May 5, 2007

Nicholas Hilliard, Royal Artist

On May 5th in 1617, Nicholas Hilliard was officially named English Royal Artist by King James I. This was an appointment which gave him sole license to paint the royal family for a period of twelve years.

Hilliard was a miniature painter, and probably the best known and most respected of his time. He was born in 1547, in Exeter, England, the son a goldsmith. His early training was as a jeweler.

Miniature painting was an important art in 16th and 17th century Europe. Miniature portraits were particularly important to noble and royal families, as marriages were often arranged without the principals ever setting eyes on each other prior to the wedding. Hilliard's served both Elizabeth I and James I, as well as painting for noble families and the affluent merchant class throughout England and France.

Miniature painting was painstaking, meticulous work, and Hilliard's early training as a jeweler and his attention to detail served him well. He avoided the use of shadows to create a sense of depth in his portraits, not only because of his personal preference, but because it was a preference shared by Elizabeth. " For the lyne without shadows," she wrote, "showeth all to good jugment, but the shadowe without lyne showeth nothing."

Hilliard's work is valued because he was particularly adept at expressing the individuality of the subject. Hilliard was also well-known for his depiction of jewels. To recreate the luminescence of pearls, he topped the white paint with a tiny drop of real silver, which he then burnished with the tooth of a ferret or other wild beast. His rubies were created by an application of red resin over a bed of silver. Sadly, silver tarnishes over time, and today his pearls appear black.

The best-known contemporary work on the art of Elizabethan miniature painting is the treatise, The Arte of Limning, was probably written by Hilliard, or, if not, was certainly based on his instruction to his pupils. It was written in about 1600, but was not commercially published in 1912. Limning was an earlier term for the art of miniature-painting, and was derived from the Latin luminare, "to illuminate". The art was derived from the fine detail work used in the illuminated manuscripts, which were also painted in vellum. In about the 16th century, the term "miniature" began to be used in England. Interestingly, the word was not used because the work is small, but is derived from the Italian word for illumination, miniatura, from the Latin minim, meaning "red lead" (a significant ingredient of the paints used in illuminated manuscripts).

Elizabeth I was a frequent subject of Hilliard's. She liked to give the miniature portraits of herself as gifts to favorite subjects. Unfortunately for the recipient, the portraits were often given without a display case. The creation of a bejeweled case for the portrait was often a bigger expense than the portrait itself!

Besides Elizabeth, Hilliard painted miniature portraits of James I, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Philip Sidney, as well as self-portraits, and portaits of his wife. The biggest collection of Hilliard miniatures today is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Photo: Nicholas Hilliard, Self Portrait, Public Domain

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