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A Portrait Miniature of William Henry Bruce Painted by Charles Willson Peale

In eighteenth-century America, portrait miniatures were intimate keepsakes intended for the sitters' loved ones. They often marked important milestones in life, including marriage, absence due to war, and death. During the Revolutionary War, officers with the means to pay for a portrait commissioned miniatures of themselves to send to a loved one as a memento of their personal attachment during a dangerous time. Capt. William Henry Bruce (1752-1825), who served with the Maryland Continental Line, was one of these officers. His portrait miniature, painted by the American master Charles Willson Peale sometime between 1776 and 1780, was donated to the Society in 2010—the fifth portrait miniature by that artist in the museum collections.

Previously unknown to scholars, Captain Bruce's portrait miniature was in family hands until its donation by his great-great-great granddaughter. It had descended in a prominent Maryland family that includes Henry C. Bruce (1801-1842), the captain's son and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, and Francis Burgess Bruce (1863-1944), the captain's great grandson and a member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland. This miniature is the only known likeness of Captain Bruce.

The portrait miniature depicts a youthful-looking William Henry Bruce in the uniform of an infantry officer in the Maryland Continental Line, with a blue coat with red facings, red epaulets edged in silver lace, silver buttons, and a white waistcoat and stock. His face and hair would not originally have had the bluish tone they do today, which is the result of the loss over time of a certain pigment—a characteristic found on numerous other Peale miniatures. Painted in watercolor on a thin oval piece of ivory, the portrait is encased behind glass in a gilt metal pendant, which could have been worn by a woman on a ribbon, strand of pearls, or gold chain. The back has woven hair underneath glass—a common feature of eighteenth-century miniatures. The locket and hair reinforce the portrait's intimacy.

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