Dating the Portrait Miniature

To determine when an artwork was created – in this case, the portrait miniature — we analyze and compare clothing and hairstyles with fashion plates, photographs and other portraits with known dates.  Surprisingly, men’s clothing is usually easier to date than women’s. Men who commission portraits pay close attention to collar height, tie width, and suit cut.  Such details can date a portrait precisely.

Men’s clothing changed dramatically in the ten decades of the 19th century, evolving from  leggings with tights, colorful jackets and vests to a semblance of the business suit worn throughout the 20th century. The transition began in the mid-1840s.  The change was subtle and slow but clearly visible by the early 1850s.

The dates previously suggested to the owner by experts in miniatures were 1835 to 1850 – just before and during the transitional period.  We studied dozens of fashion plates for those years but all proved useless. The subject of the portrait miniature was not a fashionable man.  For the sitter’s general style, we found the best fit in portraits: in George Caleb Bingham’s William Curtis Skinner, 1836, and John Vanderlyn’s Francis Lucas Waddell, circa 1837,  Collar height was higher in those years, but the similarities gave us pause. No waistcoat, loose clothing. That was how a man would dress on a hot day. The years might be different, but the season was the same – summer.

We still needed to pin down the date with photographs and portraits. Our comparative criteria were limited by the head and shoulders pose to:

  1. Height of the jacket collar
  2. Height of the shirt collar
  3. Width of the neckerchief
  4. Curled hairstyle
  5. Lack of facial hair

We compiled an array of images by year and compared each year’s array with the portrait miniature. We created an evaluation tool, a score and a percentage.

After examining literally hundreds of images, we found the best fit in the years 1840-1842.

Now we knew the date was summer 1840-1842. Who was the artist? (To be continued.)

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2013
All Rights Reserved

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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