Portrait miniatures in the New Republic

Edward Greene Malbone

Leaving his family in Newport, Rhode Island, to establish himself as an artist in Providence, Edward Greene Malbone struck out on his own in 1794 at the age of seventeen. His earliest miniatures of 1794 and 1795 followed a standard English formula of placing the sitter in front of red drapery. Though he was painting on ivory, the young artist was not yet accomplished enough to make use of the material’s luminosity. The works are characterized by opaque watercolors and strong outlines (see Fig. 2).

Malbone advanced swiftly. By the end of 1795 his style had changed completely. The red drapery disappeared and, as illustrated in his portraits of John Corliss and his wife Susannah (nee Russell) of Providence (Smithsonian Amer-ican Art Museum, Washington), backgrounds were strongly hatched on a diagonal. Though his paints remained dense, his faces were gracefully modeled by deliberate cross-hatching. Continually experimenting, by 1796 Mal-bone would explore a formula that would be the forerunner to his mature style. The background of his portrait of Daniel Goodwin (Fig. 5) still displays strong hatching, but he had begun using shades of dark and light; dark at the top of the head and on a diagonal from the shoulder behind. The background surrounding Goodwin’s face is bathed in light. During this period, Malbone worked in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, South Carolina, achieving enormous success.

In 1801 he traveled to London with his friend, the artist Washington Allston. Beginning to exploit the luminous qualities of ivory, in a likeness of Allston he silhouetted the delicately hatched and shaded face against a dark background composed of a fine net of crosshatches (Fig. 3). In addition, the unusual pose, with the head angled in three-quarter profile and seen slightly from below, is a format he would replicate in many later portraits.

On his return to the United States, Malbone was painting in a style much like the artists he had admired at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Richard Cosway (1742–1821) and Samuel Shelley (c. 1750–1808).4 For the first time he began using washes of watercolor to take advantage of the luminosity of the ivory support, as he had seen done to great effect by Cosway and others, to create a background of blue sky and clouds. He also brought back large pieces of rectangular ivory, a size and format that had not been used in the United States. Several portraits from the two years after his return, including Eliza Izard of 1802 (private collection) and Lydia Allen of 1803 (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence), were painted on sheets of ivory five inches high.

Malbone’s most celebrated style first appeared during a stay in New York from December 1803 to April 1804. He began highlighting his sitters against a pale, lightly washed and hatched background with a feigned landscape that began at the sitter’s shoulder, covering the lower third of the portrait in pale shades of turquoise and mauve (see Fig. 4). The effect was unlike anything he would have seen in London.5

Malbone appears to have met Jarvis and Wood in 1803, for his account book indicates that he knew Wood well enough by mid-1804 to have lent him twenty dollars.6 Their meeting apparently led to an offer on Malbone’s part “to impart any knowledge he possessed; and to his instructing both Jarvis and Wood, in his mode of proceeding, from the preparation of ivory to the finishing the picture, and they both became painters of miniature.”7

By the end of 1805 Malbone’s health was failing. In search of a more salubrious climate he sailed for Jamaica in November 1806, but found the island the “most wretched and miserable hole that I was ever in.”8 In January he set off for the home of his cousin Robert Mackay in Savannah, where he died of consumption on May 7, 1807, at the age of twenty-nine.

Malbone’s professional career spanned less than twelve years. Allston said of him, “As a man his disposition was amiable and generous, and wholly free from any taint of professional jealousy.”9 Such was his fame that almost three decades after his death, when Richard Morrell Staigg, a young English sign painter from Leeds (who later became a member of the National Academy of Design), immigrated to Newport, he began by copying Malbone’s works. Employing Malbone’s feigned landscape background, Staigg painted Christopher Grant Perry in 1840 (Fig. 7). His 1841 miniature portrait of the now elderly Allston (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is similar in style to Malbone’s 1801 portrait of his friend.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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