Pocket-Sized Portrayals

Clockwise, from upper left: Thomas Seir Cummings (American, 1804–1894), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1841–45. Watercolor on ivory with burlwood frame, 4 × 3 in. Museum purchase, Joseph O. Eaton Fund, M.2016.16.3; Attributed to Ellen Sharples (English, 1769–1849), Brigadier General Elias Dayton, c. 1809. Watercolor on ivory, 2 1/2 × 1 1/4 × 1/8 in. Museum purchase, Karl E. Weston Memorial Fund, M.2017.1; John Ramage (Irish, c. 1748–1802), Portrait of Captain George Walker, c. 1783–90. Watercolor on ivory, 1 7/8 × 1 1/2 in. Museum purchase, Karl E. Weston Memorial Fund, M.2016.24; John Barry (British, active 1784–1827), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1790. Watercolor on ivory, gold case with blue glass inset into verso, with aperture displaying woven human hair, 2 1/2 × 2 1/8 in. Museum purchase, Joseph O. Eaton Fund, M.2016.16.2; Joseph Dunkerley (British, active in U.S. 1776–87, d. 1806), Portraits of Denise Wright Packwood and Joseph Packwood, c. 1780–85. Watercolor on ivory with decorated gold case, 1 1/2 × 1 1/4 in. Museum purchase, Joseph O. Eaton Fund, M.2016.16.1.A–B

This group of miniatures was assembled to explore connections between our portraiture holdings and the important parallel tradition of miniatures. Miniatures were just as—perhaps more—prevalent in Anglo-American visual culture as their larger canvas or panel analogues. Their diminutive size and unique materiality challenged artists to devise innovative compositional solutions to suit the medium’s particular formal constraints. Often, portrait miniatures were designed to be worn as jewelry. Many thus feature an array of precious materials, including gold and gems, and some even incorporate plaited locks of human hair. As such, these portraits blur the boundaries between fine artworks, decorative objects, and tokens of endearment.

These intimate objects are more than mere likenesses. They embody and evoke traces of the past, and they memorialize affection and fidelity—the yearning of loved ones separated by land and sea. Moreover, miniature portraits evidence the various ruptures of the Atlantic world during and after the American Revolution.  As war, trade, and colonization divided families and friends, individuals sought comfort in pocket-sized portrayals of their nearest and dearest. The portability and wearability of miniatures provide a tactile experience that perhaps makes them more effective than larger portraits.

The invention of the daguerreotype and cultural changes, particularly in mourning customs, made miniatures obsolete by 1850. Today, these objects may strike beholders as mere curiosities—antiquarian objects from a distant, pre-digital past—but are perhaps more relatable than ever. After all, we carry with us small images of loved ones secured behind the glass screens of our smartphones.