Velvet Paintings

Pogetto velvet work from the Velveteria collection in Black Velvet Masterpieces via Collectors Weekly

Feature image: Pogetto velvet work from the Velveteria collection in Black Velvet Masterpieces via Collectors Weekly

The aesthetics of the 1970s remain shrouded in many Americans’ memories as an unabashed celebration of tacky indulgence. Shag carpets, flashy patterns, and wood-paneled walls swathed most homes in trademarks of bad taste. Amongst these interior design choices lies one of the most hated art trends of the twentieth century: velvet paintings. Velvet paintings are unforgivably associated with bad taste. Although the art form is rich in history and skill, velvet paintings got relegated outside the realm of high art somewhere along the way. When did this shift occur, and can exploring the complicated history of velvet paintings defend them as a legitimate art form? 

Tretchikoff, Woman With Crayfish; Byrony Jones/CNN via CNN
Tretchikoff, Woman With Crayfish; Byrony Jones/CNN via CNN

History of Velvet Paintings

Velvet art originated in Kashmir, the birthplace of velvet. Artisans create velvet by evenly distributing cut threads in a short, dense pile. This unique softness has linked velvet with royalty since its invention around the 14th century. Shortly after velvet became a popular fabric for nobility, Marco Polo brought velvet paintings back to the West after seeing them in Asia. These paintings likely portrayed Hindu deities and indicated velvet art's role in religion.

Following Marco Polo’s explorations in the East, religious velvet paintings became common in European churches. In the Russian Caucuses, orthodox priests became especially skilled in velvet paintings. 

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, A Friend in Need, 1903 via Wikipedia
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, A Friend in Need, 1903 via Wikipedia

In the 16th century, Spanish colonialism brought velvet paintings to Mexico and the Phillippines, where the tradition thrived for centuries. Velvet paintings were not popularized in the United States until the 1930s, when Edgar Leeteg, the "Father of Velvet Paintings," moved to Hawaii. While in Hawaii, he bought a cheap stock of black velvet fabric, which he used as his canvas to paint Polynesian culture throughout his career. During WWII, American soldiers became enthralled with Leeteg's work, which usually depicted beautiful Polynesian women. The paintings made their way across the Pacific throughout the War. In 1953, Leeteg passed away, having achieved some commercial success but no notable recognition from the art world. However, fame was never his goal. He stated, "My paintings belong in a gin mill, not a museum. If this modern crap is art, then just call my paintings beautiful. Don't call them art."

Despite the underground rise of American velvet painting, Leeteg’s career and the nostalgia it fostered for the servicemen who purchased his pieces in tropical islands allowed for the genre to become even more popular after his death.

Edgar William Leeteg
Edgar William Leeteg

In 1964, Honolulu gallerist Lou Krietzman displayed velvet paintings as the official artistic tradition of Hawaii at the World Fair in NYC. From there, velvet paintings of Jesus, Elvis Presley, or the iconic scene of dogs playing poker are the most popular pieces associated with kitsch art of the 1970s. This rise in velvet art’s popularity coincided with velvet painting factories opening in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where artists mass-produced each painting in an assembly line. Everyone from housewives to students became velvet painters in Mexico at the time. Many attribute this mass commercialization and production of the paintings to cheapening a once-beloved art form, leading to it being seen as an art form for the tasteless lower classes, those who would buy the paintings at roadside stands on vacation. In 2005, velvet paintings gained popularity again amongst the hipsters in Portland with the opening of Velveteria, a museum dedicated solely to velvet paintings. Today, the gradual denigration of velvet paintings within the art world has led them to saturate rural thrift stores and eBay listings.

Velvet Painting Techniques and Themes

Despite the gaudy appearance of a velvet Elvis painting, it is essential to note just how difficult it is to paint on a velvet canvas. Painting on black velvet, the most common background for velvet paintings in the twentieth century, is the exact opposite of painting on a white canvas. Artists paint highlights onto the canvas first, utilizing the dark background as shadows. Additionally, the textured canvas makes for a strenuous painting process. The layers of oil paint, which is the preferred medium due to its ability to stay wet longer, cannot be too thick. 

Evis Presley, The King Portrait, via Fine Art America
Evis Presley, The King Portrait, via Fine Art America

Since the Middle Ages, religious imagery has been a common theme of velvet paintings. Amidst the 20th-century height of velvet paintings’ popularity, Jesus was the most popular figure seen on Mexican velvets, followed by Elvis. Other popular subjects for velvet paintings include iconic figures of Americana, including John Wayne, Dale Earnhardt, Native Americans, cowboys, wolves, and anthropomorphized dogs playing poker. 

The Future of Velvet Paintings

After their fall from grace, velvet paintings came to occupy a space of aesthetics called kitsch. Kitsch is the German word for trash. It is used in art to describe pieces or designs that are considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality. Generally, kitsch is defined as low-brow, mass-produced art that utilizes popular icons rather than relying on innovative concepts or intellectual effort. It is closely tied to camp, with its humorous and ironic themes.

Velveteria Neon Sign via Wikipedia
Velveteria Neon Sign via Wikipedia

Although kitsch was used as far back as the nineteenth century to refer to cheap, popular art made in Munich’s art markets, it steadily gained popularity in America in the 1950s, when artists began taking an increased interest in popular culture, which led to the evolution of pop art in the 1960s. 

However, kitsch and camp aesthetics are sometimes appreciated ironically and knowingly. For example, the 2019 Met Gala was themed “Camp: Notes on Fashion” after Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay. The gala celebrated all things ironic, humorous, artificial, and theatrical, which left the internet begging celebrities and stylists to abandon snobbery and good taste for one night. More recently, kitsch and camp have taken on more positive connotations on social media. 2023’s hit movie Barbie transformed a mass-produced toy into a self-aware kitsch masterpiece that dominated trends all summer. 

Tretchikoff work known as the
Tretchikoff work known as the 'Mona Lisa of Kitsch' via Widewalls

Kitsch is alive today with artists such as John Currin, Jeff Koons, and Paul McCarthy, who all draw upon these themes and inspirations. Today, the kitsch movement strives to separate itself from the high-brow art market. In short, amongst the Picassos and Van Goghs, there is always the art that is left behind in terms of avant-garde and taste. This realm belongs to the kitsch, the camp, and the tacky. Unlike more esteemed art forms, kitsch art does not care about an artist’s references, background, or inspirations. Kitsch appropriates any image it finds attractive, from sad clowns to Elvis. Although velvet paintings are seen as being in poor taste, mediocre, and lacking refinement, they have a rich history and appeal to massive audiences, making them an art form we love to hate.

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