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.
artist often confided to his journal (Rosenbach Museum and Library,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) his astonishment at his backlog of
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.
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."
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.