May - American additions to the collection

It is increasingly difficult to find affordable and interesting American miniature portraits to add to this collection.

Prices are rising, fewer miniatures are offered for sale, and there is much more competition than ever there used to be. Thus every month I expect a buying drought to commence!

However, this month there has been very considerable luck in being able to add three interesting American miniatures.

George M Miller.
Firstly, there is a wax miniature portrait of an unknown man dating from around 1795 and which has been attributed to George M Miller.

The profile is set on a black glass background. It is partly modelled in colored wax and partly in over-painted white wax.

Miller was an immigrant from Germany, changing his name from Mueller to Miller on arriving in the United States. He was a potter, stone-cutter, and modeller and worked in Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia, being active from 1790 to 1821.

Most early artists had to adopt a variety of trades, as work as a miniaturist was not easy to find. In 1790 the population of Philadelphia was 28,500 and only New York, Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore had populations over 10,000. In contrast London, England had a population of over one million in 1800.

For more about Miller and his wax miniatures see View

Daniel and Maria Louisa Wagner
Every now and again I feel compelled to clamber onto my soapbox about a particular miniature portrait. This one of an unknown lady, is just such an example.

It is very rare, being jointly signed by a brother and sister, Daniel Wagner (1802-1888) and Maria Lousia Wagner (1815-1888). It is 95mm x 77mm and is dated 1839.

The photos displayed here, while illustrating the skill of the artist, do not convey the depth of colors and the vibrancy of the miniature when viewed in the hand or under a magnifying glass.

I feel the actual painting skill is similar to that displayed by John Henry Brown. However Brown was trying to emulate photographs and his miniatures tend to be flat, whereas this miniature was painted just before the introduction of photography and has a depth to it that very few other miniature painters have equalled.

Maria is reported to have taken up miniature painting to support her crippled brother Daniel. At present I am unaware of any other jointly signed example. Even miniatures signed by them as individual artists are rare.

They were both born in the United States and appear to have mainly worked Chenango Valley, NY, Albany NY, NYC and died in Norwich NY in the same year.

I stepped into a hornet's nest the other day, by saying to a friend that I thought this miniature was better than any miniature by Justus DaLee or Mrs M B Russell, which I feel they just painted to simple commercial formulae.

Despite the high market prices obtained by miniatures by DaLee or Russell, I still hold to that view, even if such a stance categorises me as an ignoramus in respect of investment art!

The year 1839 that this miniature by Daniel and Maria Louisa Wagner was signed, is poignant in the history of miniature portraits, as it is the year before the introduction of daguerreotypes began to hit miniature painters like a tsunami.

Thus 1839 could be said to represent the high tide mark for American miniature painting. In my opinion this miniature portrait certainly deserves to be regarded as a worthy example to mark that high tide. For more about it see View

The Speed Family and Abraham Lincoln
The third miniature is by an unknown artist, but is of Judge John Speed (May 17 1772-Mar 30 1840), the father of Joshua Fry Speed (Nov 14 1814-May 29 1882) who was the great friend of Abraham Lincoln.

The miniature was acquired together with some other memorabilia shown here which is associated with the Speed Family and Abraham Lincoln.

Most miniatures of the more significant people from history are already lodged in public museums. Hence this was a fortunate acquisition.

Apart from being the father of Joshua Fry Speed, Judge John Speed was the builder and owner of the historic Farmington estate in Louisville, Kentucky which he built with his second wife Lucy Gilmer Speed in 1815/1816.

Farmington homestead was modelled on the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello and it is now completely preserved as a major tourist attraction in Louisville.

The miniature of Judge John Speed is housed in an octagonal brooch 43mm x 35mm. The rear of the case is engraved L G Speed for his wife Lucy Gilmer Speed. The miniature is thought to have been painted in 1840, shortly after Judge John Speed died.

For more about the family and their relationship with Lincoln see View

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