American portrait miniatures on view in Washington museum


April 21, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

The intimate charm of their small size and the delicat complexity of their gold cases, which sometimes house a lock of hair decoratively plaited, make portrait miniatures appealing.

The sport in collecting them is in recognizing the idiosyncrasies of each artist's style, in discovering the artist's identity, and in naming the sitter. The bonus is wearing them. In the 18th century portrait miniatures were made to be worn as cravat pins, brooches, lockets, rings and bracelet clasps.

lTC "American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection," by Dale T. Johnson, recently published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (distributed by Abrams, $49.50), together with a traveling exhibition aptly called "Tokens of Affection," have focused new attention on the American miniature portrait.

This first comprehensive exhibition of American miniatures since the 1950s comes after a decade of increasing interest and higher prices. New York collectors Gloria and Richard Manney led the way. They received a great deal of help from New York dealer Edward Sheppard, known for his keen eye for making attributions, who supplied a vast number of the miniatures in the Manneys' collection of more than 300 small portraits.

The Manneys also underwrote "Tokens of Affection," the exhibition of 210 miniatures by 70 artists which was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from mid-November through January and is now at the National Museum of American Art in Washington through June 16. It will be seen at the Chicago Art Institute from Sept. 1 to Nov. 19. In all, 52 miniatures in that exhibition belong to the Manneys. There is no catalog of the exhibition but an informative, free, illustrated brochure by Robin Bolton-Smith, associate curator at the National Museum of American Art, is available at the exhibition.

"Portrait miniatures intertwine with everything else in the period," said Gloria Manney, also a voracious collector of 18th and 19th century American furniture, paintings and jewelry. The Manneys are known for forming collections and then giving them away. They presented the major part of their vast collection of John Henry Belter Rococo Revival furniture to the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. They gave a collection of small paintings by the American painter William Trost Richards to the Metropolitan and their miniature portraits will be divided among the Metropolitan, Winterthur and several other institutions, Mrs. Manney said.

The exhibition was put together by Mr. Bolton-Smith in Washington and Dale T. Johnson, a consultant at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

American miniatures are distinguished from their European counterparts by a certain directness and simplicity. They were practically nonexistent before the 1760s -- John Singleton Copley in Boston painted a few. Their brief history in America begins with Charles Willson Peale's return from London in 1769 and is all but over by 1850.

"In the 1790s, the American miniature was influenced by British artists who came here to paint the new nation's political and social elite," explained Mr. Bolton-Smith, noting that these miniatures are larger, and painted with more delicate watercolors. By the beginning of the 19th century they are more thinly brushed, using to great advantage the translucency of the thin sheet of ivory on which they are painted. Some artists used small dots of pigment called stippling; others use parallel lines known as hatching or intersecting parallel strokes known as cross-hatching. The miniatures were often put in oval frames and worn hung from a gentleman's watch chain or on a lady's ribbon or necklace.

By the second quarter of the 19th century some artists emulated larger portrait painting, using the darker hues of fashionable fabrics. Oval miniatures were placed in rectangular frames to be displayed on a wall or table top. The sitters were often shown half- or three-quarters length rather than just head and shoulders, and backgrounds and accessories were often included.

The record price for any miniature is $621,632, paid by New York dealer Alexander Acevedo at Christie's in London in November 1988 for one of the 18 miniature portraits of George Washington commissioned by Martha Washington from John Ramage in New York, with a lock of Washington's hair embedded in each case. One of two known, it is now in the collection of New Hampshire collector Eddy Nicholson. The price, however, is regarded as an aberration with no relation to the price of other American miniatures, which generally sell for a few hundred dollars to $15,000 depending on the quality, the artist and the importance of the sitter.

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