Miniature Portraits: The Instagram of Regency England

While the first known photograph was taken not long after the Regency period closed, the idea of capturing someone’s likeness was hardly new. Portraits, sketches, and tapestries have existed for many years, giving us glimpses of the history before there were cameras.

Amadeus Mozart and his sister, 1765
Amadeus Mozart and his sister, 1765

But a portrait was time consuming and expensive. Only the very wealthy and important sat for multiple portraits in their lifetimes. It wasn’t uncommon for someone, even of the middle class, to have only one portrait done in a lifetime.

At least, it wasn’t uncommon until the miniature portrait rose to popularity.

Miniature portraits had been around for a long time, but in the late 1700s a new technique was developed that made then sturdier, easier, and even smaller. They were stippled onto ivory backings using tiny dots.

'Portrait_of_a_Boy',_watercolor_on_ivory_portrait_miniature_by_James_Nixon,_c._1810-1820,_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_HoustonWhen King George III’s wife wore a miniature portrait of him on her wrist while sitting for a full size portrait of her own, the craze began. Even the middle class got into the game, since smaller portraits required less time and supplies and were therefore considerably less expensive.

Unknown_boy_by_StroehlingPeople could even afford to commission portraits of their children and significant events.

Royals had several made to give out as tokens to dignitaries and honored friends.

Through the Regency period, multiple painters switched to making their entire livings off of miniature portraits. Ranging from 1 to 7 inches tall, these portraits were used to remember a loved one, whether distant or deceased, commemorate milestones, and as secret tokens of love.

Princess Charlotte's eye
Princess Charlotte’s eye

Close-up miniatures of eyes or even mouths were given as intimate tokens of love, sometimes rather inappropriately. Because a single eye couldn’t be identified as any particular person, the painting could be given in secret, with only the recipient knowing who was really in the picture.

Mrs_Jonathan_Leavitt_(Emilia_Stiles).jpegOnce painted, the smaller miniatures were set into jewelry, including brooches, necklaces, and bracelets. Larger ones were framed, possibly kept on bedside tables or in other living areas, providing easy access to the beloved images without restraining them to a gallery or significant wall space.

While there aren’t any examples of someone immortalizing their favorite chocolate cake on a brooch, beloved pets or homes were occasionally painted as well.

All pictures obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Click on picture to go to original posting. 

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