November 2012 - Original cost of miniature portraits

I was recently asked to write about how much it cost to have a miniature portrait painted in the 19C? The article appeared in Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine for October 2012 and is repeated here. The original article can be seen at where I said the answer to the cost is a bit like the fisherman's catch, it varied a great deal! It tended to be on a rising scale where the cost of the portrait rose with the stature of the artist and the depth of the client's pockets. We can leave on one side the question of family members who, as amateur artists, painted portraits of family members. Some of these were talented, but money did not enter into the equation.

Thus, at the bottom were the itinerant artists travelling through rural areas and small towns of America who would draw a profile portrait or a silhouette on paper in a few minutes for a few cents or a dollar. Few of these had any training as artists, and so developed their own readily recognisable and individual styles. The silhouettes would be in black and white only, but a profile might be colored and perhaps cost $5-$10. I do not know exactly how much they charged for their work, but American artists working in this manner included Justus DaLee (1793-1878), James Sanford Ellsworth (1802-1873), both of whom worked on paper and the British immigrant James H Gillespie (active 1793-1838) who also painted on ivory. Those of DaLee and Ellsworth are now advertised for prices in the range $2000-$5000. However, Gillespie portraits are more often in the range $750-$1250.

An interesting aside about such portraits is that despite being painted or drawn before the 1840 introduction of photography, they are sometimes inscribed as “taken at …. on … date”. Thus proving the term to “take a portrait” arose well before the introduction of the camera. From those artists the base prices rose. For the better quality artists, a portrait required several sittings, and as much skill and time as a large oil portrait. In some respects more so, as mistakes made while painting an oil could be painted over, whereas with a miniature painted in watercolor on ivory, a mistake took much more skill and time to remedy.

Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) was a member of the famous Peale family being the eldest son of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) who is famous for his miniatures of early Americans, which included one of George Washington in 1776. Although talented, Raphaelle did not have the dedication of his father. He was inclined to try out new techniques and in 1803 toured the South, taking with him a physiognotrace. With this newly invented device he could rapidly print small silhouette profiles on paper. He sold thousands, charging 25 cents for a set of four. But the novelty of the product quickly wore off and his success faded. An example of a physiognotrace of Colonel Joseph Shippen, but by another American artist, Louis Lemet (1779-1832), is shown here. Charles Saint-Memin was another artist who used this technique to create and reproduce miniature portraits. The painted miniature here of an unknown man is by Raphaelle Peale, but unfortunately shows signs of surface grime after 200 years.

Two of Raphaelle Peale's newspaper advertisements are also shown here. The first is from Poulson's Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, PA, of Saturday, Jan 10, 1801. In it; "Raphaelle Peale, Portrait Painter in miniature and large, Will deliver likenesses for a short time, Fashionably set in Gold, with platts and cyphers complete, for twenty five dollars; miniatures alone, ten dollars. No 28 Powell Street, which is between Spruce and Pine, and running from Fifth to Sixth Streets." The reference to platts and cyphers is to an ornate decoration on the reverse of plaited hair and a finely cut cypher of the sitter's initials. Thus the cost of a miniature in an ornate frame with hair on the reverse was $25, whereas the miniature itself was only $10.

The second is a front page advertisement from Poulson's American Daily Advertiser for November 5, 1821 and records: "RAPHAELLE PEALE - having returned to Philadelphia after an absence of 18 months, will paint portraits for a short time at the following prices - Portraits in oils, $20, in miniature on ivory, $15, profiles colored on Ivory Paper, 3, Likeness after death, $50 - fifteen or twenty minutes with the deceased is all the time necessary to obtain means of having a faithful likeness." This is also interesting in several respects; it indicates the charges made by Raphaelle Peale with a rise in his price from $10 to $15, shows he was painting miniatures much later than reference literature generally states, and refers to the practice of painting portraits of deceased persons after their death.

The better skilled artists had learned as apprentices and in the larger cities could earn a good living. John Wood Dodge (1807-1893) kept a detailed record book from 1828-1864 detailing 1100 miniatures, an average of two or three per month. In 1803 Anson Dickinson (1779-1852) charged $20-$25 per miniature and Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807) charged $50. Nathaniel Rogers (1787-1844) was another prolific artist who worked in the New York area. Generally artists charged more for a miniature with more than one sitter. Hence this miniature of three children by Nathaniel Rogers would have probably cost in the range $50-$100.

Although, painting a deceased person cannot have been pleasant, it seems that the artist was to some extent taking advantage of the bereaved relatives, who had to make up their minds very quickly. As death in childbirth was common in those days, many of the deceased he was asked to paint would have unfortunately died in childbirth. Later, after 1840, the urgency was slightly less as it was possible to take post mortem photographs, or base a miniature on an earlier daguerreotype if one was available. This example is by a French artist, Jean Decourcelle (1791-1857) and is a post-mortem miniature of a child painted in 1822.

dd The introduction of the daguerreotype with portraits costing perhaps a dollar or two, made it very difficult for artists to compete and most of them either gave up painting or switched to become photographers. There was an explosion of demand for likenesses due to such a lower cost, so that accurate likenesses were available to families who could not previously afford to pay for painted miniatures. Sadly, it was not realised that photographs would not last as long as miniatures on ivory. Hence, many daguerreotypes which must have seemed wonderful likenesses at the time, have since deteriorated from the effect of water and time on the residual chemicals remaining on the base portrait.

Few painters could survive the onslaught of photography. One who managed to hold out for many years was John Henry Brown (1818-1891). He concentrated on wealthy families who wanted color portraits, so he aimed to match the fine detail of photographs, but painted them in color. He became noted for his attention to detail, effectively an early form of photo-realism, but it took him a long time and many sittings to achieve the desired result. In 1860 he was charging an average of $180 for a portrait, and up to $280 for a portrait of two children. He painted several miniatures of deceased people from daguerreotypes during 1860 and charged less for them, $125-$155, presumably as in those instances the sitter was less likely to complain!

During the year 1860 Brown painted 20 miniatures, but it took him three weeks to paint a portrait. Brown's diary records the process on one portrait; “May 2, Had a Daguerreotype taken of Mrs Gen Cadwalader. On May 3, “Commenced Mrs Cadwalader's picture.” He then worked on it every day excluding Sundays and finished it on Saturday May 19. The lace-work on the miniature of Maria Charlotte Gouverneur Cadwalader shows why it took so long. The second miniature is another sitter Brown painted in that year, Mrs Emily Hinds, but the price and process was similar, although he must have been relieved not to need to paint her in lace in so much detail.

It is not easy to grasp the cost of miniatures expressed in 19C currency as, obviously, monetary values have changed a lot since 1821. To give some perspective to charges for painting a miniature, it is interesting to refer to page 158 of Bishop Davenport's "Gazetteer" published in 1832. This lists the pay per day for Senators and Representatives from each state of the then United States. Their pay ranged from $1.50 to $4.00 per day, with an apparent average of around $3.00 per day. Allowing for a little inflation between 1821 and 1832, it seems that a miniature on ivory costing $20 was therefore equivalent to about a week's remuneration for a Senator or Representative. According to Wikipedia, the 2006 base remuneration level for Senators and Representatives was $165,000 per year, which is a little over $3000 per week. Thus it can be seen that a miniature on ivory was an expensive item in 1821 and equivalent to around $3000 now, even before the cost of the frame.

The frame could more than double the cost. In 1801 Raphaelle Peale had charged $10 for a miniature unframed and $25 in an ornate frame with hair on the reverse. Reproduction frames can now cost around $500, but without hair decoration on the reverse. Later American frames of 1830-1850 were made with very small rear windows on the reverse, presumably to keep the cost of hair-work to a minimum. Thus inclusive of a reasonably ornate frame, although not one of those with hair decoration on the reverse, one can say that the cost of a miniature on ivory, painted in 1820 for $15 by Raphaelle Peale, was equivalent to around $3,000-$4,000 in today's money. However, given his charge of $50, a likeness painted of a deceased person was more expensive, equivalent to over $5,000 in today's money.

Compared to that, modern prices are not expensive for such a permanent heirloom. The modern miniature painter, Wes Siegrist advises that “professional modern miniature painters will typically charge more for human portraits due to time and complexity. Their reputation will factor into it as well. I'm not familiar with everyone's specific prices but I would guess that $500 would be on the low end and $2000 the high end for a commission, perhaps even higher at retail. Most commissions will be $1200 or less. Prices may include framing but double check”.

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