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Hand-painted Furniture

February 2006

In the earliest days cave dwellers decorated their walls with crude paintings of the world around them. Ancient cultures, from Greeks and Romans to Medieval Europeans, embellished their living spaces with painted pottery, decorated furnishings and tapestries.

Throughout time, men and women have sought to beautify their homes, drawing from the wider world around them for inspiration. It is no different today. Our technological society, about to enter a new millennium, has found a renewed interest in hand-painted furniture and decorative artistry. Perhaps in response to the fast-paced nature of our lives, surrounding ourselves with beautiful tradition helps to calm and soothe the soul.

Hand-painted furniture in America had its origins in folk art from each of the countries whose people eventually populated the New World. Because those practicing the art form were self-taught, the paintings were quite primitive or what is also often called naïve. Today we find this style charming and provincial. Because of the lack of formal art training, stencils became a popular way for these painters to get the design symmetrical. Flowing swirls and less intricate designs were usually done freehand.

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With the Colonies’ freedom from England through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, paintings often displayed patriotic themes and became a singular expression of America’s freedom. Through the industrial revolution in the mid 1800s and the advent of mass-produced items, this art form lost some of its luster, but found a renewal in the Arts and Craft movement of the 20th century when decorative painting on furniture and accessories again flourished.

While the beauty of such decorative furniture cannot be denied, neither can its functionality. First and foremost, our forebears were pragmatic men and women. Before closets were commonly built into homes, chests, armoires, and cabinets were used for storage of all types; and were hand-painted. Tables, chairs and beds were decorated as well. A practical reason for all this decoration was to disguise the poor quality of the wood often used by country cabinetmakers and to help preserve it, and to brighten the drabness of homes illuminated by candlelight.

Popular among the Pennsylvania Germans were festively painted dower chests, with the girl’s name and date painted across the top. A young girl would store household items in this chest that she would take to a home of her own when she married. The lettering became an integral part of the design, which often consisted of doves, symbols of marital bliss; hearts, for love and joy; and tulips, which for a time, appeared nearly everywhere.

Fireboards, heavy pieces of wood built to stand in front of fireplaces during the summer months, were popular throughout early America and were often hand-painted with country landscape scenes or representations of the nearby village or farm.

These furniture artists experimented with a variety of items to create different effects. Sponges, feathers, crumpled cloth or paper, combs, leaves and even fingers were all used to manipulate the paint. Corncobs, putty and dry brushes were also used.

A base coat of paint or wood-grained color was applied and allowed to dry. Sometimes, a second coat of a contrasting color would be applied, and lightly sanded to let the first layer show through. Occasionally, this topcoat of paint was mixed with oil or vinegar to create interesting random patterns in the final design. Then, the animal life, landscape, or floral scenes would be painted on. Finally, several layers of clear, protective shellac would be painted on.

Today, artists practice a wide variety of folk art painting across the country. The Delaware Valley region has historically been a haven for artists of all types, and is no less so for those who keep alive the tradition of hand painting furniture and other household items for beautiful and practical reasons.

Nouveau has taken a closer look at several local artists who hand-paint furniture and other items for the home. The quality of individualism found in the earliest hand-painters is carried on in these contemporary artists.

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