A Memory in Hand

Charleston, South Carolina


by Dawn Woolcott

In the days before zoom meetings, smart phones, Polaroids, and even Kodak, if you wanted to have a keepsake of someone’s likeness, you needed a portrait painter. A full sized portrait was not only cumbersome to keep with you, they were quite expensive. For generations, a miniature portrait you could keep near to you no matter where you were was the best option.

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina has a lovely collection of miniature portraits on permanent display spanning over 200 years worth of paintings and over 600 individual portraits.

Miniature portraits are fascinating with their intricate detail. It took a talented artist to create a miniature portrait barely 3” tall. Many were sized to fit inside a locket, inside a watch cover, or inside a snuff box cover, which could be carried with the owner at all times. Many more were sized to fit into small frames that could be kept at home, or taken with you while traveling. Artists used a variety of techniques to create these masterpieces.

Having your portrait done was popular at a time when loved ones could be away from the family for months and years at a time. A husband going off to war may not see his family for two or three years. Travel was especially slow, and a trip abroad meant you could be away from your family for months, if not years. A memento of your loved one would be a way to remember those gone but not forgotten.

With the invention of the photograph around the time of the American Civil War, young men sent off to battle often stopped first to have their photo taken to leave with their young sweethearts, wives, or parents. Young wives kept his portrait by her bedside and perhaps young men kept a photo taped to the dashboard of his airplane or tucked safely in his wallet. The young wives and husbands of earlier wars were no different. They all wanted a memento.

The earliest miniature known dates to 1450, but they only increased in popularity through the centuries. Up until the day photography was invented, portrait painters were king. But their popularity waned with the new technology and the miniature portrait faded into the history books. The talent of the artists who created these miniature masterpieces is something to be admired and treasured. From those who can barely draw a stick figure, to those who understand the difficulty of painting anything close to realism, a visit to the Gibbes to see their collection is a must-see when in Charleston.

Learn more about the Gibbes Museum of Art

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Miniature portraits are fascinating with their intricate detail. It took a talented artist to create a miniature portrait barely 3” tall.
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