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The Illuminating Art of Tinsel Painting

by Chappell Ellison

Nov 21, 2012

Within the gas lamp-lit homes of the 19th century, a mysterious artform shimmers with clues about the history of women and domesticity.


Despite its festive name, tinsel painting has nothing to do with Christmas decorations. It involves applying transparent paint to glass, followed by a layer of shiny, metallic foil. Although it has been around for centuries, it experienced an extraordinary rise in popularity in the 19th century. A new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum showcases the country's largest collection of tinsel paintings and asks the question: where did tinsel painting come from? "Tinsel paintings were part of the American cultural scene as early as 1832. What is interesting is that tinsel painting was predicated on the use of tin foil — you have to have it," explained Dr. Laurence Lerner, an art historian who recently lectured on the exhibit. "So where did people get it? We know that people were wrapping bon bons and druggists were using it to wrap cream. We also know that Colt was making an experimental cartridge for the marine corp out of foil."
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Once foil proved to be useful for packing goods, within a few decades it was widely available in Western countries. Tinsel painting was thought to be an ideal art for women to undertake; it allowed for a small amount of creative expression, but kept women focused on domesticity, as these paintings were often made to decorate the home. Women culled discarded foil from cigarette packages and candy wrappers as materials for their works. As seen in the image below, tinsel painting continued to evolve well into the 20th century. Tinsel paintings are multi-layered and require the artist to keep several reversals in mind. First, the work is painted on the reverse side of the glass. Details — like the stamens and veins of flowers — are painted first, while the background is painted last. After the paint dries, silver or copper foil is applied to areas where the artist desires shimmering highlights. The foil is held in place with varnish or putty, then covered with a layer of newspaper or cloth. The final layer is a cardboard backing to secure and seal the work.
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It’s no wonder foil paintings were popular; in the gas-lit homes of the 19th century, light cast from the lamps played marvelously over the reflective foil, creating a bewitching sheen. But beyond their appealing aesthetics, this artform shows how women made use of materials around them in interesting and creative ways.  Like so many folk arts, tinsel painting rarely makes an appearance in art history books. Yet women shaped the craft throughout the 1800s, building on a long history of floral and still life paintings and producing works that commemorated births, deaths and friendship. The result are hundreds of paintings, scattered throughout the world, that serve as cultural records of womens’ lives and interests in a specific era. Header image information: Artist unidentified, United States, c. 1830s. Reverse painting and foil on glass with papercuts.13 1/2 x 19 1/4 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.44
Chappell Ellison

Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.