November 17, 2012

"Foiled" at the American Folk Art Museum

One of the small but fascinating museum gems here in New York is the American Folk Art Museum on Broadway at 66th Street.  Beside their superb permanent collection of paintings, quilts, weather vanes, decorated household objects and the like, the museum also presents special exhibitions which are usually charming and quite interesting.

This is certainly the case in their latest show "Foiled:  Tinsel Painting in America" which runs through January 13.  Now, you might be asking yourself what exactly is tinsel painting and why should I care about it, and they would be valid questions, but a quick walk through of this exhibition would surely answer your concerns!

To answer the first query - tinsel painting is a domestic art that has its roots in Renaissance Italy, 18th century China and France and 19th century Austria, England and Germany.  Here in the U.S., tinsel painting (or Oriental, pearl or crystal painting as it was also called) was taught to young women of a certain class who were being educated in handwork and the decorative arts.  Very simply, it is a form of reverse painting on glass where metallic foil is applied to fill in unpainted areas and give them a shimmery look.  Sometimes the entire image is created of smooth or crumpled bits of foil, and sometimes the foil is an accent to other mediums such as photographs or collage.

Tinsel painting was at its most popular between 1850 - 1890 when the technique was applied to all manner of household and commercial products.  Gathered here are exquisite examples of signs and pictures, game boards, table tops, trays and mirrors, all beautifully decorated with colored foil.  Popular motifs include flowers and wreaths, fountains, birds and butterflies, but also more ambitious compositions depicting still lifes, religious allegories, historical events and patriotic themes. 

Which brings me to the second part of the question - why is tinsel painting important?  The answer lies in the fact that it, like many other "women's" arts, was a link between practicality and fantasy, a form of personal expression by people who were primarily concerned with survival in the harsh New World.  More modest than the fine arts of painting or sculpture, an applied art such as tinsel painting could nevertheless fulfill the feminine ideal of beautification of hearth and home.  An exhibition such as this gives us an appreciation of how even simple arts and crafts actually impact our culture and innovations and, more importantly, the value of beauty in our lives.

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