Posted on 10/9/2012 1:16 PM by Grace Jeffers

A pair of new exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, “Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America” and “Ooh, Shiny,” started me thinking about metallic foils as a material.  Tinsel painting is a now- underappreciated art form that was very popular in 19th century America. The paintings are essentially transparent reverse-painted glass with bits of metallic foil, gleaned from bonbon wrappers and food tins, layered behind the paint. The technique of putting foil behind colored glass to lend a glint of metallic shine has been around for centuries, as early as the Renaissance in Italy. The art form became so popular in the U.S. that patterns for paintings were distributed in books, manuals and women’s magazines nationwide, and women were encouraged both to copy them and to let their creative improvisation run wild.

What metals are these foils made of? In the 19th century, generic “foil” was made of thin sheets of tin, and it was considered an exotic and novel material.  It wasn’t until 1910 that aluminum foil replaced tin foil, and came into more common use. Tin foil is slightly stiffer than aluminum foil, and gives off a tinny taste. When we hear the word tinsel, it calls to mind the shiny stuff we put on Christmas trees. This tinsel was originally made from pure silver, but when it was found to tarnish easily, other shiny metals were substituted, such as tin (late 19th-early 20th century), aluminum (early 20th century), and nowadays coated plastics such as PVC.

In the U.S., young women mainly created tinsel paintings focused on domestic or patriotic subjects: floral or botanicals, birds and fruit baskets, flags and George Washington. Some rare paintings, as you can see in the portrait of Jenny Lind, combine different techniques and materials, such as photography (a new technology in the mid-1800s) and collage. 

Tinsel Painting: Wreath of Flowers with Daguerreotype; Artist unidentified; United States; c. 1864; Reverse painting and foil on glass with daguerreotype in brass frame, In original frame; 10 3/4 x 14 3/4"; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.12; Photo © 2006 Andy Duback

Tinsel Painting: Twehous Bros. Advertising Sign; Artist unidentified; Scribner, Nebraska; c. 1946; Reverse painting, foil, and printing on glass; 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 1/2"; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.93; Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Tinsel Painting: Wreath of Flowers with Portrait of Jenny Lind; Artist unidentified; United States; c. 1850; Reverse painting and foil on glass with paper collage, in original gilded frame; 28 1/2 x 24 1/2" (framed); Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.3; Photo © 2006 Andy Duback

Amazingly, many examples of this fragile art have survived, and the American Folk Art Museum holds the largest collection in the U.S.  “Foiled” will be on display in conjunction with “Ooh Shiny”  (featuring objects from 18th century embroidery to modern sculpture that use embellishment as art with shiny materials like mica, glitter, foil and glass) at the American Folk Art Museum’s Lincoln Center location from September 12, 2012 – January 13, 2013.

Baby Blanket; Drunell Levinson (b. 1951); New York City; 1996; Condoms in aluminum wrappers embroidery thread; 44 x 33"; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of the artist, 1998.3.1; Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Duck; Nek Chand (b. 1924); Chandigarh, India; c. 1984; Concrete over metal armature with mixed media; 35 x 56 x 10"; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of the National Children’s Museum, Washington, D.C., in honor of Gerard C. Wertkin, American Folk Art Museum director (1991–2004), 2004.25.27; Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Looking at artwork that uses metallic foil and shiny materials so beautifully made me think of the gilded metallic wallcoverings by Phillip Jeffries, especially the Picasso line: http://www.phillipjeffries.com/products/gv229--pewter_leaf_blocks_-_london.html

Two wallcoverings from Phillip Jeffries’ Picasso collection; on the left is Pewter Leaf Blocks, on the right is Platinum Leaf Blocks in color Singapore

Wherever you find it, a little shine is sure to brighten up anyone’s day!