Miniature portraits first appeared in England during the 16th century. Small, portable, and easily displayed or concealed on one’s person, their popularity flourished – both in life and in literature. By the 19th century, their presence in romance novels and Gothics was practically de-rigueur.
Ann Radcliffe uses miniatures to great effect in several of her novels, including The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794) and The Italian (1797). In the following passage from The Italian, we get a glimpse of the enormous dramatic impact a miniature can have if produced at the right moment in the story.
Some strange mystery seemed to lurk in the narrative she had just heard, which she wished, yet dreaded to develop; and when at length Ellena appeared with the miniature, she took it in trembling eagerness, and, having gazed upon it for an instant, her complexion faded, and she fainted.
Lord William Lennox describes a unique set of miniatures in his short story The Orphan of Palestine featured in the popular 19th century ladies magazine The Keepsake. He reveals their existence with a Radcliffe-esque flourish:
As he spoke, he pressed back the loosened dress that shaded her shoulder, and a small red cross met his gaze. He touched a hidden spring of the armlet, and two miniature portraits appeared, one the picture of himself, the other of his wife, the mother of Jerusha. Bending over his child, the venerable duke hastily pronounced his blessing upon her, while Arnulf, still supporting her half- fainting form, exclaimed, “kneel with me, fair Catherine, for in the illustrious Duke of Guienne behold your father!”
Jane Austen’s use of miniatures in her novels is not as dramatic as that of Ann Radcliffe or William Lennox, but it is no less effective. Rather than having them appear at a critical moment to reveal a swoon-inducing plot point, Austen uses them to subtly convey background information or to gently move the story along. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth is shown miniatures of both Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy during her tour of Pemberley.
“And that,” said Mrs. Reynolds, pointing to another of the miniatures, “is my master – and very like him. It was drawn at the same time as the other – about eight years ago.”
While in Persuasion, Captain Harville is tasked with having a miniature portrait of Captain Benwick reframed so that it can be given to his new fiancée. As he tells Anne Elliot in one of the novels most poignant and pivotal scenes:
“This was drawn at the Cape. He met with a clever young German artist at the Cape, and in compliance with a promise to my poor sister, sat to him, and was bringing it home for her; and I have now the charge of getting it properly set for another!”
The importance of Captain Benwick’s miniature in Persuasion cannot be overemphasized, for it is the conversation about that miniature which, when overheard by Captain Wentworth, prompts him to write the famous lines: “Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.”
The creation of miniatures was a genteel pastime of many a well-bred 19th century young lady. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane creates several miniatures. But Brontë does not use miniatures merely as busywork for her heroine. The miniatures that Jane creates are used primarily to remind herself that she is not good enough to aspire to the love of Mr. Rochester.
“Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: tomorrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully, without softening one defect; omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.’
“Afterwards, take a piece of smooth ivory—you have one prepared in your drawing-box: take your palette, mix your freshest, finest, clearest tints; choose your most delicate camel-hair pencils; delineate carefully the loveliest face you can imagine; paint it in your softest shades and sweetest lines, according to the description given by Mrs. Fairfax of Blanche Ingram…Recall the august yet harmonious lineaments, the Grecian neck and bust; let the round and dazzling arm be visible, and the delicate hand; omit neither diamond ring nor gold bracelet; portray faithfully the attire, aërial lace and glistening satin, graceful scarf and golden rose; call it ‘Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank.’
“Whenever, in future, you should chance to fancy Mr. Rochester thinks well of you, take out these two pictures and compare them: say, ‘Mr. Rochester might probably win that noble lady’s love, if he chose to strive for it; is it likely he would waste a serious thought on this indigent and insignificant plebeian?’”
Charles Dickens goes a step further in his 1839 novel Nicholas Nickleby. Rather than simply feature a miniature portrait, he features a miniature portrait painter. Mrs. La Creevy is the Nickleby’s good-natured landlady and in several scenes can be found working diligently on one of her tiny commissions. She describes the painstaking process to Kate Nickleby:
“They are beyond anything you can form the faintest conception of. What with bringing out eyes with all one’s power, and keeping down noses with all one’s force, and adding to heads, and taking away teeth altogether, you have no idea of the trouble one little miniature is.”
A Few Basic Facts…
Miniature painting is described in the 1817 Cabinet of Arts as consisting of very small lines, points, or dots, done with simple watercolors on vellum, paper, or ivory and distinguished by the smallness and delicacy of the figures and the lightness of the coloring. Miniatures did not earn their name because of their diminutive size. As Dr. George C. Williamson (1858-1942) explains in Portrait Miniatures:
It is perhaps as well, even though the statement has been made over and over again, to emphasize the fact that the actual word miniature has nothing whatever to do with the size of the portrait. We accept it, however, as implying that the portrait is of portable size, and we shall apply it to such a portrait as can lie in the palm of one’s hand, ignoring the fact that the word was originally derived from “minium” or red lead, and has come down to us from the little portraits on illuminated manuscripts, outlined or bordered with lines of red.
The colors principally used in miniature painting are the following:
Carmine Lake Rose pink
Vermilion Red-lead Brown-red
Red orpiment Ultramarine Verditer
Indigo Gall-stone Yellow ochre
Dutch pink Gamboge Naples yellow
Pale masticot Deep yellow masticot Ivory black
Lamp black Leaf gold and silver Genuine Indian ink
Bistre or wood soot Raw umber and burnt Sap-green
Verdigris Flake white Crayons of all colours
Gold and silver shells
Miniatures are a useful and period appropriate prop in many historical novels. My above examples of their role in Gothics, romances, and classic literature of the 19th century are just a small sampling of the many ways you can use them in your own work. If you have a favorite piece of literature that features miniatures or are writing something in which miniatures play a significant role, please let me know in the comments!