From Colonial to Contemporary, the Gibbes reveals the story of Charleston through the art.
The first American miniature portraits were painted in Charleston, and today the Gibbes is home to one of the most prestigious portrait miniature collections in the United States. Containing more than six hundred objects, the collection spans nearly two hundred years and represents the work of over a hundred artists.
Early miniature portrait painting evolved from medieval manuscript illuminations and classical portrait medallions from Ancient Greece and Rome. They became especially popular during the sixteenth-century reign of Elizabeth I of England and the popularity of these mementos spread from the court down to wealthy merchants. Originally painted on pieces of card or vellum (paper-like calfskin), ivory became the medium of choice around 1700. Ivory lent a natural luminescence to the paintings that made the sitter’s skin glow. This new medium allowed artists to create images of greater elegance and refinement than possible on vellum. European settlers brought miniature portraits with them to colonial America. Colonists continued to desire miniatures and therefore turned to local artists. In contrast to European miniatures, characterized by a romantic and idealized style, early American miniatures are simple and more “realistic,” such as the circa 1740s image by Mary Roberts, America’s first woman miniaturist.
The Gibbes collection includes works by major American easel painters such as John Trumbull, Henry Benbridge, Charles Willson Peale, and Thomas Sully, as well as an exceptional inventory of works by notable miniature portrait specialists such as Mary Roberts, Edward Greene Malbone, and Charles Fraser. The Gibbes collection also contains important examples of American sitters painted abroad by British miniaturists such as John Smart and George Engleheart, and at home by significant French émigrés including Pierre Henri and Louis Antoine Collas who came to the United States for patronage.