Portrait miniatures in the New Republic

April 2009 | The stunning events of July 1804 were almost unfathomable for the citizens of the new American republic. One Founding Father had fatally wounded another. Alexander Hamilton was dead and Aaron Burr  would be indicted for murder. The duel and its aftermath marked a turning point in American culture.

Five days before the Burr-Hamilton duel, Edward Greene Malbone arrived for a week’s stay in New York. Considered the finest miniaturist in the United States, Malbone was attractive, popular, already exceedingly successful, and only twenty-six years old. As Hamilton’s massive funeral snaked up Broadway on July 14, he was meeting twenty-five year-old Anson Dickinson for the first time. A fledgling artist, Dickinson had commissioned Malbone to paint his miniature, hoping to learn by watching the more experienced artist at work (Fig. 1).1 So absorbed was Malbone in the painting “that he neither paused himself to view the pageant nor suffered his sitter to do so.”2

Around the corner on Wall Street, twenty-five-year-old Joseph Wood and twenty-three-year-old John Wesley Jarvis had recently formed an artistic partnership. All four artists, soon to be fast friends, were young, handsome, and ridiculously talented. Within three years, Malbone would be dead, but before that, the creative cross-pollination between these four young artists would allow them to develop a singular style that could never be mistaken for anything other than uniquely American.

So pervasive was their influence that when he came on the scene in 1818, the academically trained Daniel Dickinson (1795–c. 1866), younger brother of Anson, still turned to the model established by the quartet many years before. “I adopted a style between my brother Anson’s, Malbone’s and J. Wood’s, fifteen years after my brother commenced,” he wrote.3

In the decades since the 1740s American portrait miniatures had changed little. They were small, dark, and resembled provincial British works, which, indeed, they were. The most successful artists were still either British (Archibald Robertson [1765–1835], Robert Field [c. 1769–1819]) or had trained there (Charles Willson Peale [1741–1827]). Their American patrons, eager for what was familiar, did not encourage improvement.

That was about to change.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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