Van Gogh •
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Nicholas Hilliard, court miniaturist and engraver, was born in Exeter, the younger son of
Richard Hilliard, high-sheriff of Devon in 1560, and of a London goldsmith's daughter.
Whether he received his early training as a goldsmith and jeweler in Exeter or in London is uncertain, as is the date when he took up his preferred art of miniature painting. Hilliard worked, not on ivory, as is more conventional, but on greeting cards, chicken skin, and even the backs of playing cards. He learned minuteness of detail and even lighting from the works of Holbein. His appreciation of nature and elongation of form derive, however, from the School of Fountainebleau and are the result, most probably, of a visit to France in 1578 in the service of the Duke of Alencon. Although some scholars claim that Hilliard's portrayals of French personalities may be based on chalk portraits he had viewed in London we can assume that his contact was more direct, for example, Hilliard himself states that he heard the poet Ronsard.
This incident is recounted in Hilliard's "Treatise on the Art of Linning" (ca. 1600), a work in which he describes his own engaging personality and discusses his technique of miniature painting. In this work he recommends painting in the open air to avoid shadows, evidence of his desire for luminosity, transparency, and simplicity. The first native-born English artist to acquire a reputation that has withstood the test of time, Hilliard was, by 1590, sculptor and court painter to Queen Elizabeth I for whom he engraved the Great Seal of England in 1587. In 1603, James I granted him, by letters patent, the exclusive privilege to "mint, make grave, and imprint any pictures of our image or our royal family." Lawrence Hilliard, his son and pupil, enjoyed this patent after the death of his father until it expired. It was Isaac Oliver, however, who was Hilliard's most noted pupil and the man who showed the same wistful, tender lyricism. Representative of his period, the delicate sensibility of Elizabethan poetry and music is also the most characteristic feature of the art of Nicholas Hilliard.