Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A locket containing eight family portrait miniatures circa 1600

Dutch School 

A locket containing eight family portrait miniatures, Dutch School
Oil on copper
17th Century
2 in, 165 mm high
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Much has been said with reference to the origins of the portrait miniature. This has focussed on the technical terminology that defines a portrait miniature and the roots that lie in manuscript illumination. It is important, however, to remember the alternative small portraits available to patrons. The enamel portrait certainly offered a viable alternative to a limning painted in watercolour on vellum, as did plumbagos (small graphite drawings), which emerged in the seventeenth century. Another option was the small oil portrait, usually painted on copper, which was popular from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Art historians have often overlooked these small oil portraits. Usually painted by unknown, immigrant artists they are something of an anomaly, fitting neither comfortably with large oil portraits nor within the technical definition of a portrait miniature. As a portable portrait, they were robust and easily framed, with no requirement to be glazed. The copper or metal base would have been cheaply and easily available and meant that the image needed no additional support.

This particular example is most unusual and personal, as it holds eight portraits of the same family. Possibly these were copied from large oil portraits, as they span several decades in terms of dress. Typically, they are by an unknown artist but were probably painted in Germany or Holland. This proposal is further substantiated by the frame, which bears a close resemblance to watch cases made in Northern Europe, particularly Germany, in the late 16th to the early 17th century. The ‘tulip’ finial and demi-lune shaped hinge brackets suggest that a local watchmaker would have made the case.

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