In the early decades of the nineteenth century, grain painting was called a two-toned finish, or “veining.” Preparation was time consuming, with a priming coat that sealed the porous wood followed by one or two additional ground layers. Once dry, the ground was polished to a smooth finish and readied to receive the artistry of the painter’s hand and imagination. Graining tools included badger-hair brushes, sponges, leather, quills, sticks, feathers, putty, chamois, combs, and other materials that were used to provide patterns in the paints and glazes. After a surface was decorated and dried, it was protected by coats of varnish, which lends the additional benefit of depth and saturation to the colors beneath.
This lift-top blanket chest is associated with a group made in the vicinity of South Shaftsbury, Vermont. The distinctive patterning is organized as reserves within a striped border with quarter fans. The dizzying elliptical arrangement is an abstraction of the figured maple native to the region. The Shaftsbury group was once ascribed to Thomas Matteson based on related examples, two of which were signed with the names Thomas Matteson and Thomas G. Matison. Since then, additional pieces have been located, one with the inscription “Benonia Matteson to B. Burlingame Dr. [debit] / To Paint $2.70 / To Paint & Grain Chest $2.00 / $4.70.” The fee was often based on the area of the surface covered in solid paint and the number of coats that were applied, with additional charges for graining and marbling, and for the use of expensive colors such as green and blue.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Blanket Chest,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.