Miniature portraits have been around since the 16th century in Europe. Essentially, they were the precursor of the photograph.
Loved ones carried them with them when they traveled to remind them of their loves. Courts presented miniatures of the monarch to important people. These early miniatures were painted on vellum or stretched chicken skin (yes, really), and eventually on ivory.
In America, miniatures were painted of important people, or of people who could afford them, mostly in the more sophisticated cities. They were also executed on ivory, for the most part.
But the country farmer, lawyer, or tradesman also wanted these little remembrances, and the emergence of the miniature watercolor on paper appeared in the late 18th century, and continued until the daguerrotype became ubiquitous in the mid 1800s.
COLLECTING AMERICAN COUNTRY MINIATURE PORTRAITS
If you love country, you love naive paintings. I much prefer the country miniature to the city one. They are simpler, often with much more personality, and they are way more affordable.
They are almost always done in watercolor on paper. Oval is the traditional form, but little rectangles are also common.
If they are signed, (rare) or have an attribution or provenance, they are more valuable, and therefore, more costly.
The little square portrait at the top is not signed, but on the back someone had pasted a note that this was a child of the Sherwood family, Fairfield, CT. It sold quickly because of that. Was it accurate? I think so. But I can't prove it.
A family group of miniatures that has remained together is also rare. The photo above is of a group of 3 miniatures, unsigned, but obviously done by the same hand, of a mother, a father and a little boy. I've been tempted to sell them separately because they would be more affordable on their own, but it seems a shame to separate them. So they remain together. They date from about 1820 or slightly earlier, New England origin.
The portrait at left is of a beautiful young girl dressed in black. She has black ringlets and long black eyelashes. I love the fact that it is rather flat - not particularly realistic in its execution, but it conveys her emotions very well. It may be a mourning picture.
Itinerant artists, - those responsible for the large naive portraits we have come to associate with early country America - also did miniatures, and usually, did not sign them. This may be such a piece. It could also have been done by an unschooled country painter.
By contrast, the painting below was done by a more skilled artisan. Note the detail. It is still naive. The birds are mere sketches, and she also has a "flat" appearance. This artist knew how to use color.
This lady is red headed, and was out in the sun too long. This painting almost has the appearance of being in pastels or chalk, but it is watercolor, and dates from about 1840, judging by the clothes.
WHAT SHOULD YOU PAY?
If you can get a miniature portrait in good condition for less than $200, grab it. Condition is important, as is true of almost any collectible. Tears, stains, mold and fading are all serious flaws. But if the image is still attractive, it may be worth it even with some damage.
Good American country miniatures run from $250 - $500, and much more if they are exceptional, have a provenance, or are signed. It is important to examine them carefully before purchase. If you can take the back off and examine the actual painting without glass covering it, that's ideal. You may not be able to. Look at the painting with a good magnifier. If you see pixels, little dots, it's a print, not an original. I've been fooled by a good photograph framed in an old frame. When I took it apart (AFTER purchasing it!) it was obvious that it was a fake. And most important - buy from a reputable dealer who stands behind the painting and will take a return if you have doubts or find a flaw not previously pointed out.
Here are a few miniature from my personal collection. They stay with me because I love them for some particular reason or other (apologies for the photos shot through glass):
Love kitties. Couldn't resist either of these - relatively rare to see a cat in one.
These two are really flat, one dimensional - the more to love:
Most of these little portraits are less than 4" tall, 3" wide. The gentleman on the top right is only 1 1/2" wide. Look for paintings in their original or period frame. Also, buy little period frames when you find them and they are affordable. You can always replace an ugly frame with a nice old one.
No matter how small your home is, you can always find room for a miniature portrait.