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"Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America," at the American Folk Art Museum
September 2, 2012  | 

An unusual and underappreciated form of painting, popular in America from the 1850s through the 1890s, will be explored in an exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, from September 12, 2012, through January 13, 2013. Foiled:  Tinsel Painting in America will feature approximately 150 works:  reverse paintings made on glass using transparent pigments and metal foil, which was then an exotic and rare material. The exhibition is organized in honor of a single donation to the Museum of the largest privately held collection of these extraordinary works.  Portraying such subjects as Abraham Lincoln, birds, flora and fauna, baskets of fruit and flowers, young women in contemplative scenes, and more, these fragile, jewel-like paintings—which also incorporated early photographs—touched upon many aspects of American life, innovation, and culture. 

Lee Kogan, curator emerita, American Folk Art Museum, has said:  “These under-recognized shimmering works deserve closer study as aesthetic objects and historical and cultural documents.” 

Monty Blanchard, President of the American Folk Art Museum, commented:  "Foiled:  Tinsel Painting in America will be the fourth original exhibition our curators have researched, interpreted, and presented this year.  We are especially proud that Foiled will introduce this engaging and little-appreciated niche of folk art to a much wider audience, a key objective of our Museum's commitment to ‘get the art out there.’"

The American Folk Art Museum is now the largest repository of these exquisite works of art, as a result of a recent gift of paintings donated by Susan and Laurence Lerner, which complements collections donated by Kristina Barbara Johnson and Jean and Day Krolik, Jr.  

A companion exhibition will also be on view; titled Ooh Shiny!, it will highlight three centuries of artworks, ranging from needleworks by 18th-century schoolgirls to sculptures by such contemporary icons as Howard Finster, that are embellished with materials including spangles, mica flakes, glass, marble dust, sequins, glitter, and aluminum.

Tinsel Painting in America Tinsel paintings reflect more than their shimmering motifs and vibrant colors suggest at first glance.   Their origins can be traced to forms developed in Renaissance Italy, 18th-century China and France, and 19th-century Austria, England, and Germany.  Floral imagery predominates, as botanical copy prints and stencils were often employed in the making of paintings. 

In the first half of the 19th century, tinsel painting was taught to young women whose parents sought to provide education for their daughters and who paid for special classes. Largely unsigned, tinsel paintings, also known as “oriental,” or “pearl,” and “crystal” paintings, were part of a cult of domesticity that was embraced by a growing American middle class:  beautification of the home was promoted as a feminine ideal.  By the mid- to late-19th century, as a result of advertisements, articles, and books about this form of painting, its reach expanded beyond special schools to a larger audience and also included commercial applications.

Some compositions were drawn freehand, however many were based on patterns provided by teachers or published in books, manuals, and ladies magazines.  The limitless variations of color, line, and composition sparked creative freedom and individual expression among women who were often encouraged to copy.  In addition to flowers, birds, and baskets of fruit (suggesting abundance and plenty) the iconography of the paintings includes figures of national pride (George Washington, flags); religious themes; scenes of mourning or celebration; women in contemplation; and more.

Tinsel painting involved transferring a drawing or sketch in reverse to a glass panel (which would ultimately become the back of the painting), filling in the outlines with transparent paint, and then incorporating bits of a then-exotic material—metal foil—usually derived from bon-bon wrappers and tins of imported specialty goods (tea or tobacco, for example). Many of the paintings were encased in handmade frames, a few of which are elaborate and masterful works of art in their own right; one, for example, is framed in leather that has been intricately hand-carved.

The foils added another unique dimension to the picture: the highly reflective material sparkled in candlelight or gaslight—the dominant forms of illumination in the years before electricity.  Reflective metals added vitality, romance, and drama to the overall picture which then shimmered, enlivening the environment in which it was hung.

Most astonishing is the incorporation of photography, which was itself a new technology in the mid-1800s.  The spectrum of colored paints and bright foils vivified early, somber-looking monochromatic photographs.  A highlight of Foiled is a tinsel painting depicting a flowering tree with individual photographs of family members “hanging” from its many branches. 

The Museum is planning a lively mix of public programs to accompany the exhibitions.  For more information, please visit www.folkartmuseum.org

The exhibition 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 & Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions.

The American Folk Art Museum is the premier institution devoted to the aesthetic appreciation of traditional folk art and creative expressions of contemporary self-taught artists from the United States and abroad.  The Museum preserves, conserves, and interprets a comprehensive collection of the highest quality, with objects dating from the 18th century to the present.