- A new exhibit in Jackson Library's Hodges Reading Room, Portable Likeness: Selected Portrait Miniatures and their Literary Context, explores the role played by portrait miniatures both in and out of the book arts.
The art of miniature portraits has several early forms: Roman coins, Renaissance commemorative medals, and images within medieval manuscripts. It is this last form that is the connection in this exhibit.
Medieval religious texts, such as a Book of Hours, offered an opportunity to record a patron and a patron’s family members in the portraiture found in the illustrations. By 1460, the hand-written books were competing with the printed books. The ability to include personalized portraits within the book added to both the desirability and value of the manuscript works.
However, during the sixteenth century fashion shifted to the less expensive and more accessible printed works. Portrait artists shifted also, offering their services to wealthy patrons. Most portraits were painted on vellum, the same medium used in the manuscript books. The vellum used was a thin veneer pasted over card, which was often a playing card. Ivory was introduced in the early eighteenth century.
During the seventeenth century, portraits slipped back into books as illustrations, most often as a frontispiece. This was not the personalized portrait found in the manuscript works, but documented the author or subject of the work. Any printed portraits remained as internal components since the early book trade kept printer and book binder as separate industries.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that commercial book binders achieved advancements in book cloth which made the attachment of paper to the binding possible. By this point in time, the prevalent form of commercial illustrations was chromolithography. Use of portraiture on the exterior of the book was a marketing tool to add appeal, much as the medieval artists used personalized portraiture within the book.
In the Hodges Reading Room, you will find portrait miniatures paired with relevant books based on time period and topic from the Rare Books Collection in the horizontal cases. The vertical cases contain a display of the development of printed illustration as part of the book arts, used as a marketing tool on commercial bindings.
Exhibit open May 12—August 28, 2015
- submitted by Carolyn Shankle of the Special Collections and University Archives Department