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The art of miniature portraits

Among the wide range of antiques, miniature portraits make a special section, which put together the surprising and striking attention to detail and small format, and the artistic, historical and emotional values of these refined objects and of the characters portrayed. Even frames can be interesting complements, since they enhance and highlight the value of small portraits, from the simplest ones made of papier maché and brass to the most spectacular ones in ormolu bronze or in silver with cabochons.

In miniatures auctions at Balclis, it is usual to find both excellent miniature portraits from all nationalities and origins, and the simplest or most exquisite original frames. Since these are very small objects, it is common for them to have travelled a lot and it is not unusual that collectors from all over the world bought them in London or Paris and took them back to their countries of origin, so it is very easy to find in a single collection items from very different schools.

Small artistic memories

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, miniature portraits were painted in oil on copper, and great artists such as El Greco or Velázquez left us samples of their art in such small formats. Copper was an appropriate support, but the result with the oil painting was not very attractive and colours sometimes fell because of the low-adherence support. Generally, those pieces were assembled in precious metals and looked like pendant jewels. The emotional and sentimental sense of wearing the image of loved ones made that the art of miniature portraits became more and more popular.

In the 18th Century, the great Italian artist Rosalba Carriera was credited with the invention of a new system for creating miniature portraits, consisting of painting with gouache and watercolour on a fine ivory plaque. The result was much more brilliant and eye-catching, so miniaturists immediately adopted her invention. Between 18th and 19th Century, French and English artists showed a great technical and aesthetic mastery, founding schools with their own styles, and the beautiful portraits they made feature an outstanding place in the world of antiques. The first half of the 19th Century was also a flourishing period for illuminated portraits.

Emergence of photography

All European countries had great artists in this field and in Spain there were a few authors who enjoyed a major prestige. However, the emergence of photography led to a gradual phase-out and to the end of that art. Although there were still some specialised artists until the Art Nouveau period, daguerreotypes and photography in general were its cheapest substitutes and managed to faithfully capture the physical features of the models, so the art of miniature portraits lost its most effective meaning.