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.