Miniatures and the Photograph

During the 19C the popularity of the miniature portrait was eroded by the invention of photography and its rapid spread after 1840, firstly as daguerreoptypes and later in other formats as they were introduced. The advantage of a photograph was that it was much quicker and cheaper than a painted miniature portrait.

This led to various ways in which the two skills over-lapped. At first glance this portrait of a lady looks like a painted miniature, but by reference to the extreme top and bottom left, one can see it is actually a photograph, which has been hand coloured with water-colour. Some early daguerreotypes were also hand tinted.

As an indication of the strength of the competition from photography, one daguerreotypist and photographer, Henry Pollock of Baltimore, stated that he made 5500 likenesses per year. By comparison few miniature painters would exceed 100 miniatures per year.

One obvious disadvantage of the photograph was that colour was not available. The other major disadvantage did not become obvious immediately. That was that photographs were even more susceptible to fading than were miniatures. Thus some painters with wealthy clients were able to persevere. However even the best of these artists, such as John Henry Brown, tended to adapt their style of painting to make each of their miniatures look like a photograph.

There was no clear division in the date of choice between of painting and photography and even the type of framing used was blurred in its use. For example, shown here in American cases more often used for painted miniature portraits, are front and rear views of locket cases containing hair and/or photographs.

The top three have only hair, with the centre one engraved on the reverse "Eliza Ann Alexander". It is possible that this hair locket commemorates the birth of the Eliza Ann Alexander, who was born 23 August 1835. However, it may also refer to the death of a lady of this name. The rest have photographs of varying types.

In the late 19C and early 20C there was a revival in painted miniature portraits. This was due in part to the realisation that, as can be seen from these examples, the durability of photographs was not as good as that of paintings.

This revival was also a by-product of the arts and crafts movement of the late 19C early 20C, itself the result of a desire by artistic sections of the community, to reject manufactured products and return to the skill of the craftsman. Although a few purists discount the importance of these portraits, some of the artists were very skilled.

Painted Miniatures with a Photographic Base
One other area that causes some confusion, is the status of miniature portraits which may be painted over a photographic base as in some instances, miniature painters used a light photographic base for the miniature.

Other painters copied photographs. In the late 19C and early 20C many photographs were sent from the United States to France, Germany, and possibly Italy, to be copied as painted miniatures on ivory or porcelain. The Eckardt family in Dresden was particularly involved with this and there are several examples by them in this collection, including this one of a child.

Evidence of this practice is found in the Spring/Summer 2006 edition of the NYHS Journal which comments on the Peter Marie Collection of Miniatures and in particular a contemporary view expressed in 1903 that "some of the miniatures did not even qualify as art, as they were not originals but paintings copied in Europe from photographs taken in the United States."

Such a narrow view is no longer valid, as these days it would preclude photographs and limited edition prints from being regarded as art forms. Nevertheless, some collectors spurn these items, but in this collection the use of aids to drawing is not a barrier to inclusion. This is because from the earliest times artists have used drawing aids, whether squaring, tracing paper, erasers, or even projected images in the case of silhouettes.

Thus the criterion for inclusion here is primarily the quality of the miniature painting itself. In fact portraits with a photographic base are themselves collected as a part of the history of photography, see an excellent article by Merwyn Ruggles at at JAIC 1985, Volume 24, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 92 to 103) People interested in seeing an excellent collection of Victorian and Edwardian portrait photographs should visit Victorian and Edwardian Photographs - Roger Vaughan Personal Photo ...

Other Forms of Competition
In the 19C there were various attempts to seek other substitutes for preserving photographs. One of the most unusual was called Photo-Miniature. It involved using chemicals to remove the paper backing from a photograph and floating the resultant very thin photographic film onto the rear of a similar shaped convex oval glass.

The image was dried and then reverse painted, before using a further convex oval glass of identical size and shape to cover the rear of the painting. The final form then being a glass sandwich with the reverse painted photographic film in the middle.

Only two examples of this have ever been noted by this collector, one of them being a demonstration example included in a comprehensive box of chemicals and paints above which forms part of this collection. Two stages of the example can be seen fixed to the inside lid in the picture here. The paint box was specifically marketed for the purpose by Bourgeois Aine of Paris.

Another form of miniature on a photographic base was used, for example by a French photographer called Mathieu Deroche, in the late 19C and early 20C.

This involved developing the photographic image on an enamel on copper blank, usually oval shaped. Then hand colouring the image and firing it in a kiln after the application of a top protective glaze, as with the portrait of a child shown here.

For more about the process see Beschrijving van diverse technieken - VNE - Vereniging van ...

The permanence of the process can be seen with these two photographic portraits of a currently unidentified British Army Officer taken before 1880 (as after that date rank badges were worn on the shoulder, instead of the collar).

One is a hand-coloured photograph taken by the famous firm of London photographers Elliott & Fry sometime after 1864, the year they were founded.

The other is the same photograph on an enamel plaque, glazed, and then fired by Deroche. This example has no hand colouring and the condition is perfect (the white at the bottom is scanner glare).

The technique used by Deroche provided a permanent coloured image, something not possible with 19C photographs. Works by Deroche are very collectible and come on the market relatively often. There are several in this collection. The best ones can command quite high prices and a very nice one was seen to change hands for well over USD 1000.

A similar technique is still in use in some countries for the photographic portraits that may be seen on graves.

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