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Art When We’re Apart: American Miniatures

Portrait of a Left Eye, c. 1800, English

Miniature portraits are an intimate art form. Often designed to be worn as jewelry or tucked inside clothing, they were created as tokens of love and fidelity. In the 1500s, they were painted in oil on vellum or metal. In the 1700s, artists used watercolor on ivory to produce delicate, translucent images. Miniatures kept the memory of loved ones alive during prolonged separations, often set in lockets (sometimes with a lock of hair) and simple travel cases or displayed on a table.

Cut-Paper Silhouettes

A more affordable alternative to an ivory portrait was the cut-paper silhouette. Among the most accomplished examples were those cut by Moses Williams, a man enslaved by artist Charles Willson Peale. After Williams was legally emancipated, he continued to work at Peale’s Philadelphia museum, where he cut silhouettes as souvenirs for visitors.


In the 1840s the daguerreotype (an early form of photography) began to replace miniatures as the preferred medium for capturing likenesses. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a revival of traditional miniature painting, but soon to come was the quick and easy snapshot, a perfect medium for catching both the bonds of love and friendship and the fleeting moment.