Unknown - portrait of Martha Washington

This miniature portrait, only 40mm x 32mm in size, was offered on eBay as a miniature portrait of an unknown lady, being advertised as;
 "Antique Early 1800's Bonnet Lady Portrait Miniature on Enamel 14K Gold Case. Shabby Chic Condition Glass Back Case 15.27 grams".

As such there was limited price competition, even though there were a total of 21 bids, and it was fortunately purchased for this collection for less than the value of the gold content, $160. Thus bargains can occasionally be found even on eBay, that is, provided one is careful and does one's research beforehand as far as practical.

As can be seen by comparison with the photograph below, it is now revealed as a portrait of Martha Washington. As such it is a copy on enamel of the miniature portrait on ivory by James Peale (1749-1831), painted in 1796 and now residing at Mount Vernon.

American miniatures on enamel are very uncommon, with one of the very few artists to use the technique being William Russell Birch (1755-1834). Whilst it would be nice to believe it was a contemporary copy by Birch in a later frame, that seems unlikely. Thus it more likely dates from around the time of the Centennial celebrations of 1875-1876. It is unknown whether other examples on enamel were painted at the same time, although no other examples have yet been noticed. Nevertheless it is very well painted, as enamel miniatures require a great deal of skill. That is because the glass pigments used melt at different temperatures, so the adding of different colours takes several firings, as the pigments also change colour during the intense heat of the firing process. Due to that intense method of manufacture, unlike miniatures on ivory, the enamel colours will never fade. The greatest risk thereafter being of scratches to the enamel, or cracking, which is almost impossible to remedy. In addition, the gold-work is exquisite. 1473

No comments: