Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America
“Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America” is the most comprehensive museum exhibition to focus on this under-recognized decorative art that was widely practiced in America from 1850 to 1890. One of the great revelations of the exhibition is the way this modest technique touched upon so many aspects of American life, innovation, and culture.
Tinsel paintings are reverse paintings on glass with smooth or crumpled metallic foil applied behind translucent and transparent areas; when viewed in candlelight or gaslight, the effect was one of shimmering highlights. In the first half of the 19th 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. By the mid- to late 19th century, the art had expanded outside the school curriculum, and instructions proliferated in books and were advertised in women’s magazines. Its origins are related 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 patterns were often employed. Especially appealing today are rare works that combine a variety of techniques and materials, including photography and collage.
It is remarkable that so many examples of this fragile art have survived. The American Folk Art Museum has in its holdings a wealth of tinsel paintings thanks to the prescience of donors Kristina Barbara Johnson and Jean and Day Krolik Jr. With a significant gift from Susan and Laurence Lerner, the museum is now the largest public repository of this fascinating artform.
Lee Kogan, curator emerita