A limner is simply an artist or painter, although the term has come to be used specifically in reference to painters in the North American colonies who worked during the 18th and 19th centuries. Limners were often anonymous, traveling from town to town in search of work, and these artists collectively created a large body of work of varying quality. Examples of work by limners can sometimes be seen in museums, especially in North America, and work also shows up in antique stores and private collections of historical items.
The word “limner” is derived from “illustrator,” and originally it was used to refer to the people who illuminated manuscripts of books with rich colors and detailed paintings. The term was also used more generically to discuss painters in general, and over time "limner" was adopted to describe the largely uneducated painters who populated the American colonies.
A limner essentially taught himself the fundamentals of painting, and rarely turned down commissions for work. The art of limners adorns clock faces, fire screens, indoor murals, and signs, for example. Limners also of course produced paintings on canvas, often portraits of the prominent people in a town or city. Such portraits typically included a background which was meant to imply wealth and erudition, and they were hung in offices, boardrooms, and so forth.
The work of 18th and 19th century American limners has several distinctive characteristics which make it easy to recognize. The first is a flattened look with imperfect perspective. Figures tend to be painted in frontal positions, and they often have ornate garments which are clearly inspired by the work of prominent European painters. Indeed, many limners closely copied more famous prints and works of art, demonstrating various degrees of proficiency.
Many of the people in portraits by limners look awkward and stiff, and despite their dreams of grandeur, some are not recognizable today. Truly prominent people would have had access to trained and skilled portrait painters. Some limners actually did go on to become prominent and respected painters, developing superb and notable self-taught skills.
In the older sense of limner as a trained and skilled painter or illustrator, limners were often famed for their delicate and detailed miniature portraits. They also “limned” famous manuscripts and books, adding lush colored details and accents in gold leaf and other precious materials. Such limners worked from around 15th century to the early 18th century, and their incredibly detailed and rich work is on display in many museums around the world.