Tinsel pictures: a forgotten folk art shimmers anew

A long-overlooked American folk art is coming back into favor. Tinsel pictures, reverse paintings on glass in transparent colors against a background of crumpled foil, are being sought by designers and collectors seeking antiques compatible with popular country-living decor.

The renewed interest is spurred, too, by the high cost of long-favored American wall hangings - primitive paintings, samplers, silk-and-watercolor depictions, and quilts of earlier years.

Tinsel pictures reflect the varied tastes of their creators. Some are gaudy; others are appealingly colorful and luminously lovely. But they have languished on the sidelines of the folk-art world for many years, probably because many were made during the 19th century and have been closely associated with ''fancy'' Victorian furnishings that have only lately gained favor. Also, susceptibility of the paint to peeling and the glass to cracking has deterred collectors from acquiring them.

But the comparative low cost of tinsel pictures (those in good condition are often available for under $100) is causing collectors of American folk art to take a more appreciative view.

And knowledgeable decorators are intrigued by them. A brightly painted and glinting floral tinsel picture can bloom charmingly on a wall with a stenciled border in a room made cozy by a pine cupboard, majolica, and hooked rugs. Such a picture is equally at home in a starkly modern room when hung arrestingly on an off-white wall. These paintings are also appropriate in a room with an ornate mantel clock, girandoles, and other Victorian accents - or as period pieces in a traditionally furnished room.

Tinsel pictures have diverse subjects: flowers, birds, and animals, as well as religious, historical, and dramatic themes. Many are simply presented, as they were commonly made as family projects during the mid-19th century by mothers and daughters. Some have black backgrounds enlivened by the silver glint of foil behind unpainted portions of the compositions. Less striking, but appealing, are paintings with white backgrounds and a pearlized appearance.

These shimmering examples of American folk art are a derivative of the art of French eglomese (a style of reverse painting on glass backed by gold leaf initiated by French decorator Glomi). They have been used as panels in mirrors and clocks and as lids on boxes.

Tinsel pictures are also allied with the 18th-century English art of decorating prints with textiles and colored paper. This was an art that later reflected the English addiction to the theater, when English people glorified prints of theatrical luminaries - threatening villains and romantic heroes and heroines - with little pieces of silver and gilt paper, paper stars and spangles , and little strips of red and blue paper. These English prints were also sold already decorated. Today they are coveted when framed in curly maple.

Like so many earlier ''ladylike arts'' - needlework and painting on velvet - American tinsel pictures were made in boarding schools. It is also believed that making them was part of the therapy for hospitalized soldiers after the Civil War.

In collecting old specimens of tinsel pictures, it is prudent to acquire a painting in good condition and well framed. However, slight flaking or peeling of the picture's paint, if it is not unsightly, should not prevent a purchase; it should be remembered that such a picture may have age and merit. But it is a mistake to buy a tinsel picture with very obvious missing paint with the idea of restoring it yourself. Such attempts are rarely successful, as the paint is usually brittle and easily deteriorates when the painting is removed from its frame.

Tinsel paintings can be found at antique shows and shops, auctions, estate sales, and church sales. Estate sales sometimes offer tinsel pictures that have been hidden in attics for years.

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