Collecting Neoclassical Miniatures
admin 16 March 2016
Auction 253 Catalogue / 19th and 20th Century Paintings


In the previous issue of “Cambi Auction Magazine” (n. 9, September 2015) we presented miniatures both as a small format painting and as a painting technique. On this occasion we want to illustrate some criteria in order to establish a collection.
Apart from the personal taste, which is always an indisputable choice, a collection acquires greater consistency (also for the economic implications) if it is homogeneous, especially in quality, which always pays. Certain works, signed by recognised authors, evidently give more guarantees, but also many anonymous miniatures, constantly in the viewfinder of the scholars, may be pleasantly surprising.

Fig. 1, attributed to G. Demarais, PORTRAIT OF OFFICIAL

A general criterion is the geographical area chosen to be favoured, as the Italian , French, German or English school. A further step consists in the type to be found, usually chosen in the context of the portrait, the most frequently represented genre (but there are also landscapes, in the fixe variant). In the time period considered (1775-1825 approx), which is the golden age for the miniature, the commissioning, originally only aristocratic, started including high and middle bourgeoisie. The portrait branching out into multiple variations, which can now form as many lines of research: the public, more formal (for example, the ruling dynasties, like the Savoy, the Bourbons, etc.), and the private, more intimate (as children, often depicted with their games).
Another favourite genre consists of military portraits (fig. 1), a frequent iconography in time of war dividing families. Even the portraits of famous people, related to history, culture and art of the time, always arouse interest. Another aspect that may be privileged in collecting miniatures is the representation of the fashion of the time, so imaginative and attentive to details. Mythological themes, on the contrary, fall within the more general interest for Neoclassicism (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2, Italian Miniature Painter, early XIX century, GRIFON WITH CITHARA

Another point is the one concerning the miniatures d’aprés of the early nineteenth century, taken from large Renaissance or Baroque or contemporary paintings, often purchased originally by European gentlemen during the Grand Tour.
There are also antique miniatures realised by noble amateurs: it was obligatory for members of high society the virtuous exercise of the arts, which in some cases fulfilled also a personal vocation. This practice was often concluded in the participation in public exhibitions, like the one of Brera in Milan, in particular during the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century. For completeness it should be mentioned, finally, a minor collecting, cheaper, but that over time does not pay since the works will not revalue, of late miniatures, made at the end of the 19th century (or early twentieth century) inspired by the original works of representative artists of the European eighteenth century. The return of interest towards the civilization of the eighteenth century gathered momentum between the seventh and eighth decade of the nineteenth century in bourgeois salons, from France, spreading then to Italy. The result of this taste are the miniatures called “pastiches”, also realized on synthetic support (synthetic ivory), the work of anonymous copyists, unidentifiable, who have played in the modern era the style and technique of the eighteenth century works (fig. 3), often signing with the name of their prototypes. Luigi De Mauri [Ernesto Sarasino], in the famous manual The Miniatures Amateur on Ivory (Centuries 17th -18th -19th), published in Milan in 1918 for the types of Hoepli, mentioned the “pastiches”, calling them ” either original or copies, made in the manner and on the taste of a given painter “(p. 518).

Fig. 3, Anonymous, late XIX century, NOBLEWOMAN

These miniature painters who worked in the taste of the eighteenth century, more or less skilled, took as a model miniatures or famous paintings: the parties created the illusion, but the licked style, the colours used, the primary attention to accessories (with particular regard to flowers) and the foreground, treated with the same importance of the portrait, sent back to the real execution period. One of the best, in France, was Louis Cournerie (1820-1897 about), even mistaken for an eighteenth-century artist by Bénézit and Thieme and Becker (N. Lemoine-Bouchard, ad vocem in Les Peintres en miniature. 1650- 1850, Paris 2008, p. 170). The Wallace Collection in London preserves some of his works, among numerous examples of 19th-century imitations of 18th-century works, especially French: “The most recent works in the collection are by artists who were the contemporaries of the collectors … The impulses which led to the acquisitions of these later miniatures were varied. The desire for portraits of historically important people … A liking for the portraits of actresses and other beautiful women …” (G. Reynolds, Wallace Collection Catalogue of Miniatures, London 1980, p. 14).
Rather than thinking of amateurs who were copying famous works for exercise, the aim was commercial: to produce pleasing images, which sold well. The same De Mauri commented thus on the phenomenon: “The greed with which the Amateurs of art things in recent years looks for miniatures, if on one hand promoted the blatant falsification, seconded, of course, by the arts of the majority of antique dealers … “, to conclude:” nowadays falsification is practiced on a large scale, accomplices antique dealers, where, ordinarily, there is nothing true except for the ten, not percent, but per thousand! “(1918, pp. 412, 520).


Chiara Parisio


Chiara Parisio, art historian, is the author of many papers and essays of Italian miniature painters among whom GB Gigola (2002), Francesco Emanuele Scotto (2009) and Ferdinando Quaglia (2012) as well as the anthology Portraits in Miniature in neoclassical Milan (2010)