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Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America

September 12, 2012 - January 13, 2013


"Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America" is the most comprehensive museum presentation to focus on this under-recognized decorative art that was widely practiced in America -- primarily by women -- from 1850 to 1890. The exhibition was organized in response to the gift of a major private collection; one of the show's great revelations is the way that this modest technique touched upon so many aspects of American life, innovation, and culture.

Tinsel paintings are reverse paintings on glass with crumpled or smooth metallic foil applied behind translucent and transparent areas. When viewed in candlelight or gaslight, the effect is one of shimmering highlights. In the first half of the nineteenth century, tinsel painting was taught to young women whose parents were dedicated to providing refined education for their daughters and paid for such special classes. Largely unsigned, tinsel paintings, also known in the nineteenth century as oriental, pearl, and crystal paintings, fit well within of the cult of domesticity that was embraced by a growing American middle class. This ideology promoted the feminine ideal in part through the beautification of the home, the family sanctuary. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, the art had expanded outside the school curriculum to a larger demographic through ads, articles, and books that disseminated and extended this women's "hobby" to broader commercial applications.

The origins of tinsel painting are related to forms developed in Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century China and France, and nineteenth-century Austria, England, and Germany. Floral imagery predominates, as botanical copy prints and stencils were often employed. Especially appealing today are rare works that combine a variety of techniques and materials, including photography and collage. While some compositions were drawn freehand, many were based on patterns provided by teachers or published in books, manuals, and ladies magazines. Though a copying culture was encouraged in the female ornamental arts, there was much freedom for creative, individualized expression in the limitless variations of color, line, and composition.

It is remarkable that so many examples of this fragile art have survived. The American Folk Art Museum holds a wealth of tinsel paintings thanks to the prescience of donors Kristina Barbara Johnson and Jean and Day Krolik Jr. With the significant gift from the collection of Susan and Laurence Lerner, the museum is now the largest public repository of this fascinating artform.

- Lee Kogan, Curator Emerita


"Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America" is sponsored, in part, by Joyce Berger Cowin, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, by Bloomberg Philanthropies, by the Ford Foundation, and by The David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions.


Wall texts from the exhibition



The nineteenth-century art of tinsel painting -- also known as Oriental, crystal, or pearl painting -- gained widespread recognition and practice through instructional books and advertisements in the popular press, particularly Peterson's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book. As early as November 8, 1831, a Mrs. Turner advertised her Boston painting and drawing academy with instruction in "drawing, oil, watercolor, and oriental painting" in the Ladies' Magazine and Literary Gazette. But the seminal manual that contributed most to the success of tinsel painting, however, was Art Recreations (1859), published in Boston by J.E. Tilton & Co. This is the earliest book to contain a section on oriental painting. Everything needed to make this art, including patterns, paints, brushes, and instructions, was available from the publisher, a firm known for its ornamental print and art supplies. From 1860 to 1861, Tilton placed monthly ads for Art Recreations in Godey's Lady's Book; druggists also sold supplies. The easy availability of materials at reasonable prices was a boon for nineteenth-century hobbyists with leisure time, and the art proliferated. Art Recreations was reissued annually through 1863, and again in 1869, 1871, and 1888.

Peterson's Magazine ran an article by Edith Huntington on oriental painting along with an illustrated pattern in its November 1860 issue. Young's Demonstrative Translation of Scientific Secrets; or a Collection of Above 500 Useful Receipts on a Variety of Subjects was published in 1861; and in 1867 Dr. Chase's Recipes; or Information for Everybody, an Invaluable Collection of About Eight Hundred Practical Recipes offered detailed instructions for oriental painting, along with tips for practical trades and medical advice. In 1889, Needle & Brush: Useful & Decorative was published by Butterick Company with a chapter on "crystallization painting," including two examples, one with a black background, the other white. In the mid-1970s a revival of interest in tinsel painting led Madeline Holden to write Tinsel Painting: Authentic Antique Techniques (1974), a small manual with detailed instructions and patterns.



The earliest displays of tinsel paintings were within the homes of their creators, hung on parlor and dining room walls. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, women from Maine to California, proud of their decorative art skills, entered tinsel pictures into competitions at agricultural state fairs, occasionally winning modest cash prizes for their efforts. The earliest museum exhibition known to have included a tinsel painting was "American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists," presented at the Newark Museum in 1930. This seminal folk art exhibition was organized by curator Holger Cahill, who might have included additional examples had more collectors been willing to lend. Among these early collectors of tinsel paintings were artists Charles Sheeler and his wife, Katharine, and Arthur Dove; collectors Bernice Chrysler and Edgar William Garbisch, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller -- Cahill and dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, owner of New York's famed Downtown Gallery, were pivotal in bringing tinsel paintings to their attention. Some of the modernists, however, were already aware of reverse painting on glass, especially in the context of European folk art. Wassily Kandinsky and other members of the Blaue Reiter group, for instance, were inspired to experiment with the technique in the 1930s. It also led to a growing interest among these artists to collect original glass paintings and their variation, the tinsel painting.

Holger Cahill also included a tinsel painting in his groundbreaking 1932 exhibition, "American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900," organized for the Museum of Modern Art. It was not until more than four decades later, however, in 1975, that thirty tinsel paintings from the collection of commercial artist Edward Leight were exhibited at Guild Hall, in East Hampton, New York. Subsequently, the Leight collection was shown at the Washburn Gallery in New York in 1983. In 2005 more than ninety tinsel paintings from the Susan and Laurence Lerner collection were exhibited at the Shelburne Museum, in Vermont.



Tinsel paintings were generally framed for hanging in room interiors. But the technique lent itself to three-dimensional forms as well, yielding infinite designs for painted mirror panels, tabletops, gameboards, serving trays, paperweights, boxes, book covers, and key and necktie holders. The subject matter chosen for tinsel paintings on objects was similar to those for two-dimensional reverse paintings on glass: floral, scenic, pictorial, architectural, patriotic, and occasionally religious. Publications such as Art Recreations may have capitalized on activities already widespread among the public. The popularity of board games clearly inspired the authors to dedicate an illustrated chapter to painted checkerboards and chessboards. The reader was offered "a fine copy for chess tables the design of which is very beautiful; price, eighty cents." There are hybrid forms, as well, that demonstrate the marriage of tinsel painting with other handmade arts of the period. In this exhibition these include a box with marquetry decoration and a tinsel painting in the underlid, a mirror frame that contains both tramp art and tinsel painting, and a tinsel painting framed by dimensional floral leatherwork.



Fountains, birds, and butterflies are promoted as exemplary themes for Oriental painting in Art Recreations: "We have published, for Oriental painting, two fine copies; one, a handsome wreath, with fountain, birds, etc; the other, an elegant vase of flowers, with birds' nests, birds, butterflies, etc.; price, one dollar the pair, post-paid, on a roller to any address. Also, two smaller ones, that will combine with the vase and wreath to make innumerable combinations, or may be used separately; price, forty cents the pair; or we will send the four on one roll for $1.25, post-paid." The manual also includes specific text on birds: "The parrot and the peacock will look beautifully, admitting the brilliant colors which nature allows them, touched as your pattern directs, which is shaded to give lights and shades natural to the colors used."

Fountains have a centuries-old symbolic association with eternal life, and by extension the Resurrection. The ornamental structures have glorified locales as disparate as ancient Rome and the gardens of Versailles, and have been used for decoration, recreation, entertainment, and spectacle. Birds and butterflies have spiritual dimensions as well, and have been prevalent motifs in needlework since the seventeenth century, when English women included birds, insects, berries, oversize flowers, and verdant hillocks in their fine stitchery. Parrots are especially prominent in American Victorian tinsel painting, perhaps in response to Queen Victoria's highly prized pets, popularized during her reign. The elegant peacock, also a symbol of immortality and a favorite of Oscar Wilde and other tastemakers of the aesthetic movement, makes increasing appearances in tinsel paintings by the end of the nineteenth century.



Floral imagery, so present in tinsel paintings, has been a predominant theme in women's artistry since at least the seventeenth century, when individual motifs used in needlework were derived from English pattern books such as Richard Shorleyker's A Schole-house for the Needle (1632). In the eighteenth century an avid interest in the natural sciences was inspired by the profusion of botanical prints and other works based on the system of classification set forth by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). In 1710 the English horticulturalist Robert Furber commissioned artist Pieter Casteels to create a series of botanical images to entice potential buyers. The resulting folio, Twelve Months of Flowers, was intended to promote his cultivated plantings, but the prints inspired generations of schoolgirls and women in their artistic endeavors.

Concurrent with the acceptance of still-life painting in Victorian America was a growing interest in the language of flowers, known as floriography. Symbolic meanings and sentiments were attached to individual flowers, and the composition of a bouquet became a means of sending private messages encoded within this publicly appreciated format: the red rose implied romantic love, the red tulip undying love. The language of flowers was integrated into a broad cultural framework through articles in the popular press or illustrated lexicons.



Nowadays, "tinsel" -- from the French estincele, to sparkle -- evokes images of Christmas trees decorated with ribbons of silvery metallic strips. The metallic foil used to back tinsel paintings during the nineteenth century was, in fact, the same lead foil that was shredded for this purpose. Initially the long strands were fashioned from silver, in seventeenth century Germany. Later, silver was replaced by the non-tarnishing lead and, ultimately, aluminum and even plastic.

Metallic foil has had many uses over the centuries. Prior to 1800, lead foil was used to line tea chests to protect goods, including food, from moisture and spoilage. In 1813 the tin can was first produced for the British Army. By 1838 thin, colored foil was used to wrap chocolate bonbons. Tin foil was first produced in the United States in 1845, and a compound foil of lead and tin was developed in the United Kingdom in 1849. There were obvious health risks associated with the use of metallic foil in packaging as even the alloy had a high concentration of toxic lead, but despite this danger soap, cheese, and fruit were commonly wrapped in foil. As its usage grew more widespread, foil was made available in different sizes: in 1818 a square foot of tin foil cost six pence in England and was available in sheets three or four feet long; by 1850 tin foil sheets were sold by the pound. In 1851 rolled foil used to make mirrors was also used to back tinsel pictures. In 1857 wool, tooth powder, and starch were wrapped in foil. By 1871 packs of tobacco were encased in foil. Two years later, individual sheets measuring 41/4 by 101/4 inches became commercially available.

In 1888 the John J. Crooke Company, located at 186 Grand Street in New York City, advertised that it manufactured plain, colored, and embossed tin- or silver-surface foil. The company boasted that the silver surface of its foil patterns was "unsurpassed in beauty by the most elegant silks, and only require to be seen to be admired." In 1905 foil stamped with patterns was available in colored sheets. It was not until after World War II that the Reynolds Metals Company introduced aluminum foil as we know it today to the American public.



In their seminal publication Art Recreations, authors L.B. Urbino, Professor Henry Day, and others give explicit instructions for many techniques, including tinsel painting and its variants. As described in the manual, "Oriental painting on glass is so called from its capability of producing effects of coloring equal to the colors of Oriental flowers, and the plumage of Oriental birds. This beautiful, showy, and gorgeous style of painting never fails to attract admirers wherever it has been introduced. No style of painting has yet been invented that shows transparent colors to such advantage as this, when properly and carefully done." In explaining the technique, Day wrote: "To commence a picture, procure a glass the size you wish, then get a clear outline drawing on white paper to fit it to your glass; next prepare a little lampblack by mixing it on your glass."

Most grounds were black, but white and occasionally blue were also used. The most unusual backgrounds were light-colored patterns painted on glass and backed with sheets of foil, an effect referred to as "snowflake." Tinsel painting employed four "reversals." A work is painted on the reverse side of the glass; the second reversal refers to the order in which elements are painted, the details before the main motifs. The stamens and veins of flowers, for example, are painted first, before the petals and other parts of the flower, and the background is painted last. The third reversal refers to the flipping of the glass when the paint is dry, so the image is viewed through the front of the glass. Last, the viewer sees a mirror image of what was painted: left to right appears as right to left.

After the stem and leaf outlines were inked in, colored areas were painted -- some dark and opaque, some light and translucent. When this dried, silver or copper foil was placed behind to provide highlights. The foil was affixed with a dab of varnish, paint, or putty; foil laid over a larger area, whether crumpled or smooth, was held in place with these materials applied in the corners. A layer of newspaper or smooth cloth was laid on top of the foil, and the "sandwich" was completed with a cardboard backing. Finally, the whole was framed, usually with a wood backboard. Today, the newspapers can be a valuable aid both in dating and locating a tinsel painting in a particular region.



Most tinsel painters relied solely on pictorial elements, with still lifes, fountains, and birds as their most common subjects. But the artists explored other subjects as well: landscapes, portraits, patriotic themes, religion, and architecture. Landscapes are often imaginary and feature a fantasy cottage, romantic castle, mysterious island, or train steaming across an arched bridge, lending atmospheric touches to otherwise prosaic scenes.

Love of country, especially during times of crisis or war, may be evinced in patriotic symbols: American flags, buntings, drums. Many examples made during the Civil War express strong political sentiments or mourn the loss of fathers, sons, and brothers. Paintings of American heroes and leaders were also popular. In one tinsel painting seen here, possibly based on a Nathaniel Currier lithograph, George Washington is seated on horseback, lifting his hat to an admiring public.

Religion has been a pervasive theme in American folk art and appears frequently in tinsel paintings as well. Many house blessings and religious mottoes survive; "God Bless Our Home" was the most popular. The unidentified maker of the work bearing the motto "No Cross No Crown" took as his or her source William Penn's famous 1668 discourse and credo, written while Penn was in a London prison.

Architecture, too, has interested tinsel painting practitioners, especially the New York Crystal Palace, the iron-and-glass structure, modeled on London's earlier exhibition hall, that was constructed in 1853 as a venue for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations and destroyed by fire in 1858. A contemporary example demonstrates the survival of thetinsel painting technique and reveals the distinctive profile of Manhattan's iconic Flatiron Building, erected in 1902.



The origin of reverse painting on glass is not entirely clear. The technique seems to have developed from glass painting traditions that date back to thirteenth-century Europe and the Far East. It was popularized in eighteenth-century France, where it was called verre églomisé. This was a form of reverse gilding on glass, often in combination with sgrafitto or etched designs.

Reverse painting on glass by American practioners was introduced by the eighteenth century in forms as diverse as painted glass panels that embellished mirrors and clock tablets and portraits by such artists as Massachusetts painter Benjamin Greenleaf (1769-1821). Among the papers of renowned needlework artist Prudence Punderson Rossiter (1758-1784) were hand-copied instructions for reverse painting on glass using print transfers. Portrait, landscape, and ornamental painter William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) also created more than one hundred reverse-painting-on-glass pictures, many portraying celebrated Americans, including George and Martha Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Reverse painting on glass flourished in eighteenth-century America, but the earliest extant examples were imported. America lacked a significant glasshouse until 1738, when the Wistarburgh Glass Manufactory opened in Salem County, New Jersey. Subsequently, advertisements for reverse-painting-on-glass instruction appeared occasionally in newspapers. The first reference to mention mezzotint transfer, however was not published until July 9, 1797, when a Mr. Drinker advertised in the Philadelphia Packet that he taught "Painting on glass with and without mezzotinto." This language suggests a distinction between transferring mezzotints to the back of glass and reverse painting directly on glass, which led to tinsel painting.



Paintings that feature an abundance of flowers, fruits, and vegetables are included in the larger genre of still lifes. These were painted by studio artists and itinerants, hobbyists and schoolgirls; on canvas, paper, velvet, and wood; and, of course, in reverse on glass backed by metal foil. In tinsel paintings, flowers might be depicted in wreaths, garlands, or bouquets, while fruits and vegetables filled bowls, urns, and baskets and spilled out of cornucopia. The arrangements often stand on a marble slab, an earlier European convention.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, still-life painting in the United States was ranked low in the academic hierarchy; portrait painting was most highly valued, followed by history and landscape subjects. In 1831 a critical review of the annual exhibition of paintings at the Boston Atheneum stated: "We would not absolutely denounce what is called still life painting, but we value it very lightly; and we protest against admitting among productions of the Fine Arts, those works, of which the whole supposed merit consists in an imitation of what is in itself entirely insignificant and the highest aim of which is to produce a momentary deception." A decade later the form was still denigrated as the "lowest order" of fine art. In spite of the critical derision, artists of every description, including the celebrated Raphaelle Peale, painted still lifes.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the rich and abundant still-life paintings of Severin Roesin (1815-1872) mirrored a burgeoning productivity in America. As middle-class culture reacted to America's land expansion, industrialization, and increased availability of goods, tinsel painters, too, created lusher scenes. Improved living standards for a growing middle class led to increased attention to home decor. Still lifes, including tinsels, were now considered perfectly suited to the adornment of dining room and parlor walls.



The earliest signboards in America were made to attract people to inns and taverns, indicate tolls and directions, and identify homes and businesses. These were either entirely pictorial or a combination of word and image that could be understood by all. As the level of literacy rose in America, text rather than pictures increasingly dominated trade signs. The growth of populations in towns and cities and the resultant explosion of goods and services led to an increased demand for two- and three-dimensional trade signs. Most early sign painters learned their art through a system of apprenticeship or were self-taught. Paul Revere and Edward Hicks are among the few of these artisans whose names are known today. By the eighteenth century, instructional manuals were available that provided recipes and information on a variety of artistic topics, including sign painting. One of the best known and most frequently updated volumes was Curious Arts, written in 1825 by Rufus Porter, who claimed an illustrious career as a sign painter among his many talents. Art Recreations also devoted a chapter to sign painting.

As advertising signs became entirely textual in nature, new means were sought to make one stand out from another in the streetscape. Metallic foil was a practical material with which to enhance a trade sign and catch a potential customer's eye. Foil was used on advertising giveaways and on other forms that included text, such as house blessings and mottoes. Technological advances in the mid-nineteenth century and again after World War II led to innovations such as aluminum foil, a relatively inexpensive material that extended the practice of tinsel painting from an amateur pastime for women to a commercial sphere largely dominated by men.



Wreaths are circular floral arrangements that function as decorations, memorials, or, when placed upon a person's head, marks of honor or celebration. Garlands, as interpreted here, appear as swags or open wreaths, also worn as ornaments of honor. Wreaths and garlands were popular motifs in tinsel paintings, though today their specific significance is sometimes ambiguous unless accompanied by written explanations.

A broad range of pictorial subjects ornament the centers of wreaths in tinsel paintings. Many of the compositions are floral, while others feature birds or occasionally a fountain. One rare example has a collage featuring an allegorical figure embossed on paper. Patriotism is a recurring theme, communicated through the red, white, and blue coloration of the wreath itself, or the insertion of patriotic motifs such as flags. Of especial interest are a number of wreaths with early photographs applied within the centers. The daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and paper photographs are enhanced by the reflected sparkle from the foil. But their meanings-commemorative or congratulatory-are often open to conjecture.


ALICE KNIGHT (1861-1963)

Tinsel painting was considered an acceptable avocation for women, some of whom became instructors. Although the majority remained skilled amateurs, others, like the versatile twentieth-century practitioner Alice Knight, were professional painters. Knight, of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, is the rare tinsel painter who left a legacy in her community. A few residents still recall the artist, who for more than forty years had a teaching studio on Main Street on the central square, a space now occupied by the town clerk. Knight was an ornamental painter remembered for her landscapes, decorative furniture and trays, and reverse paintings on glass featuring bouquets and flowers in vases, pots, and urns. Her work, some of it signed, is found in Hillsborough homes. Over the years, many of Knight's paintings have also been sold at auction and collected by a wider audience.

Born Alice Archer in Ludlow, England, she immigrated to America in 1889 and initially lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked as a waitress, Rochester, New York, and Claremont, New Hampshire, where she worked in a cotton mill. Archer married Charles Knight (?­1934), a shoe shop clerk who was also a landscape painter. The couple moved to Hillsborough, and sometime thereafter Alice Knight began to create art full-time, although she augmented her income by taking care of children and working as a door-to-door saleswoman. According to her obituary, Knight painted until five years before her death. And as demonstrated in her more complex reverse paintings on glass, such as the versions of Urn of Flowers with Scene from Ballet Swan Lake, the artist was highly skilled at mixing colors for use in this challenging technique

To view object labels from the exhibition please click here.

To view the Introduction to the accompanying exhibition Ooh, Shiny!, held September 12, 2012-January 13, 2013 please click here.


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