This portrait takes full advantage of the brilliancy one could achieve in enamel on copper. Practicing techniques extremely difficult to master, enamel miniaturists painted with glass particles on a copper plate, then fused these bits of color to the plate. This miniature’s luminosity, the lights and shadows of the animated clouds, and the vibrancy of the uniform showcase the enamellist’s art.
A native of England, William Russell Birch perfected the demanding art of enamel miniature form at home before bringing it with him to Philadelphia, where he moved in 1794. Birch is perhaps best known today for his sixty enamel portraits of George Washington—executed after Gilbert Stuart’s famous paintings—that met the enormous demand for likenesses of the first president.
Although most miniatures were personal in nature, possession of a jewel-like portrait of a Washington or Decatur was a symbol of allegiance and veneration. This enamel of the U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur, Jr., may have been both personal and political, commissioned by an admiring colleague. Decatur was a twenty-eight-year-old superstar, celebrated for his audacious exploits in the Tripolitan War. Birch based this portrait on another miniature, a work in watercolor on ivory by the Italian painter Olivio Sozzi that is quite dry and stiff by comparison.