Vallee, P.R. - Unknown man of circa 1807

At first glance this is another miniature portrait of an unknown man by an unknown artist, and thus of lesser interest, even though the artist is very competent. [Much later - as noted in the comments section, a kind visitor has identified the miniature as by P.R. Vallee, also known as Jean-Francois de la Vallee.]

When purchased the miniature had dark water staining at the left and upper right, and both the front and rear glasses were missing. Hence the condition was generally poor. Some minor restoration has been undertaken and temporary "glasses" of PVC plastic have been cut to an appropriate size.

The interest is more in the case. I have previously opined the Embargo Act was a major factor in the development of American case making, even though some American experts have doubted that view. I hold to that opinion and have provided here more images of this miniature than usual, to illustrate the reasons for that opinion. Those interested should also read an earlier post at 2008 - Additions and Comment: Case study - The Embargo Act of 1807 ...

I sought opinions of two experts about the case for this miniature.

An expert based in Europe said; "This miniature is probably done by a French miniature painter that has emigrated to the States. The frame is definitely not French but looks American to me, whereas the miniature is evidently done in the French technique."

Whereas an expert based in America said; "The frame is ifs, ands or buts. I have handled well over 200 european miniatures in similar cases. The fact that it is missing the rear lens is due to mishandling, probably when someone opened the case at the time the water damage ocurred or even just dropping the case. This was not a cheap case when new and it would have been brightly gilt over base metal. The large rear compartment meant complex hairwork and probably cut gold initials. The simple truth is that I have never seen a miniature that could be provably painted in the US that was cased in this type of frame."

I do value the advice and knowledge of both these experts, who know far more about miniatures than I do! However, it would be hard to get two more contrasting opinions. Hence, I am left to arrive at a decision as to when and where the case was made.

While accepting that some American case makers did continue to make high quality cases throughout the period 1807-1817, and hoping not to upset the American expert too much, I feel I have to go with the European expert and say that in my opinion it was most likely made in America during the Embargo Act period. Having said that I need to justify my opinion.

Firstly, the artist is European, and most likely French. The key to this is the background done in gouache rather than watercolour. He (she) was competent as an artist. French artists working in America around this time had fled from the upheavals in France. They included Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller, Philippe Abraham Petticolas, Pierre Henri, P R Vallee, de Clorivere, de Guiran, Belzons, Binsse, Collas, and Gimbrede. I do not think the miniature is by any of these artists, but it was from seeing works by artists such as these that encouraged local artistic talent to emerge.

The work of such competent artists would be normally housed in expensive fitted casework. But if we look at the ivory, there are straight top and bottom edges, which are not both concealed when housed in the case. Hence, for some reason when it was framed a proper case of the proper size was not available. There was no reason for this to happen in France or Britain, but there was in America during the period of the Embargo Act when trade with Europe was so restricted, some towns in NE USA were close to starvation.

I think the reason that the ivory does not fill the case, is that the size of the case itself was determined by the size of an available front glass. It was easier to make a case to fit an available glass, than grind the glass down to size. Hence, the case ended up being a little too large for the miniature.

This view is supported in that the ivory is painted right to the edges, so as to fill the maximum viewing space under the glass. If a case of the correct size had been available the ivory would have been still painted to the edges, but would not have needed to retain a straight top and bottom edge.

While not always in 100% of instances, a common characteristic of American made cases is a front opening bezel. I am not sure why this developed, but as a guess I would say it made it easier to manufacture a fitting case with the relatively lesser skills and materials available in early 19C America, compared to Britain. Especially during the time of the Embargo Act! This miniature case has a front opening bezel.

In addition, a front opening bezel made it easier to open and restore a miniature where there was water damage, or if the owner (perhaps female?) wanted to be shown with a different hairstyle. A number of miniatures of 1815-1830 can be found with an apparent halo around the sitter's head, a clear sign that the hairstyle depicted has been altered to reflect changing fashions!

Around 1800-1805 some British cases began to be held together with four pins, but those tended to have flat side panels, whereas this miniature has a curved side panel held together with four pins (two showing). The hanger is also very simple, apparently original, and small in design, unlike European hangers.

In my opinion the American design of case grew out of the impact of the Embargo Act. Probably with the first cases made after about 1807, as with this one, copied from prevailing British designs as had been recently imported, but with alterations made to suit whatever locally available materials and glass sizes could be obtained. I refer to these as "make-do" cases and my other post shows a number of examples.

The disruption to trade leading to the War of 1812, meant that fewer miniatures were painted 1807-1817 and there was a diversity of casework, as various styles of cases were tried. Although the front opening bezel did help as a means to keep cases together, the rear glasses are often missing from American miniatures of 1807-1840.

An unfortunate side effect of these make-do cases is that a high proportion of American miniatures from 1805-1820 have been re-framed. A far higher proportion have been rehoused compared to British made miniatures of the period. This can be demonstrated by referring to the Metropolitan Museum catalogue. In the Met catalogue among others, see 74, 121 (a make-do case), 126 (a make-do case), 129, 130, 131, 133, 148, 149, 151, 152, 156,158, 159, 165, also 187, 189, 190, 191, 193 and etc. which do not have their original frames, implying failure of the early cases.

A recent sale on eBay which was housed in one of these early cases, probably made around 1820, is shown here. This miniature attracted a premium on sale as it is clearly by an American artist and may even be attributable to a specific artist. Primitive or folk-art type American artists are often more popular than traditional artists, perhaps because those styles are distinctively American. The case has a front beaded bezel and original glass, and the rear aperture also is present and original. These are expensive to replace.

I have heard of dealers who rehouse American miniatures of this period, where there are incomplete make-do cases with missing parts, into newer cases, or instead use British cases from lower value miniatures of the period, to enhance the visual appeal and hence justify a higher selling price. This used to be a common practice in Europe, with one example being the Hapsburg Collection at the Albertina in Vienna, where all 580 miniatures are now housed in identical cases, but the case-making history of many of the miniatures has been lost. 

I cannot condone this, as the history of case-making in America and elsewhere is an important and overlooked aspect of miniature portrait history which far deserves more research. (In fact, it is an opportunity for someone, as at present it is effectively completely unresearched!) I therefore implore collectors of American miniatures in particular, to tell dealers when purchasing that they want American miniatures of the period to remain in their original cases, so that future study will remain possible. 1420


Anonymous said...

je pense qu'il s'agit bien d'une miniature d'artiste francais tant le style,que l'habillement ' pour memoire,je fus un de vos premiers vendeurs de miniatures,et je suis a present votre site avec beaucoup d'interet ,cordialement

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the case but this miniature is undoubtably painted by De Vallee'....

Don Shelton said...

Thank you to the visitor who advises the miniature is by De Vallee.
P.R Vallee or Jean-Francois de la Vallee was born in France and worked in the United States in 1790's-1828. Hence that fits with a French artist working in the United States during the Embargo period, who needed to commission a 'make-do' case to frame the portrait.

There is another miniature, signed by Vallee, in this collection, which is not as well painted.