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Mini Issue: Miniature Paintings


Published June 18, 2008 at 5:31 a.m.

Carol Norton’s paintings measure 1-and-a-half by 1-and-a-quarter inches. Christina Goodman’s range from about three-eighths of an inch to 3 inches. Both artists take the adjective “small-scale” to an extreme. Beyond that, they could hardly be more different.

Norton, a Burlington artist, creates tiny abstractions, attaches magnets to their backs, packages them in plastic capsules and dispenses them from a vending machine that’s ensconced at the Flynndog. Her “refrigerator art” sells for 50 cents a pop. “I started doing them a couple of years ago when my husband gave me a vending machine for my birthday,” explains Norton, whose other work is much larger and “based in realism.” But she likes the idea of “cheap art,” she says, and wanted to offer her own version. “You can’t beat 50 cents,” she surmises.

Meanwhile, the Grannis Gallery recently began carrying Goodman’s diminutive paintings on resin — her luminous, delicate Italian landscapes and bird portraits appear on necklaces, earrings, brooches and cufflinks. Goodman was born in Pisa, Italy; hence, presumably, her love of that country’s landscape, as well as of Renaissance-era gilding and frame designs, including octagons, triptychs and “tabernacles.” Raised and educated in various cities around the U.S., Goodman now lives in Alameda, California. The setting has failed to quench her obsession with European aesthetics some 400 years old.

With tiny brushes — sometimes just a few hairs — and a magnifier, Goodman applies acrylic paint to her “canvasses” to depict, say, a bluebird or a villa. She then constructs the Roman-inspired frames and paints them with gold leaf. The resulting jewelry looks like something the Medicis might have worn, but the prices — $225 to $425 at Grannis — underscore that gilded resin is way more affordable than solid gold.

Norton and Goodman are but two contemporary purveyors of an antique art form: the miniature painting. While Norton’s work might be called postmodern and even populist, Goodman’s approach stays true to its lineage of illuminated manuscripts, which inspired the tradition. (At least in Europe — the miniatures of Asian and Middle Eastern traditions are even older.) “In the 1520s, these small portraits evolved — mostly among the royal court,” explains Fleming Museum Curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. “The earliest ones were on vellum.”

Vellum, processed from animal hide, was thin and durable and held pigment well. But in the 1700s, an Italian painter named Rosalba Carriera discovered that ivory was even better, DeGalan notes. “It reflected the luminosity of human skin.” The use of ivory “spread like wildfire around Europe,” she goes on. “Almost all are watercolor — that’s why you can’t look at them very long.”

That light sensitivity may explain why the Fleming infrequently exhibits its miniature paintings — among them an oval portrait of George Washington that Margaret Tamulonis, manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the museum, calls “the prize in the collection.” Just over 2 inches high, the amazingly clear, highly detailed image was painted by John Ramage in 1789. The Fleming also owns oval portraits of Ira Allen and an unknown young lady from the early 19th century. Because of the easy-to-hold shape, Tamulonis says, these works were once called “palm portraits.”

But according to DeGalan, the miniature portraits ended up closer to the heart. At one time, artists were often goldsmiths as well, and paintings were incorporated into jewelry such as lockets. “They represent this sort of private love token,” she says. “Their size allows for a heightened form of intimacy.”