A Passion In Miniature

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FOR A DEBUTANTE in turn-of-the-ceiitury New York, the highest mark of approval was having Peter Marié request a miniature portrait. Marié, a descendant of French planters in Santo Domingo and a beau of the old school, had made a fortune in New York before retiring at the age of forty in 1865. He went to all the grandest parties, entertained, belonged to New York’s best clubs. And he greatly admired beautiful women. The lifelong bachelor did more than admire them; he asked for their likenesses, acquiring so many that his house on Nineteenth Street became an informal museum of Society beauties. Even at the time, his habit was not merely old-fashioned, it was retrograde; by the 1880s, photography had long since taken hold, and the art of miniature painting was all but dead.

The earliest modern portrait miniatures appeared in the sixteenth century with the work of Holbein at the court of Henry VIII. They were painted in vast numbers, at first on vellum, then on ivory, principally in watercolor but also in oil and enamel. Miniature portraits decorated small boxes, lockets, and brooches. But by 1889, the date of the earliest of Marie’s miniatures, it was not easy to find a painter who knew what to do with a two-inch round of ivory. Talented artists no longer went into the field that once had been a lucrative specialty. To be sure, there was an American Society of Miniature Painters and a Royal Society of Miniaturists, Sculptors, and Engravers in England, but they were anachronisms and knew it.

Almost all of the miniatures in the Marié collection are the work of only four artists. Over one hundred were executed by Fernand Paillet, who had spent ten years painting designs for Sèvres porcelain. Since he is not known to have worked outside of France, it seems that either his subjects sat for him in Paris (where many of them went annually to order their clothes) or Marié sent photographs from which Paillet would work. Another large group of portraits are by Carl Weidner (alone or with his wife Fredrika), an American miniaturist. And forty-four of them were painted by Katherine Arthur Hehenna, a Scot who worked in New York. The collection dates predominantly from the 1890s, though a few of the portraits were done as late as 1903.

After Marié died that year, his 286 miniatures made their way to the New-York Historical Society. Today these faces seem very young and very innocent. Looking at them, we know now which marriages worked and which did not, whose sons died in which wars, which of these women became, contrary to any expectations of her own, a household word. But when Peter Marié asked each for her likeness, he was thinking of her for her beauty alone—and she was glad of it.