The History of Miniature Art

by Wes Siegrist

Wes Siegrist discussing the history of miniature art

Wes Siegrist discussing the history of miniature art at the R.W. Norton Art Gallery

Artists working in miniature pursue a specialized art, unique and distinct among all others that entered the broad world of art as a new genre in the early 16th century.1 From the genre’s inception to the present day, miniatures have been integrally associated with specific techniques, diminished format and reduced scale. The history of miniature art traces its origins to multiple precedents which evolved into a new genre. This art form continues to adapt and transform with time forcing individuals attempting to encapsulate it by definition to do likewise to remain current. Despite the varied nuances in form there remain static guideposts that are essential to any attempt to define miniature art especially from the 16th century to the present day, and understanding the streams of development and the nuances of the genre’s evolution are imperative for grasping the basics of what constitutes a miniature.2

In the milieu of confusing etymological derivations, the usage of miniature as a descriptive term for the unique genre was almost immediately aligned with small size and reduced scale.3 Giorgio Vasari, Renaissance art historian, noted around the year 1550, that Don Giulio Clovio was exceptional as a miniatore, or a painter of small things.4 The first attested time the word miniature was used in English to describe an art form was in the 16th century in the writings of Sir Philip Sidney, d. 1586. He contrasted the life-sized reflections of women playing in the water with the miniature reflections of them in the bubbles created by the splashing.5 An earlier usage of the term miniature in French can also be found in the book Les Ouevres by P. de Ronsard within the footnote commentary by M.A. de Muret. He notes that the proboscis of the Crane Fly resembles in miniature the trunk of an elephant; a comparison equating small scale or size with the term miniature prior to 1585 when he died.6

These qualities were general and implicit to the nature of the art and one must be cautious not to apply rigid framework to early understanding. Successive generations of artists working in the genre adhered to these qualities without the conscious regard of today. They did not follow society guidelines or show rules outlined in a prospectus but simply worked in the way associated with their genre by their peers and, to a large degree, dictated by their buying public and intended function.

The congealing of meaning with respect to miniature came more from reactions to outside influences than conscious decisions by practicing miniaturists. Competition from rival art forms, and later photography, altered the genre even to the point of pushing the inferred boundaries. Styles reflected contemporary trends to meet popular demand, sizes reflected changes in surfaces and scale was influenced by composition. Twenty-first century miniaturists, and their representative societies, face even greater challenges than their predecessors with respect to their cherished genre’s identity. Revival period efforts to appeal to a broader market and encompass more fine art styles have proved a formidable task for establishing parameters of definition.7_

  1. The History of Miniature Art, Propert, 45; From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature, Coombs; "English Portrait Miniatures 1525-1810", Dunn, 24; English & Continental Portrait Miniatures, Pamela Pierrepont Bardo, 10
  2. Chats on Old Miniatures, Foster, 45; The Techniques of Painting Miniatures, Sue Burton, 11
  3. From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature, Coombs
  4. Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti. Arricchite per ...‎ - Page 345 Year 1550 Giorgio Vasari – 1793
  5. The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Volume 2 By Sir Philip Sidney, 218, 1590 or see A Manual of English Prose Literature, William Minto, 211
  6. Les Oeuvres by P. de Ronsard, 1578, 302, see footnote #4: "Cette bestiole, que nous appelons cousin, a une trompe qui resemble en miniature á celle de l’éléphant."
  7. The Revival Period in miniature art started in the late 1890’s and while some scholars deem it to have ended by 1940, an unbroken chain of miniaturists connect today to that time. Typically, the modern movement is referred to as the Second Wave of the Revival Period

The above text and accompanying endnotes, presented in draft form, are from the book: Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America by Wes Siegrist

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  • 200s-400s Antecedents to the miniature genre are sporadically found such as the work of an unknown artist who rendered a "Portrait of a Man" on glass c. 250 AD and Lala of Cyzicus practicing in 4th century Rome, who specialized in little portraits rendered by etching onto ivory.
  • 800s: The Book of Kells, a lavishly illustrated text of the gospels featuring elaborately detailed and intricate art, is created by Celtic monks.
  • 1000s – 1400s Precedent miniature art is found throughout Persia, India, Turkey and other Far Eastern Countries in the form of manuscript illumination. European scribes also embellish their lettering and sometimes add artwork. Often this includes a portrait of the wealthy benefactor commissioning the copied manuscripts. The red pigment often used by the scribes is called minium an etymological beginning of our contemporary word miniature.
  • 1500s Miniature paintings begin to be found apart from manuscripts. Jean Clouet of France is attributed with creating the first portrait independent of a manuscript. His successors and contemporaries, Luke Hornebolte and Hans Holbein of Germany are attributed with being the first miniature portrait painters in England. After moving to England in 1526 Holbein becomes the court painter to Henry the 8th. He paints miniature portraits of the King and his wives and he is acknowledged as the first master of miniature painting. During this time miniature painting was known as limning. The earliest attestation of usage of the term miniature in english dates to c. 1586.
  • 1600s: Miniature portraiture becomes more popular and refined. Two notable artists are Nicholas Hilliard (Court painter to Queen Elizabeth I) and Isaac Oliver (Apprentice of Hilliard). Hilliard writes the first treatise on miniature painting techniques @1600: The Arte of Limning. Hilliard adopts the oval format vs. the more traditional circle. Oliver introduces modeling and shade into his work achieving a more natural feel and he also adds historical subject matter into his work going beyond simple portraiture. Samuel Cooper, hailed as the greatest English miniaturist, has his work considered "life-sized work in little".
  • 1700s The peak of miniatures popularity. Business booms for miniature artists. The newly formed American Colonies have artists practicing miniatures. Charles Peale opens a gallery in the United States in 1782 specializing in miniature portraits. His whole family is adept at painting minis! George Engleheart, a miniaturist in England paints over 4,900 minis in his career! Rosalba Carriera, of Italy, is credited with painting the first miniature on ivory which soon replaces vellum as the support of choice among miniaturists.
  • 1800s The introduction of the Daguerreotype in 1839 starts the photography age and ends the business boom for miniature artists. Those few practicing miniaturists fear the end of their art form is imminent. Most either switch to photography or try to implement the new tool to help maintain their livelihood. A revival of interest in miniature painting occurs at the end of the nineteenth century culminating in May 1896 when miniature artist, Alyn Williams forms The Society of Miniaturists in England.
    • 1896 Two societies were formed at roughly the same time and despite diplomatic efforts the two were not able to come to terms on which society was established first or had proper claim to the title "Society of Miniaturists". The Society founded by Alyn Williams became the dominant group and is today known as the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers (RMS).
    • 1899 The American Society of Miniature Painters (ASMP) is founded by recognized artists of conventional sized work that have become enamored with working in miniature. They have their premiere exhibition in January of 1900 at Knoedler Galleries in New York. Several other societies are formed as the Revival Movement gains momentum and interest.
  • 1900s
    • 1931 Alyn Williams travels to the US and forms the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society in Washington, DC. The MPSGS is the oldest currently active American society.
    • 1974 The Miniature Art Society of Florida is formed by Bede Zel Angle. MASF is the largest association of miniaturists in the world with a membership near 500. They host the largest annual miniature exhibition in the world each January in the Clearwater, FL region. The show typically has @900 miniature works of art on display. The MASF also has the largest permanent collection of miniature art from contemporary artists. The MASF is instrumental in getting formal recognition for contemporary miniature art in Florida regional museums.
    • 1985 The Miniature Artists of America is formed to honor outstanding practitioners of contemporary miniature art in America. Signature members are elected by the membership after they have consistently received awards in international miniature shows. The MAA is the only honor society in the world recognizing miniature artists. They have a traveling exhibit of Members' works used for educational purposes and available for public display.
  • 2000s
    • 2007 The Association of Miniature Artists (AMA) is conceived by Wes Siegrist and founded by approximately twenty five miniaturists. The AMA becomes the world's first standard definition for miniature art as adhered to by miniaturists, societies and exhibitions.
    • 2010 Wes Siegrist publishes Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America with the assistance of his fellow Officers of the Miniature Artists of America in celebration of their 25th Anniversary. The first-of-its-kind book is hailed as the "go-to" source for miniaturists and enthusiasts for insights into the genre of miniature art as preserved and promoted by miniature art societies.

Quotes are taken from specific catalogues or books when noted.

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