mid to late 19th century
Watercolor on ivory in a gold frame with blue glazed reverse and reserve with plaited hair and initials in gold
Framed: 15.3 x 13 cm (6 x 5 1/8 in.); Unframed: 14 x 11.5 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.)
Gift of J. H. Wade, Jr., G. G. Wade and Mrs. E. B. Greene 1926.232
On the back the initials JCSB in gold are placed over plaited hair of at least two different colors.
This large miniature depicts a woman at full length, turned to the left, playing a tambourine held in her left hand. She wears a floor-length, white, Empire-waist gown with short sleeves and scarlet slippers. The Empire silhouette was fashionable in the years around 1800, when it was executed in fine, white cotton or muslin and meant to recall classical Greek or Roman dress. The woman’s light brown hair falls below her waist in curls, and she wears a white turban. She stands on a pale green, closely cropped lawn in front of a low, green, wrought-iron fence with a wood railing. At over 15 centimeters high in its frame, this miniature’s size is incongruous with its oval shape and elaborate glass and braided hair setting, which were typical of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century wearable miniatures a third or quarter of this size.
The woman’s face lacks specificity and is probably not a portrait of a particular individual but, rather, a fancy picture exploring themes of beauty and music. This assertion does, however, call into question the presence of the initials and hair on the back of the setting, which customarily indicate an intimate relationship between the owner and the sitter that presumably would be absent outside of portraiture. When this work entered the collection in 1926, it was believed
to date from the late eighteenth century, but its size, shape, and the full-length figure make such an early date extremely unlikely. The signature “R. C.” may suggest Richard Cosway (1742–1821), the highly sought-after eighteenth- and nineteenth-century miniaturist; however, this work does not resemble his style. J. H. Wade purchased this object in 1896 for $150—a substantial sum during that period for a miniature—indicating that he may have thought the work was indeed by Cosway.
This miniature does relate closely in style and subject matter to the work of the British artist Adam Buck (1759–1833), who was known for his classicizing, full-length watercolor portraits and fancy pictures, after which this work may be a copy. Buck’s miniatures on ivory are bust length and more strongly delineated than this work, which instead recalls the artist’s watercolors. Hallmarks of Buck’s drawings include a low horizon line, muted palette, full-length female figures depicted in profile, and a patchy blue, cloudy sky. A scrolled, wrought-iron fence similar to the one present in this miniature appears in a drawing by Buck. In both cases the fence is used decoratively to break up the expanse of bare space created by the low horizon line and vacant sky. Buck’s works often feature women listening to or playing an instrument, including the tambourine, but he is not known to have painted these full-length figures on ivory. The numerous incompatibilities—including style, subject, composition, medium, setting, size, and signature—together suggest that this object was painted in the second half of the nineteenth century specifically for the art market and to evoke an earlier period.
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