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Cobweb Art a Triumph of Whimsy Over Practicality

July 22, 2008
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Careful with those cobwebs! Two small late 19th century portraits painted on cobwebs are housed in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University.

The origin of cobweb painting is difficult to verify, but most academic journals agree that the practice began in a remote valley of the Austrian Tyrolean Alps during the 16th century. Less than 100 known cobweb paintings still exist today, most of which are housed in private collections.

"These little eccentricities are really interesting to study," said Scott Krafft, acting head of the McCormick Library of Special Collections. "They are perfect examples of the occasional triumph of whimsy over practicality."

One painting depicts Phillipine Welser (1527-1580), a celebrated beauty who secretly married Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol and settled near Innsbruck in Schloss Ambras. The other portrays an anonymous Tyrolean peasant.

Both oval-shaped paintings, 3 inches wide by 4 inches high, were marketed to the tourist trade by Franz Unterberger (1838-1902). He was an oil painter who was best known for his scenic Italian landscapes. He ran a small shop in Innsbruck and commissioned the portraits from a staff of anonymous artisans, usually peasant craftsmen looking to develop unique items for the tourist trade.

The cobwebs usually came from Agelenidae "Funnel-Web" spiders, whose webs were gathered, layered and wound to form a delicate fabric. The material for the two library portraits, in particular, was then stretched over cardboard to make an oval window mat. To strengthen the canvas, artisans brushed milk diluted in water onto the fabric.

Painters would then use a small brush to apply watercolor to the cobwebs. Using custom tools, the most skilled craftsmen were able to create engravings by applying just the right amount of pressure to the canvas.

The cobweb portraits represent ingenious craftsmanship of Austrian peasants that has survived for more than 400 years.

(Lauren Hock is a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy)