Published: January 24, 2012
The tedious and delicate art of painting miniatures can be traced back to ancient Egyptian manuscripts on papyrus scrolls and to illuminated capital letters and images in early European church manuscripts.
After invention of the printing press, illuminators in Sixteenth Century Europe turned to painting exquisite miniature portraits for royalty and wealthy merchants. At the start, most were executed in watercolor on stretched vellum. By the second half of the Seventeenth Century, vitreous enamel painted on copper gained increasing popularity.
These tiny treasures were valuable in introducing people to each other over distances; a nobleman proposing marriage of his daughter might send a courier with her portrait to potential suitors. Soldiers and sailors carried miniatures of their loved ones while away from home, or a wife might keep one of her husband or son while he was traveling.
In the Eighteenth Century, miniatures tended to be painted with watercolor on ivory. Laboriously fashioned with delicate brushwork, they needed to be interesting enough to captivate viewers under close scrutiny and small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. These jewel-like renderings were toted much as wallet-sized family photos are carried today. Portrait miniatures were also used as personal mementoes or as jewelry or snuff box covers.
The art of the miniature seemed doomed to extinction with the introduction of daguerreotypes and photography in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, but it survived with lessened popularity. There was a revival of miniature painting toward the end of the Nineteenth Century in Europe, and a tremendous increase in interest in Twentieth Century America, where miniature likenesses became badges of respectability and beauty.
The English style of portrait miniatures was exported to the American colonies, although until the Nineteenth Century most Americans were too preoccupied with building a nation to pay much attention. Several Americans pioneered in the genre, including Newport’s Edward Malbone (1777‱807). Malbone, who trained in London under American expatriate Benjamin West, created well-regarded portrait miniatures in cities along the East Coast.
By the early 1800s, miniature portraits had become popular in America, although few artists had much skill in the difficult technique and rarely captured a subject’s true likeness. More likely, they were commissioned for sentimental reasons, prized as personalized brooches and pendants that acted as reminders of loved ones.
Miniature portraits often marked a significant event in a person’s life †a wedding, political victory or death. Ultimate symbols of love and commitment, miniature likenesses were as highly treasured as full-size portraits in oil.
Wealthy New York bachelor and socialite Peter Marie (1825‱903), who epitomized New York’s high society during the Gilded Age, had something different in mind. Known for his courtly manners and hosting intimate soirees at his West Nineteenth Street home, Marie was a noted art collector and connoisseur of beautiful women. Between 1889 and 1903, he commissioned portrait miniatures of nearly 300 women he considered the most beautiful among Manhattan’s aristocracy.
A selection of these fragile and rarely exhibited portraits are the subject of a fascinating series of rotating exhibitions at the newly renovated and rejuvenated New-York Historical Society, which owns the Marie collection. On view in a new gallery designed for intimate viewing, these watercolor on ivory likenesses look great and special, which they are. Dimensions vary, averaging around 3½ by 2½ inches.
Installments of “Beauties of the Gilded Age: Peter Marie’s Miniatures of Society Women” will be on view at the society through November 11. The first series of 15 will be shown through March 11, after which, due to the light-sensitive nature of the work, different groups will be displayed on a four-month rotating basis.
“Getting the stamp of approval from Peter Marie was a highlight of the society woman’s life,” observes Margi Hofer, the society’s curator of decorative arts, who organized the show. “For today’s audiences, these portraits offer a vivid document of New York’s Gilded Age aristocracy.”
About a third of the portraits were painted by French miniaturist Fernand Paillet (1850‱918) in his Paris studio, either from sittings by subjects on trips abroad, or from photographs they supplied. One of his most famous subjects, Mrs Grover Cleveland (Frances C. Folsom) was depicted in 1891 at age 27 during the years between her husband’s two terms in the White House. Married there at age 21 †she is still the nation’s youngest First Lady †Mrs Cleveland became a society leader while she and her husband lived in New York until his reelection in 1892.
On a more exotic note, Paillet painted Mrs Arthur Henry Paget that same year, based on a studio photograph, dressed for a masquerade ball as Cleopatra. Set against a backdrop of the Nile River, palm trees and pyramids, her smashing gown, created by Worth of Paris, glitters with gold and diamonds and her headdress of emeralds and rubies is surmounted by a jeweled crown.
A granddaughter of Daniel Webster, Caroline LeRoy Appleton married Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, a grandnephew of Emperor Napoleon, in an extravagant wedding in Newport in 1871. Described as “a lovely type of the American woman, a pretty, pleasing brunette, with a rarified face and dignified carriage,” her appearance in Paillet’s portrait of 1892 is likely based on an earlier photograph.
In order to assemble more images painted from life, Marie enlisted several American artists for his project, including little-known Maeve Thompson Gedney (1863‱905). Her charming likeness of Mrs William Waldorf Astor shows the other Mrs Astor braving winter snow. A native of Philadelphia, she married Astor at age 22, accompanied him to Rome when he was appointed minister to Italy four years later, and settled with him in England in 1890. Her husband’s aunt and social rival, Caroline Astor, became the undisputed queen of New York society, proclaiming herself the Mrs Astor.
Gedney also depicted the infamous Mrs Bradley Martin in 1897, resplendent as Mary, Queen of Scots wearing jewels that once belonged to Empress Josephine of France and in a costume valued at more than $60,000 †big money in those days. (The ball itself was reported to have cost $400,000.) So dressed for a lavish ball she and her husband hosted at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during the economic depression that year, the Martins were so harshly criticized for excess in hard times that they moved to England to escape the uproar.
Scottish-born Katherine Arthur Behenna (circa 1860‱924) created 51 miniature portraits for Marie, including a handsome profile of painter Lydia Field Emmet in 1893, the year Emmet painted a mural in the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The versatile artist also designed stained glass windows for Louis Comfort Tiffany, created illustrations for prominent periodicals and painted the official portrait of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.
Behenna depicted Lydia Emmet’s younger sister, Mrs Wilfred (Jane) de Glehn, with her back turned to the viewer and her face in profile. Also a skilled painter, Jane and her British Impressionist artist husband often traveled with John Singer Sargent, who frequently painted Jane at work or leisure.
Eleanor Roosevelt began her autobiography declaring, “My mother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen,” and Behenna’s 1893 portrait of the 30-year-old Mrs Elliott Roosevelt effectively captures that quality in a hauntingly poignant image. Viewing this memorable likeness helps explain why her daughter felt like an ugly duckling next to her radiant mother.
Another famous woman recorded for posterity by Behenna, Mrs Potter (Bertha) Palmer, wife of a Chicago real estate titan, was both the queen of Windy City society and an influential art collector. With the guidance of Mary Cassatt, Mrs Palmer acquired numerous paintings by such emerging international stars as Monet, Renoir and Cassatt, and helped organize the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, which introduced many Americans to French Impressionism.
Marie’s second favorite miniaturist, Carl A. Weidner (1865‱906) often painted with his wife, Fredrika (1865-?); between them they turned out 87 tiny portraits. Their 1895 likeness of Mary Houston of Savannah, daughter of a Confederate general, who married New York lawyer William Allen, suggests the stylish charm with which she hosted high society dinners at their home on East 66th Street.
Described as a “tall, handsome brunette” who dressed “with marked good taste,” Mathilda Davis turned heads as a debutante, and at age 21 when she was depicted by the Weidners in an elegant costume ball gown. After turning down several suitors, she married George Cabot Lodge, son of powerful Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, in 1900, two years after her miniature portrait was completed.
In immortalizing Fredericka Belmont, daughter of wealthy society leader August Belmont, the Weidners depicted the famed beauty two decades after her elaborate 1877 marriage in Newport to Samuel Shaw Howard. Suitably regal in an ermine-lined cape and extravagant jewelry, Mrs Shaw is accompanied by her pet Chihuahua, a cuddly symbol of Gilded Age excess.
In 1899, the Weidners executed an unusual and brilliant group miniature based on an earlier photograph of the daughters of New York shipping tycoon Robert Minturn Jr. Well-bred charmers, Sarah, Edith, Gertrude and Mildred married into distinguished Sedgwick, Stokes, Pinchot and Scott families.
One of the most enduring names among the Weidners’ clients was Mrs Edwin Main Post, who after divorcing her philandering husband achieved lasting fame as Emily Post, public arbiter of etiquette and manners. Two decades after her portrait in miniature was painted, she published her first book on the subject in 1922, at age 49.
Likely working from a publicity photograph, Clausen Cooper (1876fter 1940) depicted famed actress Maud Adams in 1902. A Broadway figure who literally leaped to fame as Peter Pan, Adams appeared in the role 1,500 times, earning a then-astronomical $20,000 a month.
Based on these exquisite examples, it is easy to understand why Marie’s collection was well known during his lifetime and why an exhibition of 160 likenesses was well received at the National Academy of Design. As one reporter wrote: “No part of the portrait show&as been looked upon with more genuine curiosity than&⁍arie’s collection of miniatures of Gotham’s most beautiful matrons and maidens.”
After Marie’s death in 1903, the Metropolitan Museum of Art publicly refused the collector’s bequest of the portraits, contending that those copied from photographs did not qualify as art. The Met’s director also challenged Marie’s view that the subjects represented New York’s most attractive women, saying, “I could go out on Broadway and find women as beautiful as any in the collection.”
Fortunately, the New-York Historical Society, recognizing Marie’s trove as vivid documents of Gotham’s Gilded Age aristocracy, acquired it in 1905. This exhibition will be proving the society’s point nearly all this year. The portraits are remarkable as works of art per se, showcasing miniature portrait painting at its best. An added bonus is that they offer lasting insights into a fabulous slice of American life.
A second selection from the Marie collection will be exhibited March 13⁊uly 8.
The New-York Historical Society is at 2 West 77th Street. For information, 212-873-3400 or www.nyhistory.org .
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