Theorem painting – an almost forgotten folk art form


by Anne Gilbert

Theorem painting, for many of today's antiques collectors is strictly a footnote of history. This technique begins by utilizing stencils cut into various shapes. The subjects could be baskets of flowers or other forms from nature. After the stencils were placed in various positions, artisans would fill them in with watercolors or trace them on paper or even on velvet.

Antique theorem. Watercolor on paper. (photo courtesy 1stDibs)

Historically, stencil painting is known to go back as early as 9,000 BC. Prehistoric artists are known to have placed their hands on a cave walls and blow pulverized pigment around them.
Fast forward to the early American Colonies. European immigrants introduced stenciling to America. Often itinerant artists traveled from town to town decorating floors and walls with stenciled designs.

By the early 19th century, theorem painting on velvet or Bristol board had replaced embroidery as the pastime for genteel women. Painting on velvet was a painstaking process as each stencil was placed on the velvet and held firmly down in place with tacks or weights as each was painted. Theorem painting all but disappeared by the 1840s. However, many examples dating after that have turned up.

Theorem painting by David Y. Ellinger, c. 1970s theorem on velvet. (photo courtesy David Y. Ellinger)

CLUES: The 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebration revived interest in theorems. A new generation of artists began creating them. One of the most important is David Y. Ellinger. His vintage theorems on velvet sell for more than $ 1,400.

Some 19th century theorems painted on velvet are priced at over $2,000 at retail dealers. Keep in mind that the more complicated the design, the higher the price.

When considering purchasing a theorem painting, be sure that it is an authentic antique. Many reproductions were made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the ANTIQUE DETECTIVE to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.