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What is a Limner?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon993744 — On Dec 10, 2015

Also thanks. I needed this. I was doing art on a homeschool website. Limners sound super cool. I would love to be able to draw well! The painting that I saw in one of the pictures, is that they tend to be more realistic, as the colors blend in with each other.

By anon924742 — On Jan 07, 2014

Thanks. I needed this info for a project at school.

By Jacques6 — On Sep 14, 2011

@StarJo - I noticed that most of the subjects heads are over sized. The pictures with children in particular are really bad about it. Their faces are weird and their legs tend to be too short. I'm not much of an artist either, but there are glaringly obvious mistakes.

It's funny that all of the pictures tend toward the same look, even if they were by completely different people. I guess since only some limners learned about perspective -- it was just hit or miss if they got it right.

There are lots of limners that became famous too. Gilbert Stuart started out as a limber and he's the guy that painted George Washington's portrait. You can see the awkward faces in some of his earlier work. He got good enough that Chinese painters got a hold of his work and copied it.

By StarJo — On Sep 14, 2011

I have seen some portrait paintings by limners in a museum. While some of the details are very good, something just seems off about the faces.

They did a great job with the background and with blending the colors to create shadows. Certain aspects of the paintings are very realistic. However, the faces jump out at you. They seem almost cartoonistic in their expressions.

It’s a strange thing, because the facial features and details are all there. Something just makes the face pop out and clash with the rest of the painting.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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