Floral Paintings at Spillian

The mystery of floral paintings on the walls of Spillian.

If, when entering the parlor at Spillian, guests somehow fail to notice the unusual murals on the mellowed beadboard walls, they will likely stop and gape by the time they reach the open gallery at the top of the stairs. 

Spillian decorative painting

Today’s owners suspect the elaborate murals were painted by scenic artists, possibly workers from the Metropolitan Opera. They are painted directly on the shellacked wood.

Here is a dazzling display of tea roses and hydrangea in full flower, shaded by palm fronds. Climbing and arching vines tended by butterflies adorn an enclosed flue. In guest rooms, wreaths of climbing roses or twining vines make backdrops for beds and fireplaces. Wisteria wends its way over a door in the hall.

“The paintings are a little mysterious, because they’re not signed,” says Leigh Melander, co-owner of the house. She suspects the murals may be the work of artists who worked in New York theater and opera, brought in by Anton Seidl, the artistic director at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1880s. “He was a very close friend of the Fleischmanns, who built this house, which is one reason why we wonder if the murals were painted by scenic artists. They have a kind of scenic artists’ feel, they’re very romantic.”

Leigh asked Jeff Greene, founder of Evergreene Architectural Arts, a mural and fresco restoration company, to come take a look. “He found them intriguing because they’re painted directly on the natural, shellacked pine. He’d never seen that before.”

Rose paint

Common in rural Sweden, rosemåling came to the New World as Scandinavians settled here, often carrying their belongings in beautifully painted trunks.

Greene noticed that some murals are finer than others, and concluded that at least two artists, possibly more, contributed to the paintings. “We’ve not found any written evidence of who painted them or when,” Leigh says. “We know they were done early because they predate the gas jets. It’s a wonderful guessing game.”

A Paint-on-wood Tradition 

Lush, bright with primary and secondary colors, rosemåling is a style of folk painting on wood that originated in rural Norway. Floral polychrome designs are expressed with C and S strokes and feature scrolling and flowing lines, as well as script and scenic additions. Also common in rural Sweden, rosemåling came to the New World as Scandinavians settled here, often carrying their belongings in beautifully painted trunks. The craft was revived in the 20th century when a Norwegian immigrant, decorative artist Per Lysne, turned to rosemåling during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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