Ah, black velvet art. I remember when I saw my first velvet painting in real life at my dusty local Goodwill about fifteen years ago. I was enchanted. The room seemed to grow dim. A disco ball came from out of nowhere and I could hear the sound of castanets. I had to have this bullfighter with glitter accents. A disgruntled woman whose nametag reading Delores said, "Quit leaning on the jewelry counter glass, honey." But I would not be deterred!
And ten dollars! What a deal!
That got me off and running. Since then, I have added about one piece a year to my collection. I could actively seek them out, but I prefer to let serendipity take its course. I stumble on them at weekend markets, thrift stores, and the occasional vintage store. I had a velvet art spree last year when I was in Laramie, Wyoming at a giant flea market.
Before there was velvet art, there was just plain old velvet. Many people love luxury and things that feel good to touch, so it's no real surprise that someone invented velvet. Apparently, the first records of velvet appear in Kashmir in the fourteenth century. What did surprise me is that the history of velvet painting goes so far back. As a North American, I think of Mexico when I think of velvet paintings, but velvet art may have started in China and was spread to Europe by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese brought tempura to the Japanese, and brought home velvet art. What a great trade!
Many of the velvets that are available in North America today originate from the 1970s explosion that came out of Mexico. Most of these paintings I have seen have the "piecemeal" factory look that reflects the fact that the paintings were mass-produced, with one person in the line painting the red parts, another person trained to paint the flowers, and so forth. I suspect my bullfighter painting above is an example of this approach, since it has sort of a "choppy" paint-by-number look to it. The factory supervisor would add his signature at the end, creating a personal look that belied the method.
Edgar Leeteg, known as the "American Gauguin," fled to Tahiti during the American Depression in the 1930s and soon started painting Tahitian scenes on velvet. After establishing a patron in the States, Leeteg worked producing hundreds of velvet paintings which have a higher-quality look than factory Mexican velvets. Indeed, his work does hark to Gauguin, who approached his subjects as an outsider with an eye for idealized exoticism. At one point in the 1960s, Leeteg's art was going for twenty grand, but it seems people have wised up since then and the bottom has fallen out of the velvet market. Here in Seattle they seem to range from ten to two hundred dollars.
This, of course, doesn't mean people aren't still interested. I didn't know until recently that there is a black velvet art museum in Portland, Oregon, called the Velveteria that I plan on visiting next time I'm down there. I cannot yet recommend their book, Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights from the Collection of the Velveteria Museum, but I will be checking it out when I'm there next. The curators of the Velveteria were just covered on NPR, as well, which is a fun read.
Collecting black velvet art is a fun hobby, but I suppose it's not for everyone. When people walk into your home and see that you have velvet art on the walls, it speaks for you. Velvet art says, "I have love to give you, baby, and that love can probably be treated with a round of penicillin." I think I am too old to outgrow this now, so I will probably always find a place for velvet art in my home.
Many facts in this article were taken from the wikipedia article on velvet, and the book Black Velvet: The Art We Love to Hate, by Jennifer Heath, which I do own and can recommend. List of the Day just did a fun list on velvet art.
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