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ohn Ramage (1748–1802), artist and goldsmith, was accused of many things, fast living and bigamy among them. He was undeniably an enormously colorful character. Described by fellow miniaturist William Dunlap as dressing “beauishly” in “scarlet coat with mother-of-pearl buttons—a white silk waistcoat embroidered with colored flowers…,” Ramage depicted his sitters in exactly the same manner.

Fig. 1: Portrait of George Washington, miniature and gold case by John Ramage (1748–1802), American, 1796. Watercolor on ivory. 2 1/16 x 1 3/8 inches. Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; bequest of Charles Allen Munn.

Ramage arrived in the New World from Dublin, Ireland, on the eve of the Revolution. Moving from Nova Scotia to Boston in 1775, seeking commissions as a miniaturist and goldsmith, he remained only a year before returning to Halifax with a regiment of Loyalist Irish merchants.

In that short span of time, however, his influence was enormous, introducing a style of miniature casework previously unknown in the Colonies.

Fig. 2: Reverse of gold miniature case by the Buck Family, Cork, Ireland, ca. 1785. 3 1/4 inches. Courtesy, Elle Shushan.

Ramage came to broad fame in British-occupied New York after his return to the Colonies in 1777. He served the British officers in the same artist-in-residence capacity in which Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) catered to the leaders of the Continental army. Such was the quality of his tiny portraits, however, that Ramage rose above mere political differences. When the first president required a miniature to document his inauguration in 1789, Washington honored Loyalist John Ramage [Fig. 1].

Fig. 4: Portrait miniature of Captain Jasper Ely Cropsy, Ebenezer Mack (active 1785–1808), American, ca. 1795–1800. Watercolor on ivory. 29/16 inches. Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; purchase through gifts of Mary Knight Arnold and funds from various donors.

Before Ramage’s arrival, even indigenous artist John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) had set his brilliant diminutive portraits of the Tory aristocracy in plain gold pendant cases. Ramage brought with him fluted and scalloped inner mats, brightwork engraving, and bullet borders, all commonly used in the Irish gold casework of the period [Fig. 2] and very quickly adopted by every level of American goldsmith.

The bullet borders, commonly called “Revere-type” cases, remained in the Boston area [Fig. 3]. The scallops and brightwork embellishments became fashionable along the eastern seaboard, preferred by goldsmiths for miniaturists Ebenezer Mack [Fig. 4] and Archibald Robertson in New York, James Peale in Philadelphia, and Lawrence Sully in Virginia. These jewel-like touches [Fig. 5] remained in fashion until after Ramage’s death.
Fig. 3: Reverse of gold case for miniature of Mary Gould Almy by E. G. Malbone, Boston, circa 1797. 21 1/16 inches. Courtesy, Elle Shushan.

The new aristocracy of the young country rushed to have their miniature painted by John Ramage and set in his precious cases. Anthony Rutgers, George Clinton, and Elbridge Gerry were all memorialized in Ramage’s rich color palate, opting for his fluted and chased gold settings [Fig. 6]. In an effort to cater to a wide variety of tastes, Ramage also imported cases from England, advertising at the height of his fame in 1784, that he had “received from London…the greatest variety of settings for pictures that ever appeared in America…set round with pearl, paist [sic] and garnet… directly from the manufacturers,…will dispose of them at 25 per cent less than any of the articles can be sold for in this City.” He gave New York not only the wholesale bargain that shoppers have traditionally demanded, but the variety not easily found in postwar America.

Fig. 6a & 6b: Portrait miniature of Elbridge Gerry, signer of the Declaration, vice president of the United States, miniature and gold bracelet case by John Ramage (1748–1802), ca. 1790. 1 3/4 inches.
Courtesy, Elle Shushan.

Unfortunately, Ramage’s star fell quickly after the pinnacle of the presidential commission. Debtor’s prison loomed large, forcing him to leave his third (or possibly fourth) wife behind and flee to Montreal in 1794. There, although ailing, he continued to paint until his death in 1802.

Fig. 5: Reverse of gold case for miniature
by Pierre Henri, Philadelphia, Penn. dated 1804.
3 1/4 inches. Courtesy, Elle Shushan.

Additional reading
Morgan, J. H. A Sketch of the Life of John Ramage, Miniature Painter. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1930.

Johnson, D. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection. New York: Abrams, 1990.

Verplanck, A. “John Ramage,” Garraty et al., eds. American National Biography. North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dunlap, W. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. New York: George P. Scott & Co., 1934.

Elle Shushan is an author, lecturer, and dealer in portrait miniatures.

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