A cabinet painting (or "cabinet picture") is a small painting, typically no larger than about two feet in either dimension, but often much smaller. The term is especially used of paintings that show full-length figures at a small scale, as opposed to say a head painted nearly life-size, and that are painted very precisely, with a great degree of "finish". From the fifteenth century onwards wealthy collectors of art would keep such paintings in a cabinet, a relatively small and private room (often very small indeed, even in a very large house), to which only those with whom they were on especially intimate terms would be admitted.
This room might be used as a study or office, or just a sitting room. Heating the main rooms in large palaces or mansions in the winter was difficult, and small rooms were more comfortable. They also offered more privacy from servants or other household members or visitors. Typically, such a room would be for the use of a single individual, so that a house might have at least two (his and hers) and often more. Names varied: cabinet, closet, study (from the Italian studiolo), office and others.
Later such paintings might be housed in a display case, which might also be called a cabinet, but the term cabinet arose from the name (originally in Italian) of the room, not the piece of furniture. Other small precious objects, including miniature paintings, "curiosities" of all sorts (see cabinet of curiosities), old master prints, books, small sculptures and so on, might also be in the room.
There is a rare surviving cabinet with its contents probably little changed since the early eighteenth century at Ham House in Richmond, London. It is less than ten feet square, and leads off from the Long Gallery, which is well over a hundred feet long by about twenty wide, giving a rather startling change in scale and atmosphere. As is often the case, it has an excellent view of the front entrance to the house, so that comings and going can be observed. Most surviving large houses or palaces, especially from before 1700, have such rooms, but they are very often not displayed to visitors.
There was an equivalent type of small sculpture, usually bronzes, of which the leading exponent in the late Renaissance was Giambologna who produced sizeable editions of reduced versions of his large works, and also made many only in small scale. These were designed to be picked up and handled, even fondled. Small antiquities were also very commonly displayed in such rooms, including coins.
Small paintings have been produced at all periods of Western art, but some periods and artists are especially noticeable for them. Raphael produced many cabinet paintings, and all the paintings of the important German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610) could be so described. The works of these two were much copied. The Dutch artists of the seventeenth century had an enormous output of small paintings. The painters of the Leiden School were especially noted "Fijnschilders" – "fine painters" producing highly finished small works. Watteau, Fragonard and other French 18th-century artists produced many small works, generally emphasizing spirit and atmosphere rather than a detailed finish. The term is not as common as it was in the 19th century, but remains in use among art historians.
A "cabinet miniature" is a larger portrait miniature, usually full-length and typically up to about ten inches high. These were first painted in England, from the end of the 1580s, initially by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.
In 1991, an exhibition entitled "Cabinet Painting" toured London, Hove Museum and Art Gallery and Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea. It included more than sixty cabinet paintings by contemporary artists.
- Although up to four feet in each dimension could still qualify; see the Metropolitan Rubens.
- Rubens from Metropolitan New York
- Metropolitan Timeline of Art History
- Strong, Roy: Artists of the Tudor Court: The Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620, Victoria & Albert Museum exhibit catalogue, 1983, pp. 156-67, ISBN 0-905209-34-6