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Miniatures, Limnings, Or Little Pictures



The unknown who cut the little painting of Marechal de Brissac from the second volume of Caesar's Gallic Wars which Jean Clouet painted for Francis I, King of France, started the modern vogue of miniatures in lockets, pendants, rings, pocket cases, or fine frames kept in whatnots or treasure cabinets, so scholars say.

Not that de Brissac's portrait was the first little picture. Ancient Greek vases were decorated with them. A Book of the Dead from ancient Egypt has exquisite little paintings.

In Rome Lala of Cyzicus, a woman artist, painted miniatures on ivory and vellum, for the king of Pergamus had developed parchment (vellum) from sheep's and calves' hides in the 2nd century B.C. Greece and Byzantium dyed it purple or blue and inscribed it with colors and the beloved gold and silver lettering of the East-as in the Codex Purpureo-Argenteus at Upsala, Sweden, from 360 A.D.

Monks of the dark ages dropped portraiture and decorated manuscript borders and capitals with interlaced, elaborated lines, flowers, birds and animals in the Eastern manner, as in the psalters of Charlemagne and of Charles the Bald. But little pictures, called "stories" by the medieval French, came back. An example is the long Exultet roll of the Easter Vigil. When the deacon read it in the medieval church he let it fall over the lectern so the miniatures would show to the people.

Limousin at Limoges was doing his fabulous enameled little pictures when Francis I had Clouet limn his portrait on the treaty with Henry VIII in 1527. Henry. in turn, had his miniature put in the letter P on papers for the Court of the King's Bench in 1543. Italy used little portraits on her genealogical trees. Thus the littie portrait came into popularity in Europe.

Eastern Miniature Painting

Illumined manuscripts on paper are said to date from the 9th century in Arabia. Bagdad's library is known to have had 100,000 books in the 10th. The Seljuks used paper, and Tabriz miniatures in the 14th century show Chinese, Indian and Christian symbols. The Fable of the Fowler from Herat shows the fowler under a tree holding the cord of his bird net which imprisons a variety of birds while a blacxbird safe in the branches above looks on and bright colored flowers grow in the rocky crevices of the background.

Texture, fanciful design, and rich colors give beauty to these Eastern miniatures that are without modeling or shadows, depth or atmosphere. Bihzad, famous artist of Herat, had gold beaters, gold mixers, lapis lazuli grinders and workers, margin drawers, and gilders (painters) on his staff.

Abbasi, master miniaturist for Shah A.bbas, used much Kufic writing, beautifully designed, with his little pictures of the Shah and his nobles at Ispahan. Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat is often illustrated with likenesses of old Persian miniature paintings.

Turkestan's Tamerlane sits with Chinese cloud bands and Persian trellis and flowers in his miniatures. India's Akbar, one of the greatest Mogul emperors, had over a hundred painters working on miniatures of himself and his nobles. Finally the Moslem rule forbidding the representation of humans or animals (unless the artist wanted to give them his own soul at death) repressed miniature portrait art in Asia.

Western Miniature Painting,

In Charlemagne's castle room for miniature painting many were made. Some still exist, but most are in Europe's museums.

In England Hans Holbein painted round miniatures (one to two inches) in tempera against a dark blue background, on vellum or cardboard. Hilliard used gum arabic to bind his paints and limned Elizabeth I on oval vellum or cards "without shadows in the Italian manner," as Elizabeth wanted.

Samuel Cooper, a favorite, caught the character of the face and neglected shoulders and background. Richard Cosway limned his ultra marine backgrounds on ivory. In enamels, Henry Bone was master, and C. F. Zincke's bright blues are famous.

Netherland's artists limned portraits in oils on copper. Germany's and Austria's great artists painted miniatures. Italy was less given to little portraits despite her early illumined manuscripts. Giotto popularized them and Tintoretto painted famous ones. So did Spain's Velazquez and El Greco.

France's Petitot added flesh tones and perfected enamel portraiture for Louis XIV. And Isabey, favorite of Marie Antoinette, limned the ladies of her court, Empire and Restoration. Fragonard and Boucher did miniatures. So did Jean Augustin and others. France painted her beloved miniatures right through the Revolution.

American miniatures probably began with John Watson's pencil and India ink. C. W. Peal, Henry Bembridge, J. S. Copley, Henry Pelham, Joseph Dunkerley, John Ramage, Benjamin Trott, and Charles Fraser all limned. E. G. Malbone, and Robert Field were famous miniaturists. Alban Clark, R. M. Staegg, Henry Williams and Sarah Goodridge are well known. Dickinson, Wood, Inman and Cummings did 19th century little portraits or miniatures.

Early miniatures were limned on vellurn, paper or cardboard including old playing cards-with tempera paints, which were colors bound with egg plus weak vinegar to neutralize the egg's sulphur so it would not spot the colors. Later, artists bound their paints with gum arabic in water. Some used honey mixed with spirits to keep the paints from brittleness and chipping. Glycerine, still later, was used. Sugar was thought to "help lighten" the shadows.

Early backgrounds were gold, then ground up lapiz lazuli for the famous ultra marine. Pale grounds, decorative backgrounds, and landscapes came in. Ivory, anciently painted on, came again to favor in the late 17th century. Being semi-transparent, it was usually gummed to paper or cardboard. Natural ivory was preferred to bleached as bleaching sometimes affected the colors. Graining was avoided in the face space to insure a fine skin texture.

Ivory had to be pumiced to remove saw scratches and give "tooth" to hold the paints. The sketch was never made directly on the ivory as it left an unremovable smudge. It was made on paper, dusted on the back side with Venetian red which was then laid to the ivory and traced on by a stylus. The brush could follow this red tracing.

Skin colors in transparent water paints were put on first. Drapery and background took opaque paints. Stippling touched out the bare spots and "lightened" the miniature.

Enameled Miniatures and the Photograph Miniatures

For enameled miniatures the copper, silver or gold plate was given a coat of white enamel, then the portrait was painted a bit at a time. The first colors put on were those that could stand the most heat. Those that could stand least were put on last. Each firing was a risk as a joggle when the paints were soft would destroy the portrait, or a few seconds too long in the furnace might ruin the colors.

Petitot used the finest sea sand, made his own alkali from potash and soda, and ground his own colors. He laid his paints on gold or silver in the order of their heat capacity. He was known to fire a single portrait eight times.

Enamel miniatures are impervious to the enemies of little paintings. Their colors stay true and bright. Only shattering the enamel harms the portrait. Porcelain miniatures, still painted, are similarly permanent.

Ivory may warp or crack in sudden temperature changes, or too much heat or dryness. Direct sunlight fades paint colors. Dampness causes mildew which discolors vellum, card or paper. Smoke, dust and perspiration dull paint colors, but trying to wash them has washed many a miniature right out of existence.

Invention of photography gave "little paintings" a set back, but the art has survived. The modern phase since the first World War, is the copying of photographs by miniature painters on plastic or ivory, thus recovering the living colors of childhood, youth, and the beloved gone. Today miniatures, once limited to kings and rich men, are much collected for subject, kind or material, source, age, technique or artist.



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