Friday, March 1, 2019

Women's History Month: An unknown portrait miniaturist painted by Jean Baptiste Soyer

Women's History Month: A month celebrating women of history! I will be posting media and book recommendations, highlighting women from (mostly) the 18th century, and otherwise sharing content with an emphasis on women in history.

 [image credit: Sotheby’s, via Invaluable]

Her gown is made from vibrant deep blue fabric. She sits at work desk with molded details around the sides and a stand for working. The chair behind her is plush with fabric and further molded details. She sits, smiling, pausing in her work on a portrait miniature of a young man. That is all we know about this portrait of an unknown woman by Jean Baptiste Soyer. Her name is lost to history, like countless men and women whose portraits are now scattered among private collections and museums, to be displayed and enjoyed by a rotating list of new owners.

This particular miniature was part of the renowned portrait miniature collection of the late Erika Pohl-Ströher, a German executive and heiress whose personal collection included a vast number of miniatures from some of Europe's most well-known artists. Unfortunately, the exact provenance of this miniature is unknown--perhaps it may have shed some light on the sitter in this unassuming yet memorable portrait.

Jean-Baptiste Soyer may not be a household name, but he was one of the many prolific portrait miniature painters active in the 18th century. He was aptly described by T. Jaegy and T. Theoleyre in their their landmark (French only) published study of his work as the "painter of the smile." The description is more than deserved: even a quick glance at his many existing miniatures shows countless relaxed and joyful faces.

Who was the woman in this miniature? Was she one of the many women artists who worked for artist's houses, producing miniatures on demand under the watchful eye of older (and usually, male) artists? Did she paint miniature portraits to supplement her family's income, or bring in money that could be her own? Or was miniature painting a hobby she enjoyed, something to occupy hours of free time in a leisurely household? We will likely never know. But this portrait, at least, keeps a small memory of her alive--with a smile, a deep blue gown, and a paintbrush in hand.

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