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Plain walls with a stenciled frieze at the ceiling, or a stencil pattern bordering doors and windows, were fashionable treatments around 1800. The more common all-over stencil designs date to the 1820s and ’30s.

New England itinerant artist Rufus Porter rarely painted murals that portrayed an identifiable scene. In this example, a stenciled frieze pattern seems to grow out of the sponge-painted trees overlaid on a rolling landscape.
Brian Vanden Brink

At about the same time, itinerant paint-decorator Rufus Porter published instructions on how to paint rooms with mural scenes of buildings and ships in land- and seascapes, offering an alternative to popular (and expensive) French scenic wallpapers. Stenciling and mural painting became American folk-art forms.

Paint-decorated walls remained popular through the 1840s. In the decades that followed, however, the designs and techniques were dismissed as “primitive,“ until antiquarians celebrated them during the 1920s Colonial Revival.

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Further Reading

In American Wall Stenciling, 1790-1840 (University Press, 2003), author Ann Eckert Brown shares stencils found in New England, the South, and the Midwest as she describes rural folk-art and classically inspired urban stencil traditions. Ann is an experienced researcher, educator, and paint artist; her comprehensive book includes 250 illustrations, a vocabulary of paint decoration, information on early paints, and a who’s-who of artisans. Order a copy here.

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Patricia Poore

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