Friday, June 21, 2013

Edgar Leeteg, Father of Black Velvet Painting

Edgar Leeteg was an American expatriate artist who lived and painted in Tahiti, where he popularized black velvet painting and became known as the "American Gauguin."

Although velvet painting dates back at least to the 14th century, (Marco Polo found velvet painting in Kashmir), the 20th century popularity of black velvet traces back to Leeteg, a native of Sacramento, California.

In California, Leeteg did odd jobs, including sign painting, but jobs were scarce in the Depression. He emigrated to Tahiti in 1933 with a few brushes and paint left over from his sign work. There he painted sensuous portraits of the local women and of orchids and started selling his paintings to tourists in bars.

He eventually found patrons in America and a dealer in Hawaii. Many of his customers were Navy personnel based in Hawaii who brought the paintings back to their base in San Diego. With Leeteg's originals under their arm, many of these sailors went to Tijuana to commission similar portraits of their girlfriends.

After that, black velvet painting developed into a small industry of handcrafted art for tourists which continues to this day. The Mexican subjects tended more to bullfights, señoritas, and celebrities.

Leeteg's originals have gone up and down in value with collectors. They have remained popular with fans of Tiki / Polynesian art of the 1940s, and with tastemakers who embrace kitsch culture.

Thanks, Christopher


Chantal Fournier said...

Very interesting. That example you posted is better than every single velvet painting I have seen before. Do you have any insight about what painting on velvet involves? I doubt you can really prime velvet, so wouldn't the oil eat away at the velvet?

James Gurney said...

Hi, Chantal, I think people use a variety of media--oil, acrylic, and fabric paint. There's a brief discussion on eHow:

Diana Moses Botkin said...

How interesting! I agree with Chantal about Leeteg's image in the post. It's quite lovely: certainly nothing like the scary bad black velvet paintings I saw as a child in the 1950s!

Leeteg's Wikipedia bio is fascinating too. I especially like his quote about his own work, "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."

K_tigress said...

Humm I should try this when I get the chance with an airbrush. Just to see how this works.

Rant said...

Leeteg's velvet paintings are just as good as any canvas paintings I have ever seen. I am lucky enough to live in Vancouver, B.C. that has a tiki bar that has THREE of his paintings. Way better than the kitchy stuff that comes to mind when you think of velvet painting.

Simone said...

It must have made it's way to Memphis, too. Lot's of wonderful "velvet Elvises" to be seen there!!!!

mp said...

He did a very nice job of it. Too bad black velvet painting became the epitome of kitsch ever since. The thought of painting on velvet just seems so wrong...which probably means it's due for a resurgence.

Conrad Bagley said...

I have an original Leetag the Javelin thrower down here in Australia . I would sell it if anyone would be interested.
My email in ozyank1@


Conrad Bagley