A limner is simply an artist or painter, though the term has come to be associated with painters who worked in the North American colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Limners were often anonymous, traveling from town to town looking for work, and they produced a large body of work of varying quality. Limners’ work can occasionally be found in museums, particularly in North America, as well as in antique stores and private collections of historical items.
The word “limner” comes from the word “illustrator,” and it was originally used to describe people who used rich colors and detailed paintings to illuminate manuscripts of books. The term was also used more broadly to refer to painters in general, and the term “limner” came to be associated with the largely uneducated painters who populated the American colonies over time.
A limner essentially taught himself how to paint from the ground up, and he rarely turned down work commissions. Clock faces, fire screens, indoor murals, and signs, for example, feature limners’ art. Paintings on canvas, often portraits of prominent people in a town or city, were also produced Limners. These portraits were typically hung in offices, boardrooms, and other places with a background intended to imply wealth and erudition.
The work of American limners in the 18th and 19th centuries has several distinguishing characteristics that make it easy to identify. The first is a distorted perspective with a flattened appearance. Figures are frequently painted in frontal positions, with ornate garments clearly inspired the work of prominent European painters. Many limners, in fact, meticulously copied more famous prints and works of art, demonstrating varying levels of skill.
Many of the people in limners’ portraits appear awkward and stiff, and some are unrecognizable today despite their dreams of grandeur. Portrait painters who were trained and skilled would have been available to truly prominent people. Some limners went on to become well-known and respected painters, thanks to their exceptional self-taught abilities.
Limners were known for their delicate and detailed miniature portraits in the older sense of limner as a trained and skilled painter or illustrator. They also “limned” famous manuscripts and books, adding rich colored details and gold leaf and other precious materials as accents. These limners worked from the mid-fifteenth century to the early-eighteenth century, and their incredibly detailed and rich work can be found in museums all over the world.