Portrait miniatures are tiny treasures that are perfect for antique collectors who want to begin an art collection.  They are beautiful, often not too cost prohibitive, but best of all, they are small in size so you don’t need a gallery sized wall to display your collection. Today, for the secret lives of antiques, I’m sharing a tiny bit of history about Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures.

antique hand painted miniature

Bejeweled Lady Portrait Miniature


The History of Portrait Miniatures.


The very first portrait miniatures date to the early sixteenth century, appearing on illuminated manuscripts. Artist painted tiny portraits in watercolor on velum, which were then glued down on card. Especially in the European royal courts, the little paintings were much loved. Before the invention of photography, this was the way to be able to view someone you loved when you were not with them.

Little miniature portraits were given as diplomatic gifts, or tokens of love. They were exchanged during marriage negotiations, and beloved mementoes of births and deaths.


Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures
Portrait of Marie Antoinette after Le Brun

By the 18th century they were very popular, leading miniature painters were celebrities among the wealthy elite. Even sailors and soldiers commissioned miniature portraits of their beloved to cherish when they were on a campaign. Often worn as jewelry, on a gold chain as a necklace, or set into a ring or bracelet. Sometimes these personal accessories had a lock of hair sealed on the reverse side.


antique painting

Antique Miniature Portrait in original black frame


Miniature paintings like this fell out of favor in the beginning of the 19th century. The wearing of portrait miniatures in brooches, lockets etc. wasn’t fashionable any more. There was still a market for portrait miniatures {often copies of well-know real life portraits} painted on larger ivory wafer thin sheets, which were framed in little wooden or bone inlaid frames to be hung on the wall.


Once photography was invented in 1839, miniature portrait painting fell completely out of favor. By the end of the 1800’s, almost none were painted anymore.

Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures

Portrait of Lady in Yellow Gown


What they were painted on.


Vellum. The earliest miniatures were most often painted on vellum with watercolors. Vellum is a translucent, primed thin calf skin.  The little paintings were then glued onto a card with starch paste.

Plumbago. At the end of the 17th century a new kind of miniature, called a plumbago, was introduced by artist David Loggan.  He created monochrome portraits with graphite on vellum or parchment. They were made to be the basis of engravings, but by the late 18th century, they were works of art in their own right. These types of portrait miniatures are extremely rare, and fetch amongst the highest prices at auctions. {think tens of thousands.}

Ivory.  During the “golden age” of portrait miniatures in the early 18th century. vellum was replaced by ivory. Ivory was much better for painting flesh tones for the little portraits than vellum. Ivory was the most favored base for portrait miniatures until the end of the 19th century.

Enamel. Enamel came into fashion during the late 18th century. Considered a more “lasting” material the portrait enamels were painted on copper, or sometimes gold. Fired in a kiln, it really required a high artistic skill level and much more time to make these. {and therefore the artists could charge more!}

how to collect portrait miniatures

Antique Portrait on Porcelain


What to look for.


Buy with your heart.

When buying antique portrait miniatures, my very first and best tip is always to buy what you love. A miniature painting should make you love it. It can be the subject, the colors, or the painting style itself. But you should have a heart connection with a miniature portrait.

Buy the best you can afford.

Always, buy the best you can afford.  Look at the condition of the portrait. There shouldn’t be any damage, especially to the face.

Buy in good overall condition.

These are antiques, and it is possible that collectors and owners before you have loved your portrait so much that they took it off their wall and held it close to their heart many, many times.  A frame with slight paint wear shouldn’t put you off buying a portrait miniature you love.

But do look for signs of mold. If at any time the miniature portrait was stored in a damp or humid place, mold can eat away at the gum arabic (a natural sap used as a binder for watercolors} and spread.

Don’t pass up miniatures that aren’t signed.

Not all portrait miniatures were signed. A signature, date, and inscription are great to find out about the artist, the time the portrait was painted, and who the “sitter” was. But there are plenty of lovely portrait miniatures that are unsigned – they are often less expensive.

Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures

Antique Portrait of a Bride


Branch Out.

Miniature portraits were not just set into jewelry and little frames, often, especially enameled ones, were put into objets of vertu. Objects of vertu {also spelled as virtu} are small, exceptionally made boxes and containers. These are exquisite additions to your miniature portrait collection!

Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures

French Gilt Jewelry Casket with porcelain miniature portrait.

hand painted portrait



The little portraits are most often set into vanity jewelry boxes such as the gilt metal ones above, with their Limoges inserts.


This celluloid jewelry box features a painted portrait of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine.


Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures

Most of the miniature portraits we sell at FrenchGardenHouse are from the late 1800’s.  It is getting more difficult to find really nice ones, for a price point that isn’t too prohibitive.  {Much older portraits, or the ones from famous artists can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars each.}


Shop our currently available miniature portraits >


I hope you have enjoyed learning a little bit about the Secrets of Antiques – Collecting Antique Portrait Miniatures. As is often true, good things come in small packages!



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