• Portrait of a Lady Writing a Letter, about 1795. Frédéric Dubois (French, active 1780–1819). Watercolor on ivory; diameter 7.9 cm. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, R. T. Miller Jr. Fund 1961.72

Portrait of a Lady Writing a Letter

Dubois' exquisitely detailed miniature Portrait of a Lady Writing a Letter illustrates the sentimental bond existing between the subject and the owner of the work of art. The fashionable woman holds up a letter with an alluring gaze, with the words "Mon cher ami," or "my dear friend" appearing prominently. This term of endearment was used by women when addressing their husbands; the prominence of the glittering blue wedding ring on this woman's finger reiterates for whom both the letter and the portrait were intended. The portrait would have served as a reminder to her husband during what perhaps was a long separation: the intimacy of a hand-held object, the sitter's flirtatious expression, and her letter addressed to him would have combined to form a poignant keepsake.

The portrait is typical of the work for which Dubois gained renown. Active from the 1780s until 1819, Dubois created miniatures in Paris, London, and St. Petersburg, though not much else is known of his life. The late eighteenth century was the heyday of miniature painting, and these portraits-as-memento were extremely popular among the wealthy elite and were often accompanied by a lock of hair or converted into jewelry, although not in the case of the Dubois.

The sitter’s position in an elite circle is indicated by her fashion-conscious attire, which includes a billowy cravat, a traditionally male accessory that stylish women had adopted around 1795, rendered sexy and feminine. Her basic act of writing a letter—rare in miniature portraits—may also be an indication of her elite status as an educated woman (although female literacy was on the rise after the French Revolution). However, the scarcity of women reading and writing in their portraits may relate to the technical difficulty of painting hands.

Audio: Amanda Tobin, Oberlin College