Horatio Walker, Posthumous Portrait of Alice Walker, circa 1891. Collection of Library and Archives Canada.

I Know You By Heart: Portrait Miniatures

March 22 to June 2, 2013

I Know You By Heart is an intimate exhibition of 35 portrait miniatures from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. The works are from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, which holds more than 100 portrait miniatures. The portraits are primarily of Canadian subjects, including well-known figures from history, and lesser-known individuals. The works are mainly in watercolour and gouache, and most are painted on ivory.

General Lord William Howe, Mohawk Chief Major John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen), and Demasduit, one of the last Beothuks of Newfoundland, are amongst those whose portraits are featured in the exhibition. Canadian artist Horatio Walker (1858 – 1938) is represented in the show, along with the American artist James Peale, the British artist Lady Henrietta Martha Hamilton, and many other respected artists, along with several whose identities remain unknown.

Portrait miniatures hold a special place of interest within the field of portraiture. The genre began to flourish in 16th-century Europe, and the art was practised most extensively during the 17th and 18th centuries. Portrait miniatures were especially valuable in introducing people to each other over distances; a nobleman proposing the marriage of his daughter might send a courier with her portrait to visit potential suitors. Soldiers and sailors might carry miniatures of their loved ones while travelling, or a wife might keep one of her husband while he was away.

The first miniaturists used watercolour to paint on stretched vellum. During the second half of the 17th century, vitreous enamel painted on copper became increasingly popular. In the 18th century, miniatures were painted with watercolour on ivory. These portable and private treasures were often used as personal mementos or as jewelry or snuffbox covers. They marked a separation from a loved one or the anticipation of meeting again.

The advent of photography signalled the end of this long-established art form, as photographic portraits became more economical and widely available. Although the medium of remembrance was altered, the desire to continue some semblance of it remains today.

I Know You By Heart: Portrait Miniatures is curated by Johanna Mizgala.