Jean McClelland: Velvet paintings have stood the test of time

July 16, 2018
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Courtesy of Cedar Street Galleries Dancing Woman by Edgar Leeteg, one of the first artists who began using velvet painting as a medium.

Are velvet paintings considered a collectible, a work of art or a plain tacky collectible? Beauty is all in the eyes of the beholders as one old sage said. Interestingly, painting on velvet goes back centuries to the days of Marco Polo who discovered it’s origins in India. Europe obsessed with loved Asian, because distance made it hard to come by. It wasn’t long before paintings on velvet appeared in churches and wealthy ladies were perfecting the art themselves. In the 1500s, the Spanish brought the art to the Americas as well as the Pacific Islands and from there it has been continuing through time.

Painting on velvet is a difficult process due to having to have such a light touch with the paint. Often artists who specialize in velvet paintings will keep their processes secret because it can be difficult to master. Modern day popularity of velvet paintings can be linked to a character. Quite a character whom lived in the South Pacific, Edgar Leeteg, a described derelict of sorts became interested in the medium and created ‘sensuous, tropical paradises in the ’30s and ’40s. Today his works are into the five-figure category and since his works were quite prolific, one could possibly find one of these in their attic.

Leeteg’s medium really caught on in the Pacific tropics. After World War II, many soldiers who served there came home enamored with velvet paintings, thus propagating its popularity. Even though some would contend the medium exists to form bias against what one should not like. It has persisted with followers who seek out not only the ordinary but serious works of art. Besides artist Edgar Leeteg other notables in the field were Chris McPhee. Lou Kreitzman, the Valazquez brothers and CeCe Rodriguez.

In the 1970s, serious velvet art was pretty much choked out with the emergence of the Mexican velvet painting industry. What originally developed, as a home industry with individual works of art, soon became an industry of mass production putting originality on the back burner. If an image sold well, hundreds more would be reproduced. Matadors, Jesus, Elvis, wild animals and Native Americans were regularly copied and sold for $60.00 or less.

This is an interesting collectible and the medium offers something for everyone. Though most art galleries would consider it tacky, velvet paintings still has a following and a history worthy of consideration

Jean McClelland writes about antiques and collectibles for The Herald-Dispatch.

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