Early American portrait miniatures: See 38 tiny pieces of antique art history

Early American portrait miniatures

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Before photography was invented, one way you could keep memories of loved ones close was to have their portraits painted.

Of course, not everyone could afford a large framed portrait on the wall… but a picture small enough to fit into the frame of your hand? That would work.

And so American portrait miniatures became popular — giving the owners a way to remember family far away, and for future generations (and genealogists) to see what our ancestors looked like.

One last note: Several of the images on this page are enlarged versions of the miniatures, and do not represent the true size of the artwork.

Early American miniatures: Portraits of history

By Harry B Wehle – Country Life (July 1927)

AMONG the possessions of the well-to-do families in Colonial and Early Republican days there were none which were more jealously treasured than the portraits in miniature.

Descendants of these early families today, where they have inherited such little portrait treasures, are apt likewise to guard them proudly. Hence it is no easy matter to build up a collection of fine American miniatures.

Early American portrait miniatures

The collector who wishes to assemble a presentable group of such objects must have more than a burst of energy and a fairly heavy account at the bank. He must have knowledge and judgment and be prepared to bide his time.

Perhaps it is the scarcity of good material in this field to be found in the art and antique shops which must account for the fact that so little, comparatively, has been written about the delightful art of the American miniaturist.

The recent exhibition of early American miniatures held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York served to some extent to call attention to the importance of the miniature painter in the life and art of America during the days before the coming of the cheap and popular daguerreotype.

Joseph Moody, by Unidentified Artist

The organizers of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum made no attempt to include works by all the known miniaturists working in America during the flourishing period of the art.

Their aim was to exhibit miniatures by those artists only whose work revealed proficiency and that undemonstrable thing called “quality.” And yet there were as many as fiftynine artists represented.

In the matter of workmanship, the American miniaturist has, as a general thing, nothing to fear from a comparison of his work with that of English or French work of the same period.

There were, to be sure, such sixteenth and seventeenth-century miniaturists as Hans Holbein, Nicholas Hilhard. and Samuel Cooper in England, and the Clouets in France, whose equals we need not hope to find in America or elsewhere. When we come to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, we no

longer find giants in the European field, and the American work, also without furnishing forth any great geniuses, nevertheless reveals splendid craftsmanship coupled with refined taste and an especially noteworthy honesty of purpose.

When the French miniaturists were devoting themselves to a pursuit of style, and the British, almost to a man, pursued an ideal of shallow beauty and the expression of class, the Americans applied their excellent technical equipment to a faithful delineation of individual character.

Nowhere in American miniature painting is there anything comparable to the exquisite but altogether insubstantial and unindividualized confections of Cosway or to the Plimers’s countless ox-eyed ladies, all apparently sisters.

Not many years ago writers on early American portraits in oils used to tell us that Gustavus Hesselius was the first painter in America. Since then we have learned of several still earlier ones. In the same way, perhaps, future study may reveal miniaturists working in America in the seventeenth century.

At present, the earliest whose works are known is John Watson, who made small portraits in pencil and India ink on pieces of parchment or paper. His known works are few and by no means beautiful to look upon. Watson was born in Scotland and settled about 1715 in Perth Amboy, NJ.

Early American portrait miniatures Antiques

The best known and most prolific of the early painters around about Philadelphia was Charles Willson Peale. Young Peale came from Maryland, where he had been trained to the trade of saddlery, and it was with a newly made saddle that he paid John Hesselius for some instruction in portrait painting.

On a trip to Boston and Newburyport in 1765 he is said to have painted his first miniature, a self-portrait.

During his two years in London, 1767-69, he earned his living mostly by his miniature painting. Upon his return to Maryland, Peale, now twenty-eight years old, entered at once upon the production of his most delightful work, both in oils and in miniatures.

ALSO SEE: Before photography, artists created bust silhouettes like these (1760-1827)

He settled in Philadelphia early in 1776. During the Revolution, he served as an officer in the Army, and painted at high prices a considerable number of miniatures of his fellow officers, especially during the winter at Valley Forge.

He painted a miniature of General Washington in 1777, and about 1785, he made miniature copies after some of his own oil portraits of Washington.

Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale are almost invariably painted on very small oval slices of ivory. They usually exhibit much charm, especially in the matter of color, the flesh running off into olive shadows, whereas the colors of the costumes range from related olive tones up into very fresh pastel shades.

A look of provinciality about some of Peale’s works is due to a tendency to exaggerated and insensitive simplification in the modeling of his heads.

In 1786, Peale writes that he has given up painting miniatures and hopes that his younger brother, James, may be “going into a hurry of business.” James Peale was eight years younger than Charles Willson and had become a painter as the result of the elder brother’s encouragement and instruction.

by James Peale
Elizabeth Depeyster Peale

Although he painted portraits in oils he is known best for his works in miniature, which are numerous and fine, the color being delicate and often very distinguished, with pure and luminous backgrounds. Most of his miniatures were painted between 1787 and 1800 and they are usually dated and signed “LP.”

His portrait of Mrs. William E. Hulings, an excellent example, was painted in 1789, while that of his nephew Rembrandt Peale is dated 1795, in which year the sitter was seventeen years old.

Other members of the Peale family to achieve distinction as miniature painters were Raphaelle Peale, a son of Charles Willson Peale, who painted about the year 1800 in a style somewhat resembling that of his uncle James, and Anna Claypoole Peale, James’s daughter who began her career about twenty years later than Raphaelle.

Mary Jane Simes, a granddaughter of James Peale, also painted very creditable miniatures which date from the 1830s.

ALSO SEE: Who were they? Unidentified antique portraits show faces from before the Civil War

One of the finest groups of miniatures painted in America during the eighteenth century undoubtedly consists of the small, finely stippled portraits painted in the 1770’s and ‘8o’s in Charleston, S. C, and now generally attributed to Henry Benbridge, whose excellent oil portraits of Charleston people have been known for some years to students of early American painting. He married a Miss Sage of Philadelphia, who was called in her own day “a very ingenious Miniature Paintress.”

In New England, meanwhile, there were three miniaturists of note whose period of activity extended from about 1758 to 1788. The first of these was John Singleton Copley, whose oil portraits of New England Colonials are justly celebrated. His rare works in miniature likewise show power and beauty. The ivories

are very small, the modeling strong, the color distinguished, and the expression of character much stressed, as it is in his works on the larger scale. Two self-portraits, one of which is painted on porcelain, he appears to have copied from his pastel self-portrait.

That such a practice was possible to him is proved by a letter dated October 29, 1769, from Captain John Small in which he writes Mr. Copley politely, “The miniature you took from my Crayon picture has been very much admired and approved of here by the best judges.”

It was in the summer of 1774 that Copley left America. His young half-brother, Henry Pelham, remained in Boston about a year longer before he, along with other Tory refugees, fled to Halifax en route for England. Miniatures by young Pelham are exceedingly rare and have an extraordinary robustness and energy of character.

His little portrait of Stephen Hooper, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is referred to in a note from Pelham to Hooper dated Boston, September 9, 1773, which runs: “Agreeable to your directions, I have done your portrait in Miniature and have had it sett in Gold.”

Immediately after the War, we find Joseph Dunkerley advertising himself in the Boston Independent Chronicle as a painter of miniatures and a teacher of drawing. A few very small and exquisite miniatures have been attributed to him on the basis of his little portrait painted in 1787 of Mary Burroughs, which bears an old engraved inscription on the frame.

Miniature portrait of Samuel S. Forman (1790)

Among the works attributable with fair certainty to Dunkerley are the portraits of the architect Charles Bulfinch and his wife, probably painted in the year of their marriage, 1788.

Some time previous to the breaking out of the Revolution, there came to Boston a highly trained Irish miniature painter named John Ramage, and he was followed by several other accomplished European painters “in little” after the war was safely over and the United States as a unified nation had settled down to normalcy and prosperity.

During the Revolution, Ramage served in the Royal Irish Volunteers, but before the fighting was over he appears to have settled in New York and resumed his career as an artist. He remained until 1794, in which year, having become involved in debt, he was sold up by the sheriff” and withdrew to Halifax.

MORE: How to start a genealogical record for your family

While in New York, he had a brilliant clientele including the Washingtons, the Gerrys, and the Pintards, reminding us thus of the fact that New York was at that time the seat of the Federal goverrment. Ramage’s miniatures, which are small, richly colored, and very finely finished, are usually found in beautifully chased gold frames of the artist’s own making.

In 1791, young Archibald Robertson, an excellent miniaturist, came to America from Scotland and lived for the remainder of his days in New York. He established an academy of painting together with his brother, Alexander, of whom he painted a beautiful miniature, now owned by descendants. Two self-portraits and a comparatively large miniature of his young wife are also delightful works and admirably painted.

Early American miniature portraits Antiques (1)

Still another Robertson, Walter by name, who had no kinship with Archibald and Alexander, came from Ireland in 1793 on the ship which brought back Gilbert Stuart.

In the following year, he painted a portrait of Washington in his military uniform, an exquisite marvel so far as color and workmanship go, whatever may be said for or against it as a likeness.

Robert Field, the English artist, made an engraving after this portrait which was published in 1795. Walter Robertson appears to have remained only two or three years in America, but he must have painted a good deal in New York and farther South.

ALSO SEE: Lizzie Borden & the infamous axe murders: Original news stories, plus follow-ups from decades later

The present writer has identified fourteen miniatures as by him, all of which, excepting the Washington portrait, had until recently been attributed to other artists. His work probably is technically the most exquisite ever performed in America but there is a suspicious similarity among his miniatures which indicates that they were poor likenesses.

Of the foreign miniaturists who worked in the United States at this time probably none has been so famous as Robert Field, whose engraving of Robertson’s Washington miniature has already been mentioned. He came from England about a year later than Walter Robertson and painted principally in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston.

His miniatures have as a rule great solidity and character, and vary in color from sober brown schemes to dainty rose-and-white confections. In 1808 Field left this country for Halifax, where he soon gave up working in miniature for painting in oils.

George Fisher miniature portrait by Raphaelle Peale (1795)

The years which furnished these several foreigners with a prosperous and discriminating clientele also brought to maturity the best native American talent in the art of miniature painting.

The finest native talent which has ever entered the field in this country was undoubtedly that of Edward Greene Malbone. He was born and grew up in Newport, R. L, where he was allowed for a season to help the scene painter in the local theatre.

Samuel King, an unsuccessful portrait painter, is said to have given him some instruction too, but in the main Malbone was self-taught. Apparently, it was by persistently copying English engravings that the gifted boy became one of the best of all American draughtsmen.

ALSO SEE: Collectible vintage ruby glass: Its history, and how to identify it

In 1794, when he was seventeen, Malbone slipped away quietly to Providence and wrote back to his family that he was making a success in his elected profession. A portrait of Nicholas Power of this time shows already a sure method and Malbone’s characteristic spirit of gentility.

After two years in Providence, the young man went to Boston, and the Bostonians also liked his work. At the age of twenty, he painted his beautiful self-portrait which is signed with his initials and dated. Like most of the painters of his time, Malbone was obliged to journey from city to city in search of clients.

Besides Boston, Newport, and Providence, he visited more than once Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1801 he went with his friend Washington Allston for a few months’ visit to England. In the spring of 1806, after a career of twelve short years, he was forced by illness to give up painting and about a year later he died.

Allston once wrote: “Malbone had the happy talent, among his many excellences, of elevating the character without impairing the likeness; this was remarkable in the male heads; and no woman ever lost any beauty from his hand; nay, the fair would often become still fairer under his pencil.”

Early American miniature portraits Antiques (3)

Despite the sentimental tone of this statement, there is vital truth in it, for although Malbone’s art is idealistic his feminine sitters are amazingly various and well individualized, and his men have not been emasculated.

Benjamin Trott was another of America’s first-rate miniaturists. He is said to have come from Boston to New York about 1791, and soon began making copies on ivory of portraits by Gilbert Stuart.

He was obsessed with a desire to learn the secret of Walter Robertson’s quality, and a number of well-drawn miniatures which ape Robertson’s style and which include some copies after Stuart, may be attributed to Trott with fair certainty.

In 1805, according to William Dunlap who knew him, “Mr. Trott visited the Western World beyond the mountains, traveling generally on horseback with the implements of his art in his saddlebags.”

We know that several portrait miniatures were painted at this time in Kentucky and Virginia, including the excellent portrait of Charles Wilkins.

ALSO SEE: Antique toys: See what kids played with a long time ago

These and some more which Trott painted during the first years after his return to Philadelphia constitute his finest work. They are powerfully and simply drawn with a candid view of the sitter and a fine understanding of the mutual relation of ivory and pigment.

Charles Fraser, who learned his style principally from Malbone, was one of the fortunate miniaturists who was able to find sitters enough in his own city. He lived in Charleston, and gave up his practice of law as soon as he felt able to support himself by painting.

This event occurred in 1818, when Fraser was thirty-six, and he was still active in 1850. His portrait of his young niece, Jane Winthrop, which is one of his loveliest works, was painted probably ten years before he gave up the law.

His rich and various color, broadly stippled on the ivory, is perhaps the most individual quality in his work, though his search for the expression of character, especially in his portraits of elderly sitters, is extraordinary.

James Madison, bust portrait miniature 1700s

Some early American portrait miniatures created on ivory

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, there were many excellent artists of secondary importance working on ivory.

In Boston, there was Henry Williams, who made beautifully executed portraits in wax, in lead pencil, in pastel, and in miniature on ivory. In that city also worked the country girl, Sarah Goodridge, whose work never quite achieved urbanity.

But it was to New York that most of the young artists came to make their way. Anson Dickinson came down from Connecticut and painted fine miniatures in New York and Albany from about 1804 to 1818, but he is said to have disappointed the promise of his youth and fallen into dissipation.

ALSO SEE: Antique & vintage buttons: Why people love to collect these tiny treasures

Another of the New York group, Joseph Wood, became one of the ablest of American miniature painters. He ran away from his father’s farm at the age of fifteen because he longed to paint. For some years, he was in partnership with John Wesley Jarvis.

Jarvis later became one of the foremost painters of oil portraits, and Wood went to Philadelphia and Washington. His work as late as 1828 was still excellent, though poverty and death were only a few years off.

Another New York miniaturist whose work deserves admiration is Henry Inman. His touch was fine and delicate and his color unique by reason of its daintiness. He was apprenticed to Jarvis for several years.

Catherine Kitty Floyd, bust portrait miniature (1783)

His miniatures were painted between 1821 and 1827. In the latter year, because he preferred to paint in oils, he turned over his miniature commissions to his former pupil and partner, Thomas Seir Cummings.

The somewhat naive but finely executed work of Cummings brings the art of the miniaturist down to the middle of the century.

Meanwhile, there had developed two New Englanders whose work is superlatively fine. One, the self-taught Alvan Clark of Massachusetts, took up his work as a painter in mature life and dropped it as suddenly after a few years to devote himself to manufacturing telescopes.

The second, Richard M. Staigg, of Newport, was also self-taught except for some few lessons from Washington Allston. He learned much of what he knew by copying Malbone’s work, but soon developed a broad, flowing stroke of very modern character.

His best-known work was done in Boston where he caught admirably the psychology of the secure and civilized upper class. Both Staigg and Cummings were still in their prime when, just after 1850, the craze for the daguerreotype forced them to abandon miniature painting.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Tips to identify antique silver: Vintage visual guides

Early American portrait miniatures by William Dunlap

From a 1905 auction brochure: Collection of ivory miniatures and water color views in New York by Wm. Dunlap, artist and theatrical manager

1. Ivory Miniature of William Dunlap (1766-1839). By himself. In square, gold-gilt, pendant frame. (See colored plate.)

Early American portrait miniatures by William Dunlap 1820s (3)

Key to antique portraiture (below)

2. Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

3. Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame

4. Ivory Miniature of Mrs. Darley, celebrated actress and mother of the artist, Felix O. C. Darley. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

5. Ivory Miniature of Mrs. Wignell, celebrated actress. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame. Has been engraved by Edwin.

6. Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

7. Ivory Miniature of James Fennell, the actor. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

8. Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

9. Ivory Miniature of a Lady. Unknown. In oval, gold- gilt, pendant frame.

16: Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

Early American portrait miniatures by William Dunlap 1820s (1)

Key to antique portraiture (below)

9. Ivory Miniature of a Lady. Unknown. In oval, gold- gilt, pendant frame.

10. Miniature in oil of a Lady. Unknown. In square, gold- gilt, pendant frame.

11-14. Ivory Miniature of a Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame.

15. Ivory Miniature of a Military Gentleman. Unknown. In oval, gold-gilt, pendant frame. This bears a strong resemblance to Hugh Williamson.

Early American portrait miniatures by William Dunlap 1820s (2)

MORE ANTIQUE ART: How the Apotheosis of Washington fresco was created in the Capitol Dome (1865)

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.