Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Pleasing Portrait in Miniature

Reggie has always had a weakness for little things.  By that he means that he is drawn to diminutively scaled versions of what one usually sees on a larger, or life-size scale.  It can be a painting, a piece of furniture, a topiary, or a book—pretty much anything, really.  It could be something that was made "in little" as a keepsake, or as a toy for a child, or just because.  And Reggie is not alone in having a fondness for such things, either, at least in his own immediate family where he and his sisters, Hermione and Camilla, share a similar propensity.

Over the next several months I plan on posting examples of some of the diminutively scaled pieces that we have at Darlington House.  Initially I will concentrate on paintings, other works of art, and objets de vertu, and then I'll see where it goes from there.

The subject of today's post is a miniature oval portrait of a young man painted sometime during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a period where I focus much of my collecting.  I came across the portrait at an antiques show in Rhinebeck, New York, eight or nine years ago.  I was immediately drawn to it and had one of those visceral, I must have it reactions that you, Dear Reader, will be familiar with if you read a recent post I wrote about my acquisition of several Chinese export porcelain plates at this year's New York Ceramics Fair.

The subject of the portrait is unidentified—just as the young lady was in the photograph that I recently posted of a forgotten ancestress of mine.  While I have always assumed that the portrait I own is American in origin, in studying it while writing this essay I now think that it might well have been painted in China by a Chinese artist and that the sitter may well be an American merchant who was engaged in the China Trade.  Whoever painted it was clearly trained in his craft and extremely talented at it.  The likeness is painted with delicate, nearly microscopic brush strokes on ivory in an attenuated, almost Mannerist style.  Over the years the painting's red pigment, the most transitory of all pigments, has faded, and the picture now has an ethereally blue cast to it, reminiscent of Picasso's blue period or certain Medieval paintings.  Well, not really, but you get the references I'm sure.

The frame measures 5" high and 4¼" wide

The painting is framed in its original black lacquered papier-mâché frame, with a gilt brass hanging ring at the top and a small spray of cast oak leaves and an acorn.  Just as the frame is severely and plainly black, so is the sitter's jacket and hair, which is styled in a jaunty pompadour hairstyle fashionable at the time.  He wears a high-necked white collar encircled by an expertly tied neckerchief, and his black jacket and white shirting sets off his pale, refined features perfectly, as does the painting's gray background.

The miniature portrait is, indeed, a most pleasing one and portrays an interesting and attractive subject, beautifully and subtly executed.  I am most fortunate to have it.

Photography by Boy Fenwick


  1. I can totally see why you collect these! And, this one is perfect...handsome gentleman and an exquisite frame! Hmmm...if you ever tire of the frame...can I have it...just adore how the acorn and oak leaves make the shape of a bee.

  2. Exquisite. If only this portrait could speak. What tales.

  3. What an interesting frame with the wee acorn.
    The subject looks so young, one wonders who he might have been and what became of him.

    These small paintings intrigue me too...

  4. Dearest R, What a charming miniature. And, how appropriate that you should measure it in inches....metric measurements would somehow not be suitable [and would certainly have left me for one struggling with the dimensions].

    I understand completely what you mean about the mannerist style...perhaps the sitter needed to be flattered by a rather more elongated look?!!

  5. Dear Mr. Darling,

    A most exquisite miniature indeed. On studying the photographs you posted, I cannot see where the artist would have used red in the portrait. I see the miniature as painted "en grisaille" style, at least through my faded eyes. It is indeed a beauty!

  6. What a handsome man...I'm just sure he was a Chinese export porcelain merchant, and look at that cravat of his, exquisite!
    I look forward to seeing more of your "little things".
    xo J~

  7. It is very attractive indeed! Although I am sorry that it has faded, the effect on my iPhone is that it was done in grisaille with handsome results. And you are fortunate to have the good looking frame as well.

  8. Miniatures are fascinating, the artistic accomplishment is staggering. I just saw the Watercolor show at the Tate and a display of early 19th century miniature watercolors such as yours attracted enormous crowds.

  9. Wonderful find, Reggie. I look forward to seeing more of your collection.

  10. Reggie --

    It's just not right that he be Anonymous. He deserves a name.

    (I would go with Teddy Boy, based on the hair, but obviously you might need to clear that with the resident photographer.)


  11. You spoke of "nearly microscopic brush strokes". Anyone who has never seen a really good portrait miniature up close will have difficulty understanding what an exquisite effect can be achieved in these gems. Take some ivory, some watercolor, a ton of talent, and what else ? Magic ? Has to be. I attended an auction here in SC where one of the offerings was a Charleston miniature from the first quarter of the 19th century. The portrait was beautiful at the preview, but it was not until the day of the sale when the three-inch-tall portrait was on the block, projected in the sale room to over four feet tall, that I was really able to see and appreciate the astounding detail and extreme delicacy that made up what had originally looked like a very straightforward portrait of a judge. I knew then I was in the presence of greatness. My memory is probably faulty, but it seems like the hammer price went to $75,000, and certainly not to me.
    Best -
    - Mike

  12. A love of miniatures seems to be part of our genetic makeup. MD's father carved 1:12 furniture and made two "little rooms." Her cousin, Joanna Reed, made miniature rooms that were displayed at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

  13. One of my fondest memories is of visiting the Mellon Center for British Art in New Haven and having washed my hands with special soap, and donned white gloves, being presented with a box containing a sixteenth century Nicholas Hilliard miniature portrait of a young man (as well as several later, 18th century examples). I think magic IS the explanation. I still remember the thrill of being taken seriously by the librarians even though I was no credentialed scholar, but rather a curious, sixteen year old art lover. I wonder if it is still possible to have such a treat?


  14. Oh to know the back story of the handsome young man. Was this for his lover? What happened to the family? I'm always amazed at finding things like this that obviously had such meaning to someone long ago forgotten in a shop. Just a reminder to label all your photos!

  15. Reggie

    If you would be interested in having a 'modern' portrait miniature within you collection please feel free to contact me, as I paint portrait miniatures.

    Please check my blog to see the work I am currently painting. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you soon



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