Portrait miniatures were brought to America by European settlers. Sometimes they were the only mementoes of family and friends left behind, never to be seen again. The term miniature derives from minium, the red lead ink used in medieval manuscript illumination, and was originally a reference to technique rather than to size. It is perhaps no coincidence that people started painting them during the scientific revolution when Sir Isaac Newton published “Opticks”, his treatise on the fundamental nature of light, and the world was being seen anew. If easel portraits had long been made for public gaze and approbation, by the mid-1700s, miniatures, newly voguish, were for discreet contemplation, a peephole into the sitter’s private self. Miniatures became a common way for people to mark family milestones: betrothal, marriage, birth, death. They were hidden in drawers, or worn: by women on a chain inside the bodice or, by men, on a pin behind the lapel of a jacket.
Their popularity in the North American colonies in the early 19th century coincided with a growing economy and a shift in social attitudes towards family, marriage, children and love. Men may have been the gunbearers of the revolution, but according to John Adams, America’s second president, the new republic also needed a “national Morality” that could be obtained only by championing family values.
Although independent, the new state still looked to the old world as its cultural true north. The best American artists travelled to London to study with the English masters; British fashions became American fashions. Some things, though, struggled to catch on, especially anything to do with the carnal or erotic. That is what makes “Beauty Revealed” such an unusual work. Americans, for example, did not like painting from models. Until long after the revolution no American academy offered life drawing from naked, live models, as was the tradition in Europe. It was the same with eye portraits, hand-painted miniatures of single human eyes set in jewellery and given as tokens of affection, which became all the rage in Britain after the Prince of Wales secretly proposed to his Catholic mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, in 1785 with a miniature of his own eye. It would take another 15 years before the first eye portraits were painted in America, and even then the fashion never really took off.