Watercolor on ivory on a gold locket
Image: 4.1 x 3.5 cm (1 5/8 x 1 3/8 in.); Framed: 4.3 x 3.7 cm (1 11/16 x 1 7/16 in.)
L. E. Holden Fund 2011.39
The gold locket this miniature is housed in is not likely to be original to the painting.
This portrait was painted by the artist known only by the initial V, who has yet to be identified and whose body of work is not well defined. Miniatures by V have appeared in only a handful of public collections and exhibitions, including the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath. The artist was recognized by 1929 when Basil Long mentioned two works by V that sold at auction in 1926 and 1928, both signed “V” and one dating from around 1778. Since then, miniatures signed by or attributed to V have appeared regularly at auction.
The artist’s work is distinctive and characterized by unnaturally large heads and a semi-grisaille technique at odds with the prevailing tendency of miniatures to utilize the creamy translucency of the ivory ground as a base for warm, glowing flesh tones. Because miniaturists often came to the art form from a variety of artistic traditions, it remains a distinct possibility that V was primarily a draftsman or printmaker who worked in the medium only occasionally. Although some works by V exhibit a saturated color palette and strong linearity, others more closely resemble the Cleveland Museum of Art miniature, with its pale colors and soft, voluminous forms.
This bust-length portrait depicts an unknown woman before a plain, greenish brown background. She wears a purple gown trimmed in white along her décolletage, and her full, dark hair is swept back and piled high. The artist rendered the sitter in three-quarter profile, gazing slightly down and out of the picture plane to the right. V used a grisaille technique for the sitter’s face, hair, and body, leaving the purple of the dress as the only vivid color in the composition. The miniature is housed in a gold locket with three Chinese marks on the back. The mark at the upper right indicates that the case is made of “genuine gold”; the Chinese characters comprising the other two marks are illegible. Miniatures often functioned as mementos for loved ones, so the Chinese case—probably not original to the object—may have been rehoused by the recipient of the portrait while he or she traveled in East Asia.
The work is a striking and unusual likeness. Its uncompromising frankness and unexpected manner of painting demonstrate a unique and significant voice in late-eighteenth-century British portraiture, as the artist was willing to move away from the conventions of miniature painting. In contrast to the style of portrait-miniature painting dominated during this period by Richard Cosway (1742–1821), Andrew Plimer (1763-1837), and George Engleheart (1752–1829), the
artist V presents a note of startling naturalism.
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