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John Henry Brown
(Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1818-1891, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Brown's prolific career illuminates the fate of antebellum miniaturists. He began an apprenticeship in 1836 to the painter Arthur Armstrong (1798-1851) while working as a clerk in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Recorder's Office. In 1839 Brown established himself as a professional portraitist and sign painter, but in 1844 began devoting himself exclusively to miniature painting, initially with enormous success. The following year he settled in Philadelphia, where he exhibited his miniatures frequently at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the Artists' Fund Society until 1864.

The humble artist often confided to his journal (Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) his astonishment at his backlog of commissions:

    I am blessed beyond my deserts [sic]. As an Artist I believe myself much overrated. My least price now is one hundred dollars for a picture, however small. I have at present, at least two years work engaged, and have within the last four months refused about a years work. If God continues my good health, I will have abundant cause, to be Grateful for many mercies.
Brown owed his popularity to an uncanny ability to imitate photography in his attention to detail and high degree of contrast, yet also to mimic oil painting in his brilliant, opaque colors and complex compositions, while remaining true to the miniature tradition in feeling and format. He embraced the new photographic medium by acknowledging his debt to daguerreotypes and later ambrotypes for many of his miniature portraits, including that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. His miniatures based on photographs were often posthumous portraits, reflecting the increased demand for mourning miniatures after mid-century. He painted for a broad clientele, including members of the established as well as new merchant elite.

In the 1860s, however, Brown's level of patronage began to decline. In his journal, he attributed his situation to the sense of impending war and the growing preference for photographic images. In October 1864, he joined the existing photography practice of Frederick August Wenderoth and William Curtis Taylor to form Wenderoth, Taylor, and Brown. The Philadelphia firm was one of the pioneers in addressing the public's desire for colored photographs. The enterprising Wenderoth introduced Ivorytypes, colored photographs on glass, to America in 1855. The firm also produced Opalotypes, photographic images on opaque white glass, which Brown then tinted with washes of color in imitation of portrait miniatures. The partners also offered their clientele a choice of media by advertising "Fine Photographs and Paintings of every Description."

In the 1870s, Brown rededicated himself to his career as a miniature painter, exhibiting at the National Academy and at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. For clients demanding both the traditional and contemporary, Brown's distinctive miniatures seamlessly combined the longevity of the miniature format, and its associations with social refinement, with the popular aesthetics of photography. Many miniaturists flirted with the profession of photographer; unlike Brown, few of them returned to limning in watercolor on ivory.

Click on an image below for more information on John Henry Brown's miniatures.

Catherine Bohlen (probably 1830-?)
November 1850

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