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The Delicate Art of Cobweb Paintings

Who could have thought that the delicate, fine, silky threads of a spider’s cobweb could be woven into a canvas strong enough to withstand the abrasive strokes of an artist’s brush? But the hundred or so paintings that survive today in museums and in the hands of private collectors bear testimony to this incredibly ingenious, painstaking and time-consuming craft that the Austrian monks of the Tyrolean Alps practiced in the 16th century.

Cobweb painting, sometimes also called gossamer painting, are made on fabrics made of spider cobwebs or caterpillars' silk. The cobwebs are collected from the wild, and great care is taken to remove twigs, insect parts, spider droppings etc. that become trapped and entangled in the web. After carefully cleaning the webs, they are stretched over a cardboard to form a thin canvas. Over this canvas a coat of diluted milk is applied to add strength. The canvas is now ready to paint, but it is still extremely fragile. Even a gentle poke of a finger can completely destroy a cobweb painting.

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A watercolor portrait of Philippine Welser, wife of Archduke Ferdinand II, made on an ultrathin canvas made out of cobwebs. Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

It’s hard to explain why monks went such great lengths to create something that’s so vulnerable to the slightest touch. Perhaps they sought to express their spiritual devotion and unwavering patience by mastering the most difficult canvas imaginable, muses Ina Cassier in an article published in the 1956 issue of Natural History.  “The more fragile [the paintings] were, the more they were cherished,” she explained.

Artists used a variety of opaque watercolors to create the paintings. But the background areas were left unpainted, so that when held against light, the figures seem to float in an opalescent haze. The most skilled craftsmen were able to create even engravings by applying just the right amount of pressure to the canvas.

The very first cobweb paintings were that of saints, and they hung in windows of churches and cloisters. As the techniques became more common place, cobweb paintings began to be found in homes and could be bought at marketplaces. An artist named Franz Unterberger (1838–1902) of Innsbruck, employed other local artists to produce cobweb portraits and sold them to tourists. These cobweb paintings were exported to England, North America and Germany in significant numbers. The subject of these paintings also became more diverse. In the 19th and early 20th century the cobweb artists of Innsbruck painted landscapes and scenes involving local peasants, as well as military scenes of the wars of independence.

There are possibly no practicing cobweb artist in the world today. The last skilled cobweb artist based out of Tennessee, in the US, died in 1956. Anne Bradshaw Clopton discovered the craft in the late 1890s after reading about it in a magazine when she was only 11. She began practicing and eventually mastered the secrets of the art. Over the decades Anne learned to recognize the species of spiders that spun the densest webs, and the times of year that the webs were the strongest. She also developed her own paint mixtures that would resist sagging, cracking, or tearing the webs. She applied the paint in microscopic dots, using a magnifying glass and a single-hair brush, painstakingly filling the gaps between the individual web threads. Even the smallest artwork took thousands of dots and many weeks to complete.

Unfortunately, most of Anne's fragile paintings have either been lost or destroyed. Some of them were donated after her death to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Others can be seen at her old house in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

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Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

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Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

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Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

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Photo credit: Charles Deering Mccormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

Source:  Atlas Obscura / Wikipedia

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