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IMG_5625Some of you may recall that I am a recovering artist with a fairly constant need to keep my hands busy. To encourage industry and the domestic arts, and to keep me out of trouble generally, a thoughtful friend provided me with a start to furnishing an early nineteenth century-style paint box. They’re hard to come by, these paint boxes, and extant examples fetch far more than we can afford chez Calash, being in somewhat reduced circumstances of late.

Thomas Reeves & Son Artists watercolor paint box c. 1784 to 1794. Whimsie Virtual Museum of Watercolor Materials

Thomas Reeves & Son
Artists watercolor paint box c. 1784 to 1794. Whimsie Virtual Museum of Watercolor Materials

Researching paint boxes and miniature painting in the early Federal era has been a happy fall down a deep rabbit hole. It’s clear that Reeves watercolors were being sold in Providence in the early 19th century; Peter Grinnell & Sons include “Reeves watercolor boxes” among the extensive list of items for sale in an 1809 newspaper ad. Frames and cases were also to be had; John Jenckes, gold and silver-smith and jeweler, advertised gold miniature cases in 1800.

Distraction is always easy to come by, tunnels leading from main entrance to the warren. Painting manuals, scholarly articles, and extant examples, which prove most distracting of all. SO shiny.

George Catlin Artist: John Wood Dodge (1807–1893) Date: 1835 Medium: Watercolor on ivory Dimensions: 2 3/16 x 1 13/16 in. (5.6 x 4.6 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1926 Accession Number: 26.47

George Catlin byJohn Wood Dodge, 1835, MMA 26.47

Searching the Met’s collection, I found a portrait of George Catlin, remarkably similar in pose to an image of a friend I considered copying, but had thought too modern. My assumption has been proved wrong, and I am delighted. And then I found the HIDEOUS checked neck wear, always distracting. Historic New England provided super-tiny-bowtie man, and then I really had to focus, since I’m only enabling, not making, neck wear.

My real focus, of course, is on female miniaturists, especially in Rhode Island (gallery of RI miniatures can be found here.) From the scant number of women I’ve found advertising in the local papers, (okay, two: Miss Mary R. Smith, in 1820, and Mrs Partridge in 1829) I’ll have to expand my search geographically. Nantucket Historical Association had an image attributed to Anna Swain, and ten attributed to Sally Gardner.


The Met, repository of so many wonders, has works by six women miniaturists, including Sarah “Wowza” Goodridge and Anna Claypoole Peale. For all we know, some of the works by unidentified makers might be the work of female painters. The extant miniatures in all collections, range in quality from excellent to amateur, giving hope to those of us unpracticed in portraiture, and regaining our hand.