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Theorem Painting in America
By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, young girls
were attending school academies where they were taught subjects thought
"proper" for young women in society. These subjects included a
wide-array of arts such as needlework and painting. As the 19th
century bloomed, theorem painting, also known as Oriental or Poonah
painting became popular in the burgeoning America. Theorem allowed
young girls to design and paint still life compositions by using a group
of stencils which could be laid upon velvet, cotton, silk, satin, or
more rarely, paper. Once the stencil grouping was complete, the
young lady could paint each individual component inside each stencil
with depth and toning not before achieved in America by the use of
stencils. Before the introduction of theorem painting, stencils
were used primarily for wall and floor designs. The use of
stencils for painting allowed schoolgirls and young wives to make "fancy
pieces" for their own homes as well as gifting to friends. The
painting teacher would trace designs onto drawing paper that had been
coated on both sides with linseed oil to make it transparent and then
varnished so that the "horn paper" was stiff and the paint would not
soak through. The instructor would then cut the design stencil
with a pen knife. Students could pick from the teacher's stencils,
arranging them on their own backing (velvet, cotton, silk, satin, or,
more rarely, paper) to build her own composition. The stencils
would then be weighted down and paint carefully applied
stencil-by-stencil to produce a still life or sometimes even more
elaborate scenes such as mourning or Classical-genre paintings.
The final painting was usually embellished with some hand-painting, even
if just a few tendrils coming from grapevines. While most theorems
were meant to be framed, the painting technique was also used to
decorate pincushions, purses, belts, table and bed covers. Very
rarely, one finds fancy dresses decorated with theorem painting.
These 19th century women artists were very serious about their theorem
painting. A lady's painting portfolio might include study notes,
color samples and practice sheets, colored prints for use as models, a
large number of stencils, detailed tracings with notes about colors
used, drawing paper, horn paper, and tracing paper.
Theorems are very desirable and very dear in value.
Collectors must be cautioned to learn the difference between 19th
century theorems and 20th century reproductions. A great surge in
interest in theorems took place in the 1980s with the success of David
Ellinger and Bill Rank, two Pennsylvania artists. Theorem classes
were common and students were taught to make their designs look like
19th century pieces and to tea-dye the completed pieces for age. I
made a few myself for my own pleasure (signed and dated with the correct
date). Visit museums and look at all the theorems you can find.
Learn the difference between the subtle coloring of 19th century
theorems (colors made subtle by the natural aging and fading process --
as 19th century Americans loved riotous coloring) and the brighter
shades of modern paints. Look for the overly curly tendrils on
20th century theorems. Look at where 19th century theorems are
signed and the look of a period inscription versus the location and look
of modern signatures and inscriptions. Most 19th century theorems
painted on fabric were first mounted on a wood stretcher....so look to
see how it is mounted....but realize that, because wood is acidic, some
early theorems may have been removed from stretchers for conservation.
I try to keep theorems and samplers on the original wood stretcher but
to slip a piece of acetate between the fabric and stretcher (a trick I
learned from the textiles curator at Colonial Williamsburg).
LeFever, Gregory, "Side by Side, Theorem
Painting", Early American Life Magazine, December 2009. pdf
http://www.gregorylefever.com/pdfs/Theorem Painting 2.pdf
Lefko, Linda Carter, "The Art of Grisaille Painting", Early
American Life, March 2011. 10-21.
Lipman, Jean & Winchester, Alice, The Flowering of
American Folk Art (1776-1876). Penguin Books, in Cooperation
with The Whitney Museum of American Art. 1974. 92-97.
Ockenga, Starr, On Women & Friendship.
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York. 1993. 35.
Shaw, Robert, "Academy and School Work",
Expressions of Innocence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of
Americana, Katcher, Jane, Schorsch, David A. & Wofe, Ruth, ed.
Marquand Books, Seatle, in association with Yale University Press, New
Haven & London. 2007. 145-46.
Viator, Jane, "Picture Perfect", Antiques Roadshow Insider, April
2011 (pdf attached by permission of Antiques Roadshow Insider). Great article about theorem painting.