Sparkle Plenty



from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |

Tinsel paintings are reverse paintings on glass with crinkled, embossed, or smooth metallic foil applied behind translucent and unpainted areas. The effect is one of shimmering highlights when caught in the reflection of candle- or gaslight. The use of other reflective materials such as mother-of-pearl led to tinsel paint­ings sometimes being called Oriental, crystal, or pearl paintings.

American tinsel painting flourished from the mid-1830s through around 1890; its heyday was in the 1860s, spurred by the publication of Art Recre­ations. This 1859 volume, by “Mme. L.B. Urbino, Professor Henry Day, and others” gave instructions for thirty decorative techniques, including mono­chromatic drawings, theorem painting, and tinsel painting. Each step in the process is described: First, the design was traced onto prepared glass; then opaque lampblack was applied as a filler outside the tracing; details, such as veins on leaves and flowers, were inked in; and transparent oil paints were used for colored portions. Foil-usu­ally silver- or copper-colored remnants of tea or cigar pack­ages-was added last and was attached with putty or more lampblack. In later years the foil was sometimes sewn to a cloth or newspaper backing.

The technique derives from glass-painting traditions that date back to the thirteenth century in Europe and the Far East; it was popularized in eighteenth-century France, where it was termed verre églomisé and was primar­ily a technique of reverse gilding on glass, often in combination with sgrafitto or etched designs. Tin­sel paintings are not to be confused with tinsel prints or tinsel pictures, which were known as gravure découpe in eighteenth-century France and popular­ized in nineteenth-century Britain as “dressed” engravings. British tinsel pictures, which typically featured popular theatrical figures, were embellished with embossed paper, bits of silk and satin, and metallic or copper foil.

In America during the first half of the nineteenth century, instruction in tinsel painting (along with the other schoolgirl arts of needlework and theorem painting) was offered to young women whose parents could afford to send them to seminaries or boarding schools. Following the success of Art Recreations and similar publications, ladies’ maga­zines began to offer instructions and patterns for tinsel painting, and supplies became commer­cially available, bringing the technique to the middle class. In the November 1860 issue of Pe­terson’s Magazine an article on “Oriental, or Crys­tal Painting” by Edith Huntington is illustrated by a sketch of an elegant Victorian bouquet replete with roses, lilies, fuschias, and butterflies.

With their focus on color and embellishment, tinsel paintings flourished during the late nineteenth-century aesthetic movement. When illuminated, their sparkle added elegance and opulence to the dim interiors of candle- or lamplit dining rooms and parlors. Their rising popularity in the American middle class fit well with the cult of domesticity and its notions of feminine refinement and gentility.

Flowers, fruits, and birds were the most popular subjects with their connotations of femininity, fertility, and abundance. Nosegays, bouquets, garlands, and wreaths burst forth from baskets, bowls, urns, and compotes, following the still-life convention common to theorem paintings. The preponderance of floral imagery was a natural outcome of the influx of botanical prints, books, herbals, and gardening manuals.

Not all tinsel paintings were meant to be hung on the wall. There are extant tinsel-painted tabletops, game boards, paneled mirrors, box interiors, paper­weights, book covers, and key holders. Some fasci­nating examples are craft hybrids: tinsel painting combined with leatherwork, with tramp art, or with photography. Tinsel-painted signs were often used for advertising, promotional gifts, and giveaways in the holiday season.

These under-recognized shimmering works deserve closer study as aesthetic objects and historical and cultural documents.

  • Jenny Lind (1820-1887), Ameri­can, c. 1850. Reverse painting and foil on glass with paper collage; 28 ½ by 24 ½ inches. This tinsel painting collaged with a printed image of Jenny Lind is clearly a tribute to the “Swedish Nightin­gale,” who made a sensation in New York when she performed at Castle Garden in 1850. The im­presario P. T. Barnum brought Lind to the United States and drummed up so much anticipa­tion that forty thousand people arrived to greet her ship in New York harbor. The ensuing “Lindo­mania” made the opera singer a celebrity and a wealthy woman. The sale of a wide range of prod­ucts was part of Barnum’s unprec­edented campaign to promote Lind’s two-year tour. Memorabilia included sheet music, songbooks, decorative prints, valentines, greeting cards, paper dolls, tobac­co packages, cigar labels, glass flasks, ceramic lamps, lockets, children’s plates, pitchers and washbowls, commemorative silver medals, printed cotton, and wall­paper. Although the source of the print remains unidentified, it re­sembles a pose of Lind in her role of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnam­bula. The objects illustrated are in the American Folk ArtMuseum; except as noted, photographs © 2006 Andy Duback.


  • Pipes sign, American, c. 1868. Re­verse painting and foil on glass, in original frame; 12 by 20 inches. As early as 1826 instruction in re­verse painting on glass for sign painting was offered in Rufus Por­ter’s A Select Collection of Valu­able and Curious Arts and Inter­esting Experiments: “Any writing or lettering in this work must be written from right to left contrary to the usual order” (pp. 30-31). A chapter in Art Recreations (1859) is devoted to sign painting using reverse painting on glass tech­niques with foil or mother-of-pearl backing. In this sign adver­tising pipes, the varied sizes and informal yet balanced arrange­ment of the letters result in a live­ly, rhythmical pattern.



  • Horseback rider, American, 1850-1875. Reverse painting and foil on glass, 21 ¼ by 27 inches. This large-format tinsel painting de­picts a tar engaged in stunt riding on a running horse. Although the costume very much resembles American sailor dress and might date as early as the 1830s, the tin­sel painting was probably done later, as this type of stunt riding imagery began to flourish in the middle of the century, inspired by traveling staged equestrian shows. Bequest of Laura Harding; photo­graph by Gavin Ashworth.

  • Flowers in urn decorated with ballet dancers by Alic Knight 91861-1963), Hillsboro, New Hampshire, c. 1925.  Reverse painting and voil on glass, 15 1/4 by 11 1/2 inches.  This is one of the most exuberant and finely executed tinsel paintnigs in terms of color and design.  It is one of several examples signed by alic Knight that have surfaced over the eyars; a glass negative of the painting exists as well.  the artist maintained a studio and school in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, and was well known in her community for her reverse paintings on glass as well as for landscapes and decorative painting on furniture and trays.  She was engaged in art making until a few years before her death.  Orignally from Ludlow, England, she arrived in the Unived States in 1889 and settled first in Claremeont, New Hampshire, where she worked in a cottonmill for twenty years.

  • Woman at a table with bird and lamp, American, c. 1920.  Reverse painting and embossed foil on glass, 7 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches.  The scene is one of luxury;the mix of patterns and textures was a response to the trendof Japonism in the arts.  The fine embossed-foil backing is a wonderful counterpoint to the richly patterned and glowing surfaces.

  • Wreath of flowers with two silhou­ettes, American, c. 1830s. Reverse painting with paper silhouettes and foil on glass, 13 ½ by 19 ¼ inches. Silhouettes were popular in the 1830s before the widespread use of photography to capture a likeness. The costume and hairstyles of both the man and the woman here are consistent with the 1830s. The hair piled on the woman’s head was an­chored with a comb; her ruff collar, popular in the sixteenth century, was also fashionable during the 1830s. The man’s hairstyle is full and higher in the front; he wears a high white shirt collar that stands up close to his cheeks. 



  • Boston Loan Company checkerboard, American, c. 1901. Reverse painting with mother-of-pearl chips and foil on glass, 18 ½ inches square. The checker­board design was an early technique discussed and il­lustrated in Art Recreations. Because of its glowing sur­face, tinsel painting was appealing for advertising purposes. Nathan Rosenthal, well known for his activi­ties with Jewish charities in Hartford, Connecticut, and a stockbroker later in life, was the founder of the Boston Loan Company, which for eighteen years was located at 32 Asylum Street in Hartford before moving to 759 Main Street, at the corner of Pearl Street. Many ads for the company appeared in the Hartford Cou­rant. The business offered cash for diamonds, jewelry, and watches, among other items, and claimed all busi­ness was strictly confidential, with a private entrance for women. It is not surprising that Rosenthal would order at least one memento of his business, perhaps when he formed the loan company in 1901. An almost identical reverse-painting-on-glass checkerboard with gold foil and mother-of-pearl, advertising “LOTHRUPS-FARNHAM CO, SHOES CLOTHING ROCHESTER DOVER,” was probably created by the same maker. Lothrops, Farnham and Company was a department store in Dover, New Hampshire, estab­lished in 1883, with branches in Rochester and Somer­sworth. 


    Flowers in an urn, American, late nineteenth century. Reverse painting and foil on glass, 18 ¾ by 16 inches. This still-life composition is based on prints from the well-known and widely reproduced Twelve Months of Flowers, originally pub­lished in London in 1730 by Kensington nurseryman Robert Furber as a flower catalogue. Engraved and hand-colored by Henry Fletcher from paintings by Antwerp artist Pieter Casteels (1684-1749), the celebrated catalogue’s commercial function was masked by its artistic quality. This tinsel paint­ing is a reverse image of April from the original set. Among the thirty flowers represented in the original plate are tulips, lilies of the valley, anemones, narcissus, and hyacinths. Gift of the Kohler Foundation.