A peculiarity in the history of art, miniature portraits possess a particular charm and intimacy, and can be a museum’s veritable hidden treasure. Since the Renaissance, miniatures have been passionately collected by the aristocracy. Painters appointed to European royal courts had the task of capturing the likeness of their clients with the greatest precision and in the smallest format. Depending on the current fashion and artistic viewpoint, the spectrum ranged from ruthless realism – that did not shy from showing the uncomplimentary – to deliberate harmonisation of facial features. The ideal of beauty, which changed continually throughout the centuries, is reflected not only in the faces but also in the variety of hairstyles, accessories, clothing and even the style of painting.
The role of the miniature was a variable one. The pieces were precious, in some cases studded with real pearls and diamonds, and worn as jewellery. Ladies wore portraits of their family members on a long chain around their neck, on rings on their fingers or in bracelets on the wrist. The reverse sides often exhibit elaborate arrangements of hair, pearls and gold braid that demonstrate personal attachment to the person depicted. Miniatures also served as memorials to the deceased or to commemorate a special occasion such as a betrothal or wedding.
England is one of the principle countries in the history of miniature portrait art. It was here that miniature portrait painting, begun so brilliantly by Hans Holbein the Younger as court painter to Henry VIII, experienced almost 400 years of continuous development, including periods of particular creativity. With Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, the Emil S. Kern Collection represents the most important miniaturists of the Stuart period. Thereafter a number of great masters, including Samuel Cooper, John Hoskins, Peter Cross and Christian Zincke, ushered in the heyday of English miniature painting in the late 18th century. Painters like John Smart, Richard Cosway, Andrew Plimer and Jeremiah Meyer produced small-format counterparts to the elegant depictions of Reynolds’ und Gainsborough’s aspiring English nobility, who were then at the point of dominating the world through their colonial empire. An essential property discernable throughout centuries of English portrait art is its soberness. Many of those depicted exude a kind of aloof, frosty pallor that keeps the observer at a certain distance – in contrast, for example, to the captivating charm and opulence of the French.
France was also a leading country in miniature portrait art. Here, the periods of Rococo and ensuing Classicism are regarded as those of greatest development. In the works of the native-born Swede Pierre-Adolphe Hall, known as the “Fragonard of miniature painting”, the cheerful, merry Rococo finds a sympathetic apologist. His idealized portraits of fashionably dressed ladies are characterised by a relaxed, freely stippled style of painting. The Napoleonic era brought with it a huge rise in demand for miniatures, as painters were commissioned to produce portraits – often with numerous reproductions – of the emperor and his family as well as the entire entourage of the court. Among the most celebrated artists of this era were Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin, who was elevated to the nobility, Daniel Saint, Jean Urbain Guérin and François Dumont.Swiss miniaturists hold a special place within the Collection. From Holbein’s time onwards they became some of the most sought-after artists of their field in Europe, and worked only occasionally in their homeland. Together with Georg Michael Moser and Johann Heinrich von Hurter, both natives of Schaffhausen, were the Genevans Jean Petitot, court painter to both Ludwig XIV and the King of England, and François Ferrière, who worked in England and Russia. One outstanding miniaturist was Jean-Etienne Liotard, celebrated as the greatest pastel artist of the 18th century. Enamel painting was a Genevan specialty, and is remarkably well represented in the Collection with pieces by Jean François Soiron, Salomon Guillaume Counis and others.
Austria, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Russia are also represented in the Collection. Studies of all the previously mentioned artists can be undertaken based on their excellent series of works.
The end of miniature portrait painting as a distinct genre came in the 19th century, at a time when it was actually showing a last flare of activity. Its sudden demise from the 1840s was due to the rapid expansion of photography, whose straightforward technique of multiple copying made the complicated and expensive art of portrait painting obsolete.
It is notable that the new photographers – among them a good number of retrained miniaturists – carried over the same spatial-pictorial notions regarding composition, arrangement, pose, detail or studio decor.