Saturday, August 31, 2013

Painting on Velvet

When I was a kid during World War II,  we spent part of our summer months on the farm of my aunt and uncle.  In those days of food rationing, the country fare was lavish and delicious.  My farm stays brought me in close proximity to a good sized picture that hung on the wall of the dining room.  It was of the “Last Supper” and painted on black velvet.  It was one of the most interesting piece of art an eight year old had ever seen.

As shown here, replicas of DiVinci’s masterpiece can still be found,  although my ardor for the art form has cooled considerably in ensuing years.   Just recently, however, I came across a book called “Black Velvet Masterpieces” by Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson, the founders of the Velveteria Museum in Portland, Oregon.  Their enthusiasm kindled in me a desire to know more about this often derided and scorned art form.
Edgar Leeteg's Polynesian Girl

Baldwin and Anderson attempt to explain the lure of painting on velvet.  They contend and I quote:  “Velvet paintings seem to call out to the viewer, inviting them to experience the paintings in a tactile way.  They have an inner luminescence that plays on the senses and lures you in.”   That sensuous quality may be the reason that so many of the subjects involve nudity.

The availability of that subject matter may have been the reason that several of the earliest artists on velvet were drawn to the islands of the South Pacific.

Leeteg's Conch Blower
An itinerant painter of billboards and posters, Edgar Leeteg was enticed to Tahiti by a friend’s promise of “opportunity in the Garden of Eden.”  Although Leeteg previously painted on canvas, he had, like me, had seen religious paintings on velvet.  That medium was perfect he said, “ for capturing the beauty of
McPhee's "La Belle de Tahiti"
the Polynesian race.”  To his credit he also captured other elements of island life.

Perhaps inspired by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, other artists were arriving on Pacific islands, Among them was Charles McPhee, an Australian who moved to Western Samoa in 1939.  After World War II he moved to Tahiti where he met Leeteg and was inspired to take up painting on velvet.  He chose many of the same subjects as the master and actually married one of Leeteg’s models.  Although both men found their early customers among tourists, their fame spread to the extent that galleries in the U.S. (particularly Hawaii), Australia and New Zealand began showing and selling their velvet art.

What had begun largely as a vehicle for religious images quickly became more profane.  Although is still very possible to find velvet paintings of angels, the Virgin Mary and the Christ, today Jesus may be coupled with an iconic figure of a much later day, Elvis Presley.  In fact, painting Elvis on velvet could be considered a cottage industry.

Other celebrities and political figures also are frequently found limned on velvet.  The Republican Party commissioned a limited edition series of such artworks to memorialized their leaders.  They called it the “Patriotic Portraits Collectible.”   Among the subjects was Richard M. Nixon,  whose credentials as a patriot might be questioned by some.  If the former president looks vaguely Latino, it may be because it was painted by a Mexican south of the border in Tijuana.

Mexico, by the way, is a major source of contemporary paintings on velvet.  Favorite subjects include animals,  particularly fierce ones like lions, tigers and panthers -- or conversely, those of a cuddly sort, including puppies, kittens and bunnies.   Ever since Margaret Keane gave the world the soul sad children with eyes as big as saucers, tots with the oversized orbs also have been a staple of the trade.

Landscapes have not been a major subject on velvet.  The reason logically is the inability to depict a sunlit scene compatible with the totally black background.  Moonlight, however, becomes velvet.  It became part of a velvet painting of the Golden Gate Bridge with the lights of San Francisco in the background.  Finding the picture appealing,  I asked my wife if it might be a good addition to our recreation room walls.  She replied,  “How lowbrow can you get?"  Guess not.

As a last picture, it seemed appropriate to me to get back to the basics of why velvet paintings of certain subject matter seem to be so popular for back rooms, bars and man caves.  This purple on black image captures the essence of velvet:  sensuous,  luminous and tactile.

Finally, a word must be said about the “Velveteria,”  the museum opened by Anderson and Baldwin in 2005 to show some of their collection of more than 2,000 paintings on velvet.  Rising rental costs forced the couple to close the museum in January 2010.  They subsequently packed up their paintings and moved to Southern California where they have hoped to open another museum.  Although I have watched for a possible announcement of an opening, none has been forthcoming.  Their book, “Black Velvet Masterpieces” is still available and contains information and many examples from their collection.

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