Miniature Portraits in the Works of Radcliffe, Austen, Brontë, and Dickens

Princess Helena by Anton Hähnisch, 1861. (Royal Trust Collection.)
Princess Helena by Anton Hähnisch, 1861.
(Royal Trust Collection.)

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.

Woman in White Dress by Peter Adolf Hall, 18th century.
Woman in White Dress by Peter Adolf Hall, 18th century.

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!”

Mrs. Manigault Heyward by Robert Fulton, 1813.
Mrs. Manigault Heyward by Robert Fulton, 1813.

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.”

Miniature portrait of Noel Desenfans by Charles Hayter, 1810.
Miniature portrait of Noel Desenfans by Charles Hayter, 1810.

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.

A Young Lady by Mary Green née Byrne, 1776-1845.
A Young Lady by Mary Green née Byrne, 1776-1845.

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?’”

Marie Antoinette by Ignazio Pio Vittoriano Campana, 1780-5. (Watercolor on Ivory.)
Marie Antoinette by Ignazio Pio Vittoriano Campana, 1780-5.
(Watercolor on Ivory.)

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.”

Miniature of Princess Frederikke of Denmark by Cornelius Hoyer, 1792.
Miniature of Princess Frederikke of Denmark by Cornelius Hoyer, 1792.

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

The Miniature by Caroline de Valory, 18th century. (Glasgow Museums / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.)
The Miniature by Caroline de Valory, 18th century. (Glasgow Museums/Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.)

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!

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks.  Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Donald Gray.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

Brontë, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.  Ed. Richard Dunn.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2000.

Clarke, Hewson and Dougall, John.  The Cabinet of Arts.  London: J. McGowan, 1817.

Williams, George C.  Portrait Miniatures.  1920.

Wortley, Lady Emmeline Stuart, ed.  “The Orphan of Palestine.”  The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXVII.  London: Hurst, Chance, & Co., 1837.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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24 Comments on "Miniature Portraits in the Works of Radcliffe, Austen, Brontë, and Dickens"

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Kelly Mann
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I just found your blog and it’s lovely! Thank you for posting about miniature portraits and their role in literature. I am an artist and I paint miniature portraits, but I am now even more intrigued with the genre. You’ve given me another reason to re-read Pride & Prejudice! Thank you.

Mimi Matthews
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I’m so glad you enjoyed my article, Kelly! The miniatures are truly lovely. Honestly, it was hard to limit the images on this post – there were just so many beautiful pics. Thanks for stopping by my site and for your comment :) It’s wonderful to hear from a modern day miniature portrait artist!

Sarah Waldock
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I use miniatures in my renaissance mysteries, as my protagonists are artists, but you have given me some wonderful ideas for plot outlines. I have a plot bunny involving a panorama painter but the idea of her painting a miniature of her patron as well, as she falls in love with him, is something that occurs to me…

Mimi Matthews
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Thanks for commenting, Sarah! I’m so glad my post provided a bit of inspiration. I think miniatures are such useful little tools for writers of historical novels – especially romances and Gothics.

Angelyn
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That scene in Persuasion (by far my favorite of Austen’s works) with the miniature gets me every time. The miniature is memory–“Yes, we certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us.”

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Me too, Angelyn! That is one of the best scenes in all of English literature, I feel. And the love letter it prompts Captain Wentworth to write is arguably the best love letter.

Vickie
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Beautiful! – One of my all time favorite books features a miniature in the story line – thank you for reminding me of this wonderful art.

Mimi Matthews
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I’m so glad you enjoyed my article. Thank you for commenting :)

Lucy
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Great piece, as soon as I saw the title I remembered Mrs La Creevy, and hoped she’d make an appearance :)

Mimi Matthews
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Thanks for commenting, Lucy! Of course I had to include Mrs. La Creevy :) I wish I could have quoted her even more. She had so much to say about miniatures!

monicadescalzi
Guest
Great post! In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele produces a miniature painting of Edward Ferrars to prove that the man she claims to be engaged to is the very same person Elinor secretly loves: “Yes; and heaven knows how much longer we may have to wait. Poor Edward! It puts him quite out of heart.” Then taking a small miniature from her pocket, she added, “To prevent the possibility of mistake, be so good as to look at this face. It does not do him justice, to be sure, but yet I think you cannot be deceived as to the… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
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Thanks for the comment, Monica! That’s a fabulous scene, isn’t it? And it includes two of my favorite devices in literature – a miniature and a letter! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it when I was writing this article. Possibly because of my inherent dislike of Lucy Steele ;)

Colin Harker
Guest

Wonderfully detailed post! I particularly love the Radcliffe examples (of course!). Thank you for this!

Mimi Matthews
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Glad you enjoyed it, Colin! Miniatures really lend themselves to Gothics, don’t they?

Colin Harker
Guest

They really do! There’s a hilarious moment involving a miniature in Ann Radcliffe’s lesser-known Gothic novel, The Romance of the Forest: one of the villains La Motte believes that he’s accidentally killed another guy (who turns out to not only be alive but an even worse villain, of course, when he pops up again!) named the Marquis de Montalt. La Motte keeps a miniature of the Marquis that he finds on his supposedly “dead” body and often retreats into the forest to gaze at it with guilty and “dreadful pleasure.” Oh, Radcliffe!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

“Dreadful pleasure.” I love it! I also really like the line in the Lord Lennox story: “Behold your father!” It’s all just so melodramatic! I can imagine Regency era young ladies stealing away to read these stories and being properly horrified :)

Sarah M. Fredericks
Guest

Dear Mimi,
A very enjoyable and fascinating article on miniature use in literature! Clearly, you have researched the subject matter very thoroughly. I particularly enjoyed reading the list of colors used by the miniature artists. I have never used oils or other unusual materials such as gall-stone, shells, or soot; however, I have used silverpoint and walnut ink to create miniature portraits and master copies.
Sarah

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed my article, Sarah, & that you liked the list of colors, too. I am not a painter, but I love art and really liked reading about all the paint colors as well. How wonderful that you paint miniatures yourself! It makes me so happy to know that miniatures are still being created today. Thanks for commenting :)

alessandraquattrocchi
Guest

Nice article! I thought of “Sense and sensibility” too as Monica did. Poor Elinor. And of course Elizabeth at Pemberley also sees Wickham’s miniature. About painting: Elinor is also a screen painter – very apt since she is so good at screening her feelings – and her screens are disparaged by Mrs Ferrers and Mrs Dashwood in another great scene.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you enjoyed it! Poor Elinor indeed. Lucy Steele is really an unlikable character! Miniatures appear in so many favorites – especially in Austen (Emma actually has several attempted miniatures in her personal portfolio). I wish I could have quoted them all! Thanks for commenting :)

avriltremayne
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Oh that wonderful Rochester quote. I am swooning with delight.

Mimi Matthews
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Jane Eyre is definitely a swoon-worthy book!

Princess Fi
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I was reminded of a book I read a while back. It’s a vintage Mills & Boon called Air Ticket by Susan Barrie (Ida Pollock). The story is about a widow with a daughter who makes her living painting miniatures. After her daughter marries, Caro travels to Switzerland and meets and marries a Doctor who is a widower. Everyone keeps telling her that he was devoted to his first wife and when Caro finds a photo of her she paints him a set of miniatures of himself and the first wife. He is frustrated and angered by it and it… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting! Miniatures figure into so many great books. The novel you mention sounds like a very interesting use of them – and in a contemporary novel, too!

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