the imitation of the purest flowers and most beautiful creatures in the finest and purest colours.. and is for the service of noble persons very meet, in small volumes, in private manner, for them to have the portraits and pictures of themselves, their peers, or any other foreign persons which are of interest of them.
NICHOLAS HILIARD – THE ART OF LIMNING (c.1598)
Limning, watercolor painting, was the subject of the first book on painting published in English. It is an anonymously written book that we know simply as Limning (1573) This book, however, was written soley on the subject of book decoration. Nicholas Hilliard’s book “The Art of Limning” was concerned with the limning of portraits, in small volumes, in private manner. What we today would describe as portrait miniatures. Hilliard was a very innovative artist who raised the public profile of the miniature portrait to a level where Shakespeare used them to plot his devices in his plays and John Donne wrote a poem praising Hilliards work.
“A hand or an eye by Hilliard is worth a history by a worse painter.” All of this word fame yet Hilliard is not the first person to paint the miniature portrait. The earliest surviving English portrait miniature is of Henry VIII, (see picture below) painted around 1526, almost 50 years before Hilliard painted his first miniature of Elisabeth I. (Coombs 1998)
Can you imagine the impact that the first miniature portrait had? Imagine living in a different visual world where we are not totally inundated with imagery. The printing press was introduced in England in 1453 but early English printed illustrations were rare and very crude compared to other countries.
When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 easel painting was also somewhat rare in England. An occasional painting was needed by royalty for marriage negotiations or contracts but on a whole, these were far from what we think of as having a likeness. Portraiture for the most part was confined to tomb sculpture of the super wealthy. Graphic arts, namely painting, drawing and printing, did not have a prominent role in English society until later in the century. (Coombs 1998)
At a time when most artists didn’t sign their work, their names and reputations as an artist have to come to us through other sources. To be able to identify the other artist that was working for Henry VIII before Holbein’s arrival, researchers had to scour all the documents of the time for a name to be the likely artist. This process is not as simple as it seems. Many collections and written documents are scattered and pieced together all over the globe in different collections. Grouping miniature portraits together by artists are done by comparing each miniature and looking for a similar painting style and techniques. “Style” is assessed by comparing the way each portrait is created and searching for what the portraits have in common, such as how the artist paints backgrounds, jewelry, lace, apparel even the way an eye or hair is formed. If common characteristics are found between the miniature paintings, then the “handwriting” of an artist can be determined. Because of this process we know about Lucas Hornbolte and the miniatures dating from the early part of King Henry VIII reign. (Coombs 1998)
In 1948 the painting of Henry VIII was contributed to Lucas Hornbolte. The first clue was an early account that Hans Holbein, written in 1604 stated that Holbein was taught limning by “Master Lucas”. As more evidence appeared about an artist called Lucas Hornbolte, the possibility that “Master Lucas” was indeed Hornbolte suggested itself. In 1959 the first payment to Lucas Hornbolte was discovered in Henry VIII chamber accounts for September 1525. Because the inscription on the portrait of Henry VIII has the number 35, which is most likely the age of Henry when the portrait was painted, we know that the miniature dates between June, 1524 Henry’s 34th birthday and June 1526 his 36th birthday. The appearance of this first portrait and Lucas in the courts of Henry VIII could be coincidence but that has been deemed highly unlikey.
Lucas and his father and sister were all artists that lived in Ghent who came over to live in England in 1525. There is evidence of this in the accounts of Margaret of Austria for limning’s for a Book of Hours, which is now in the British Library. There is no written proof that Hornbolte and his family came to England to work as book limners. In Ghent, before they moved to England, Gerard, Lucas’ father was a master painter who ran a workshop which created a wide variety of work. In Henry’s written accounts Lucas is described as a “pictor maker” not a limner in contrast to another artist, Richard James, who is described as a “limner of Bookes”. Though some shadow of doubt can be cast around the name Lucas Hornbolte, there is much circumstantial evidence that can not be overlooked.
A possible link from text to portrait miniatures
For many centuries the art of limning was practiced in monasteries to create beautiful hand written books. By the late middle ages wealthy individuals commissioned limners to produce texts for their own private use or to give as a gift to a church. These texts often included a portrait of an institutions patron Saint. This new demand for painted text led to the creation of independent workshops. The separation of limning and books also seems to happen with the development of the printing press. This made books simpler to produce and the hand written texts kept as a luxury item. Some time after, workshops began to produce painted panels and wall hangings and the competition for work became fierce.
We also have this illustration from a Flemish artist from the Book of Hours showing a painting of a pendant of a miniature portrait of Christ from the 15th century. No portrait like images of Saints set in this way exist today, but there are pendants from Spain and Italy were limned religious scenes are protected under slivers of rock crystal. (Coombs 1998)
Coins, Medals, Medallions and Cameos
There are three other traditions in this history that could suggest portraiture. There is the use of images on coins, medals and medallions, as well as the carved cameo. Most medallions and medals were heavy and placed in cabinets on display. They were probably not worn all the time. Coins were used for currency. The cameos were carved in relief and were usually made of semi precious stone. The cameo was also much smaller and jewel like which could suggest the desirability to wear it as a portraiture.
During the renaissance, the reawakening of human individuality and character which reached its highest expression in the portraits of Raphael, Antondello de Messina and Titian also reflected on images in a much smaller scale. These carved stone cameos and intaligos, portrait medals and miniatures painted on Vellum served various purposes. To glorify heads of State, to give as gifts as private tokens of love and friendship, as well as a symbol of wealth and power or allegiance to a peer. Whether hidden or openly displayed, they were worn as jewels and therefore were mounted in gold and gem encrusted frames.
The revival of the ancient art of gem engraving in relief as cameos or intaligos began in 15th century Italy where so many gems were being unearthed from Roman sites. These discoveries, as well as our humanist admiration for classical culture, created an emergence of new gem engravers not only in Rome but in Florence, Milan, Verona, and Padua. Soon this revived art attracted many others and the cameo became what it was in antiquity, portraits of people of power, wealth and influence. (2018) Bernd and Juliane Schmieglitz)
Miniature Portrait Art Examples
Portrait miniatures first appeared in the early 1500’s in the French and English Courts. Much like medals, they were portable, but had realistic color, unlike the Cameos. The earliest examples were painted by two men from the Netherlands. They are Jean Clouet in France and Lucas Hornbolte in England. Following them was Hans Holbein the Younger who it is thought learned the art from Hornbolte. Not to be left out is Levina Teerlinc , a Flemish born female artist whom many scholars believe taught Hilliard the art of limning. Nicholas Hilliard is known for painting Queen Elisabeth I . Lastly there is Francois Clouet the Younger, Jean Clouet’s son. There were several other miniature portrait artists as well, but I chose these because of their impact on the art form, and by how much their art inspires me.
Jean Clouet 1475 / 85-1541
The life of this portraitist is very poorly known. The available information comes from royal accounts and various documents of a legal nature (notarial deeds) or of civil status (parish registers). Jean (Janet or Jehannet) Clouet was probably born in Brussels between 1475 and 1485. He comes from a family of painters: His grandfather is the painter and illuminator Simon Marmion (1425-1489). His brother, Polet or Paulet, was a painter at the court of Navarre.
The details of his training is unknown but it is obviously familiar with Flemish painting of the 15 th century. Most historians believe that upon his arrival in France, he entered directly in the service of Francis I (1494-1547). Indeed, there is no work of Clouet previous to the reign of this king, who reaches the throne of France in 1515.
Jean Clouet is regularly mentioned in the records of the royal accounts for twenty years after the coronation of Francis I st . While his main role is to be the portraitist of the royal family, he initially occupied the official function of valet wardrobe, allowing him to be paid. Then the king creates the category of painters to which the artist is attached.
Lucas Hornebolte~ Lucas Horenbout
Often called Hornebolte in England (c.1490/1495–1544), was a Flemish artist who moved to England in the mid-1520s and worked there as “King’s Painter” and court miniaturist to King Henry VIII from 1525 until his death. He was trained in the final phase of Netherlandish illuminated manuscript painting, in which his father Gerard was an important figure, and was the founding painter of the long and distinct English tradition of portrait miniature painting.
Hans Holbein the Younger
(German: Hans Holbein der Jüngere; c. 1497 – between 7 October and 29 November 1543) was a German artist and printmaker who worked in a Northern Renaissance style, known as one of the greatest portraitist of the 16th century. He also produced religious art, satire, and Reformation propaganda, and he made a significant contribution to the history of book design. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school.
Holbein was born in Augsburg, but he worked mainly in Basel as a young artist. At first, he painted murals and religious works, designed stained glass windows, and printed books. He also painted an occasional portrait, making his international mark with portraits of humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. When the Reformation reached Basel, Holbein worked for reformist clients while continuing to serve traditional religious patrons. His Late Gothic style was enriched by artistic trends in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, as well as by Renaissance humanism. The result was a combined aesthetic uniquely his own.
Holbein travelled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. He returned to Basel for four years, then resumed his career in England in 1532 under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to Henry VIII of England. In this role, he produced portraits and festive decorations, as well as designs for jewellery, plate, and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a record of the court in the years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the Church of England.
(c. 1510 – 22 December 1572), son of Jean Clouet, was a French Renaissance miniaturist and painter, particularly known for his detailed portraits of the French ruling family.
(1510s – 23 June 1576) was a Flemish Renaissance miniaturist who served as a painter to the English court of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. She was the most important miniaturist at the English court between Hans Holbein the Younger and Nicholas Hilliard. Her father, Simon Bening was a renowned book illuminator and miniature painter of the Ghent-Bruges school and probably trained her as a manuscript painter. She may have worked in her father’s workshop before her marriage.
c. 1547 – 7 January 1619) was an English goldsmith and limner best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I of England. He mostly painted small oval miniatures, but also some larger cabinet miniatures, up to about ten inches tall, and at least two famous half-length panel portraits of Elizabeth. He enjoyed continuing success as an artist, and continuing financial troubles, for forty-five years. His paintings still exemplify the visual image of Elizabethan England, very different from that of most of Europe in the late sixteenth century. Technically he was very conservative by European standards, but his paintings are superbly executed and have a freshness and charm that has ensured his continuing reputation as “the central artistic figure of the Elizabethan age, the only English painter whose work reflects, in its delicate microcosm, the world of Shakespeare’s earlier plays.
Sources of Information and photographs
Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide (1987)Daphne Foskett
British Portrait Miniatures (1968) Daphne Foskett
British Portrait Miniatures: The Cleveland Museum of Art (2013) Cory Korkow
Portrait Jewels Opulence and Intimacy from the Medici to the Romanovs (2011) Diana Scarisbrick
The Portrait Miniature in England (1998) Catherine Coombs
Portrait Miniatures Artists, Functions and Collections The Tansey miniatures foundation (2018) Bernd and Juliane Schmieglitz
Please stay tuned for part two.
The tools, techniques and paint used to create miniature portraits on Vellum as well as a blog on my miniature portrait recreations!