Tokens of Affection
More than tiny portraits of individuals, miniature portraits were treasured items that highlighted the love and affection felt between people. Some of these works of art were worn as jewelry or carried as a memento of those who were far away or had passed. Miniatures that were too large to wear were housed in compact cases that would sit on a bedside table or travel with their owners.
Many miniatures were exchanged among married couples. The elaborate frame on Mr. Gibbes’ portrait suggests that it was designed for Mrs. Gibbes to wear as a piece of jewelry. The portrait of Mrs. Gibbes is housed in a much simpler case, worn perhaps by her husband. Mrs. Gibbes is wearing a miniature in her portrait, illustrating one way they could have been worn. They could be pinned at the neck as a brooch, worn as a necklace or locket, or even around their arm as a bracelet.
The popularity of miniatures as pieces of jewelry is well documented by their appearance in large portraits. In her portrait, Mrs. Frances Dallas Quash wears a miniature locket on a long golden chain. It is closed and tucked close to her waist, keeping the identity of the sitter a secret from the viewer.
Miniatures were also exchanged between courting couples. Colonel Thomas Pinckney, Jr. had his portrait painted in December 1801 by Edward Greene Malbone. During that winter, he was actively courting Eliza Izard. The budding love between the two is expressed in multiple letters to his cousin, Harriott Pinckney (now in the Gibbes archives). He wrote on January 10, 1802, “I am now determined to avail myself of the first fair opportunity of speaking with her, as I find a state of suspense more intolerable than any certainty.”
Pinckney was also most eager for Eliza to be painted by Malbone, so that he could have a miniature portrait of her: “I would give a great deal to know if E.I. [Eliza Izard] intends coming down in January to Malbone, according to my advice. If she comes to him during the races, he will be very much hurried…He has made a very ugly picture of Miss Shubrick, but a very handsome one of Miss Baron. Miss S. looks as if she was crying” (January 2, 1802). Eliza followed his advice and Pinckney, Jr. must have been pleased. Sometime after the correspondences with his cousin, he revealed his feelings to Eliza and the two married in December 1803.
The romantic inscription on the reverse locket of this miniature captured the emotions of the sitter, Thomas Robson. "To the bosom of Sarah be this Image confin'd/An Emblem of Love and Esteem:/Bestow'd by a friend desirous to find;/A place in that bosom unseen./T.R. 1st June 1824.” The miniature was dedicated to Sarah Ann Catchett, who became Mrs. Robson in 1824, the same year the portrait was made.
With some miniatures, the sentimental nature of the image was expressed through the inclusion of ornamental hairwork. Hair of the sitter was incorporated with the miniature as a tangible reminder of the absent loved one. Various forms of hairwork exist, including elaborate woven hair bracelets and braided hair incorporated in the miniature frame.
This miniature was worn as a bracelet. It is unusual for braided hair bracelet bands to survive into the 21st century. As miniatures were handed down through the generations, family members would often exchange the hair for a band of ribbon or pearls to keep up with changing fashion trends. Here, however, we have five beautifully preserved hollow tubes of hair, carefully braided to mimic metalwork.
Hair decoration on miniatures comes in many forms. The reverse of this portrait features a landscape scene created with hair and paint. The tree trunk and branches are locks of hair while the leaves of the willow tree are small clippings. Even smaller pieces of the sitter’s hair are mixed in with paint to create texture on the grass.
Expressions of Loss
In addition to being a declaration of love, some miniatures were created to express mourning and loss. This brooch is typical of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century mourning miniatures. It includes an image of a female mourner paying respect to a lost loved one, symbolized by the urn beneath the weeping willow tree.