The English painter Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547-1619) executed miniature portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, set in jeweled lockets, that are the most original and characteristic pictures painted in England in the late 16th century.
Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter. His father was a goldsmith, and Nicholas was apprenticed to a goldsmith by 1562. About 1570 he entered the royal service as limner (miniature painter) and goldsmith, in which capacity he designed the Second Great Seal of the Kingdom.
Hilliard's earliest surviving miniatures, painted when he was 13, are reminiscent of the little round portraits decorating the illuminated manuscript Commentairs de la Guerre Gallique (ca. 1519). They also resemble the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, who had produced superb miniatures in London before 1543. "Holbein's manner of limning I have ever imitated, " wrote Hilliard. But he defined eyes, lips, curls, and lace with needlesharp precision, creating a brittle arabesque that distinguishes his style from the broader approach of Holbein.
In 1572 Hilliard painted his first dated portrait of Queen Elizabeth. One of his finest miniatures, it marks the arrival of the Elizabethan costume piece, that curiously insular product of a court by now culturally as well as politically isolated from Catholic Europe. The Queen is shown half-length, wearing a typically elaborate black dress with white embroidered sleeves and a small frill ruff, with a white rose pinned to her shoulder. Brightly colored and evenly lit, with gold lettering surrounding the head over a blue background, the miniature is painted in watercolor on the back of a playing card, the queen of hearts.
In 1576 Hilliard went to France, where, in the service of the Duc d'Alençon, he was in close touch with the French court. One of Hilliard's best-known works, the Youth among Roses (ca. 1588), seems to echo in microcosm the courtly and artificial world of Shakespeare's early comedies.
About 1600 Hilliard wrote the Treatise concerning the Art of Limning (published 1911-1912), partly consisting of technical hints and partly a theoretical treatise deriving from Italian mannerist art theory. At that time painters in England were still looked upon as craftsmen, and Hilliard insists on their status as practitioners of a liberal art. "None should meddle with limning, " he writes, "but gentlemen alone." He goes on to record conversations with the Queen on portrait painting, which, they agree, is "best in plain lines without shadowing."
After Elizabeth's death in 1603 Hilliard worked for James I. But by this time his style was going out of fashion, to be superseded by the shadowed and more realistic approach of his pupil Isaac Oliver.
Erna Auerbach, Nicholas Hilliard (1961), is the standard monograph and has a full bibliography. Other relevant documents are in Auerbach's Tudor Artists (1954).