The Gibbes miniature collection has grown through donations from Charleston families. This organic growth has resulted in some interesting connections between the sitters represented, artists, and other works in the permanent collection. Connections emerge, making this miniature collection an insightful record of Charleston’s history.
Tragedy at Sea
This marble relief was commissioned as a memorial to General John McPherson who died in the shipwreck of the Rose in Bloom.
He was accompanied on the voyage by his daughter, Elizabeth (later Mrs. James Reid Pringle). According to legend, she dreamt of the impending disaster for three nights leading up to the tragedy. General McPherson, a member of the South Carolina militia during the American Revolution, is shown drowning while his daughter is rescued by a sailor.
General McPherson, his son James, and his daughter (both as a girl and after her marriage) are represented in the miniature collection.
Friends in Miniature
The most sophisticated American painter of his generation, Washington Allston was born into a prominent South Carolina family.
He left the Lowcountry at an early age to be educated in the North and abroad. He met his dear friend, Edward Greene Malbone, while in New England.
The two artists traveled to England in 1801. Malbone, originally from Rhode Island and a miniaturist, refined his palette and technique in England before returning to America. While in England, Malbone worked with
Lawrence and Thomas Sully, also artists from Charleston and friends of miniaturist Charles Fraser.
Malbone came to Charleston to work and in turn influenced Charleston native Charles Fraser. Allston met Fraser through Malbone and the three artists enjoyed a close friendship. When Malbone died at the age of 29, Fraser wrote an obituary for the Charleston Times: “He imparted such life to the ivory and produced always such striking resemblances, that they will never fail to perpetuate the tenderness of friendship, to divert the cares of absence, and to aid affection in dwelling on those features and that image, which death has forever wrested from it.”
A Contemporary View of Miniatures
In 2009 the Gibbes presented a groundbreaking exhibition that fused contemporary art with many works in the permanent collection, Prop Master: An Installation by Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page. This site-specific, large-scale installation, created exclusively for the Gibbes Museum, drew materials from its permanent collection of portraits, landscape paintings, and archival materials, begun over 150 years ago. Artists Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan juxtaposed art objects from the museum’s collection with works of their own creation, to investigate the role of the institution of the museum as both a prop master and a prop with regard to race, class, and gender relations in Charleston society.
As the person who acquires and manufactures props for theatrical productions, the prop master is responsible for all aspects of their use on a set. Drawing a comparison between the prop master and the museum and a production and an exhibition, Logan and Page reveal how the elements of a collection are props and the museum a prop master. Made up of such components as Sexually Ambiguous, Background Material, and Famous Last Names, this exhibition critiqued portraiture as a prop and support for a structure of social positions.
In their installation piece titled Sexually Ambiguous, Page and Logan used miniatures from the Gibbes collection to reflect upon race and gender relations. They chose portraits based upon the appearance of the individuals rather than for the identity of those pictured. These portraits suggest a social caste as a whole. The miniatures chosen include paintings of men, women, and landscapes that were digitally altered to reimagine their contents and draw attention to their function as a mode of self-presentation.
Transition to Photography
In the 1830s and 1840s, a new art form emerged that disrupted the world of miniature painting. Photography, in the form of daguerreotypes, calotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes, became a quick, easy, and affordable way to capture a person’s likeness. Previously, only wealthy, almost exclusively white members of society could have a miniature portrait made. The Gibbes miniature collection reflects this very narrow demographic. With the invention of photography, however, we see an expansion of people who can afford a portrait. Many of these early photographs are housed in small cases, mimicking the intricate casework of miniatures.
Some miniature painters embraced the new technology and became photographers themselves, like Henry Bounetheau. He transitioned from painter to photographer and even
did some painted copies of daguerreotypes. His portraits of the Bee brothers, John Stockton Bee and James Ladson Bee, were painted
posthumously and possess many stylistic qualities of early photographs, including the very rigid poses. Other artists, like Charles Fraser, were nearing the end of their careers as photography became the portable portrait medium of choice. Fraser’s photograph suggests that while he did not embrace the new technology as a profession, he did not shy away from it completely.