Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Magic of Marbledust

Some folk paintings have subtle qualities that only grow on you over time. For years, when I pulled painting storage racks, I would get to one that was very different from all the others. Instead of the expected splash of colors from the various paintings hung on each rack, this one offered only a dull vista of black and white images. I didn’t give these works much thought or time (let alone gallery space) until the late 1990s when I learned more about them. Now, after looking more closely at them, I think they are some of the most interesting pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection.

They are commonly called Marbledust paintings, but in the nineteenth century they were known as Grecian Panitings and, later, Monochromatic Paintings. The method of creating these works was simple: the drawing surface consisted of paper or an artist’s board, first painted white and coated with marbledust sifted through fine muslin. When dry, this created a rough surface on which charcoal and pastels could be worked to create soft-edged forms and modeled areas of light and shadow. The medium could be worked with a piece of leather or a knife to create strongly contrasting light and dark areas.

It was an art form designed for young ladies, and included in B. F. Gandee’s 1835 publication, The Artist, or Young Ladies’ Instructor. Gandee referred to the technique as Grecian Painting. It was Silas Wood who commercialized the process and called it Monochromatic Painting in the 1850s. By that time, female academies were offering this art form as part of their curriculums, using published prints for subjects and composition.

These works glisten and shimmer in the right light, and are stunning in their execution. Our Marbledust painting of Mount Vernon by a Connecticut woman named Lucia Jencks in 1861 is one of the best examples. It is large (21 ½” x 27 ½”) and has an incredible amount of detail in every square inch. The result is an impressive tribute to George Washington, depicting his home and final resting place. A perfect complement to any American home.

If you like early engravings or mezzotints, these Marbledust paintings will really appeal to you. They are essentially hand-drawn versions of the prints. Only sprinkled with fairy dust.

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