Folgers Silver Collection

The Starr Collection of Portrait Miniatures

Presented to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art by Mr. and Mrs. John W. Starr, the Starr Collection of Miniatures provides an excellent illustration of the history of European portrait miniatures, with more than 250 examples. The collection includes works of Britain's greatest miniaturists, ranging from the late-16th century to the 19th century. Complementing the British examples are works by American and continental European artists. After their initial gift in 1958, the Starrs gave a second collection in 1965 consisting of 50 examples by the British miniaturist John Smart (1741/42-1811).

The human desire to capture a person’s likeness in a painting or drawing is reflected in the considerable number of portraits found in museums. However, a large, framed portrait is not easily portable. Before photography, portrait miniatures conveniently kept images of loved ones close at hand. So popular were miniatures that artists specialized in the genre and well-known painters produced them as well. Miniature portraits have always been considered precious objects. Their intimate scale and meticulous craftsmanship relate them to jewelry. Some of the earliest miniaturists were actually trained as goldsmiths. Miniatures were small enough to be worn on pins and rings.

Early portrait miniaturists worked in watercolor on vellum, a type of parchment, which was first painted opaque white to receive the delicately applied watercolor likeness. About 1705, miniaturists began to paint on thin sheets of ivory, giving the image a more luminous and animated quality. Painting with watercolors is demanding and was especially so with miniatures given their minuscule scale and degree of realism. The miniaturist's primary concern was to capture successfully the spontaneity of the sitters’ expressions. As one artist wrote in the 1630s, a miniaturist "must be ready and sudden to catch and steal your observations, and to express them with a quick and constant hand."

Nicholas Hilliard, 1547-1619
Portrait of George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, ca. 1595

Ozias Humphrey, 1742-1810
Mary, Countess of Thanet, 1771

John Smart, 1741/1742-1811
Portrait of General Keith MacAlister, 1810

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