The Nymph

Laura Coombs Hills (American, 1859–1952)


14.6 x 11.43 cm (5 3/4 x 4 1/2 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Watercolor on ivory

Not On View





Laura Coombs Hills began her art education under the influence of William Morris Hunt [] and his student Helen Knowlton [18.403], who had continued his classes after his death in 1879. Hills’s earliest known works are anonymous landscapes of the marshes and dunes near her native Newburyport, loosely rendered after the manner of her teachers with special attention given to light and atmosphere. In 1893, during a trip to England, she first saw modern artists making miniatures in watercolor on ivory, a medium that had been popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The technique, used mostly for intimate and transportable portraits of family, had all but disappeared after the invention of photography in 1839. Like many handcrafts that had almost vanished with the industrial age, it was revived during the late nineteenth century. Hills, who had always enjoyed making tiny drawings and decorations, became fascinated with miniature painting and was one of the leaders in the art’s rebirth in the United States.
The Nymph, like most revival miniatures, is much larger in scale and looser in handling than its eighteenth-century predecessors [35.1850]. Hills used an oval piece of specially prepared ivory and a tiny brush, employing traditional techniques to render her model’s face realistically with minute strokes of watercolor. In the rest of the picture, however, Hills allowed herself considerable freedom, using layers of freely brushed colors to indicate the girl’s diaphanous gown and to decorate the background. The effect is opalescent and dazzling, like a precious jewel.

Hills made figure compositions like The Nymph for exhibition and display. They were immensely popular and sold very well, enabling her to build her own house and studio in Newburyport. They also inspired many Bostonians to commission portrait miniatures from Hills. She made over three hundred miniatures during her career, although after 1910 she began to earn even more acclaim for her delicate pastel still lifes of flowers [26.240]. Hills was one of Boston’s most popular painters and she held annual exhibitions of her work until she was eighty-eight years old.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


1908, the artist; 1926, sold by the artist to the MFA for $800. (Accession Date: February 11, 1926)

Credit Line

Abbott Lawrence Fund