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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Theorem Paintings are Much More Than Stencils

Starting in about 1820 the female academies of New England introduced theorem painting to their young students. It was thought that even the youngest child could produce a reasonable painting using stencils.

The curriculum in those years included skills that were to prepare girls to take their places in society, including needlework, painting, sewing, and other domestic skills which would allow them to create a beautiful home. (See Blog post on Marking Samplers on this site.)

Intricate needlework pictures took a great deal of time. Paintings, especially using stencils, were relatively quick, and could produce a piece of art worthy of display much faster than needlework.

Stencil painting became popular in England at the end of the 18th century, where it was introduced from China, and it was copied in New England soon after. Stencils were used to paint designs on walls, floors and furniture first.

In the female academies of New England teachers would trace designs of fruit, flowers, birds, vases, baskets and other things onto drawing paper which was then varnished so that paint

would not soak through them, and then cut out using a pen knife. Students could pick from the stencils to create their own pictures.

This theorem was probably done by a fairly young girl. Note the flatness of the fruit and the saturated colors. As theorem painting became more sophisticated and more skilled students created their own pictures the finished pieces showed subtlety, shading, shaping, reflections, and a more varied pallet.

Note the difference in skill applied to this painting. The fruit is shaded and has depth. The painter has created to look of a glass bowl by careful shading and colors. This theorem is quite masterful compared to the earlier example.

Theorems were often painted on velvet, which was much denser than today's velvet cloth, in order to give the painting a softness in appearance. Thick watercolors were used. Theorems were also done on paper, cotton, and other cloth. The final product was usually finished off with hand painting of details like grapevines, or stems.

Theorems were rarely signed. I was lucky enough to find this one at a show in Massachusetts and have kept it in my collection because it is so rare:

It is on very dense white velvet. The letters were painted freehand, as evidenced by their unevenness.

This one has lovely, subtle shading and color gradation. Done from individual stencils of each piece of fruit, it is a masterful composition. A stencil of a basket of fruit could never produce this quality. It took real talent, a sense of proportion and an appreciation of how colors work together to produce this.

All of the photos above are of theorems done between about 1820-40 or paper or on velvet.

There was a resurgence of interest in stenciling and theorem painting in the 20th century. Many were done to emulate early theorems by tea staining the cloth. It is important to know the difference between an authentic 19th century theorem and a 20th century reproduction, talented though the 20th century artist might be.

This is a 20th century theorem found on Ebay, and identified as such. Note the extra curly tendrils and the outlining of the various fruit forms. Modern ones should be signed by the artist, and dated, but not all were.

19th century theorems on fabric were almost always mounted on a wooden frame, some times removed in order to keep them from staining. You should see the evidence of stretcher marks and tacks on the cloth.

It is sometimes hard to tell the age of a theorem, particularly if it was painted to deceive. Always buy from a dealer who will guarantee authenticity and age.

Theorem paintings are a wonderful addition to any country home. As with many New England country antiques, I prefer the ones that are more naive, less polished, like the one at the top of this blog. But it is a matter of personal preference, and how the particular theorem makes you feel. They are, in spite of the use of stencils to create them, unique and creative works of art.


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