Decoupage (or découpage) is the art of decorating an object by gluing colored paper cutouts onto it in combination with special paint effects, gold leaf, etc. Commonly an object like a small box or an item of furniture is covered by cutouts from magazines or from purpose-manufactured papers. Each layer is sealed with varnishes (often multiple coats) until the "stuck on" appearance disappears and the result looks like painting or inlay work. The traditional technique used 30-40 layers of varnish which were then sanded to a polished finish. This was known in 18th century England as The Art of Japanning after its presumed origins.
There are many varieties on the traditional technique involving purpose made 'glue' requiring fewer layers (often 5 or 20, depending on the amount of paper involved). Cutouts are also applied under glass or raised to give a three dimensional appearance according to the desire of the decouper. Currently decoupage is a popular handicraft.
The craft became known as découpage in France (from the verb découper, 'to cut out') as it attained great popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many advanced techniques were developed during this time, and items could take up to a year to complete due to the many coats and sandings applied. Some famous or aristocratic practitioners included Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, and Beau Brummell. In fact the majority of decoupage enthusiasts attribute the beginning of decoupage to 17th century Venice. However it was known before this time in Asia.
The most likely origin of decoupage is thought to be East Siberian tomb art. Nomadic tribes would use cut out felts to decorate the tombs of their deceased. From Siberia, the practice came to China, and by the 12th century, cut out paper was being used to decorate lanterns, windows, boxes and other objects. In the 17th century, Italy, especially in Venice, was at the forefront of trade with the Far East and it is generally thought that it is through these trade links that the cut out paper decorations made their way into Europe.
There have been forms of paper art in Europe for centuries and an argument can be made for Poland and Germany, with their native folded paper artworks, having been the predecessors of modern-day decoupage. However, today's decoupage bears more resemblance to Chinese lacquered objects than the Polish folded paper artworks. Some people use simple wallpaper, 'stick on' borders or decorative wall motifs and apply them to shop bought items such as clocks. The auction website eBay has many examples of so called découpage.
Originally Venetian cabinet-makers and lacquerers used a form of decoupage to create 'fake lacquerwork' to provide cheaper alternatives to the 17th century fashion for Chinese lacquered furniture. This was known as lacca contrafatta, 'counterfeit lacquer'. Soon they began to use cut-out copies of fashionable and popular artworks to decorate the furniture and objets d'art they created, and no longer copied the designs of the Far East. This became known as 'poor man's art'.
By the 18th century these creations were not confined to Italy but had spread throughout Europe and were no longer only the occupation of artisans but had also taken on the role of a lady's hobby, notably in the court of King Louis XV. Instead of glueing paper onto furniture, it was used to decorate smaller objects such as hat boxes and toiletries. Tragically, in the courts of kings it was not only copies of artwork that were cut up and used in this way but also actual artworks. Notably works by Boucher, Fragonard, Redoute, Pillement, Watteau amongst numerous others were lost this way.
Certain decoupage creators also began to be recognised as artists in their own right in the 18th century. Most remarkable was the English Mrs Mary Delaney, who became a court favourite of Queen Charlotte at the age of 71 for her production of highly detailed, hand coloured botanically based decoupage.
By the 18th century in England decoupage was popular with the upper and burgeoning middle classes. This century provides the most commonly known examples of historical decoupage, the sentimental paper additions to hatboxes, gift boxes and girl's personal items of all kinds. Decoupage was also popularly used at this time to create personalised Valentine's Cards.
In the early part of the 20th century, decoupage, like many other art methods, began experimenting with a less realistic and more abstract style. 20th century artists who produced decoupage works include Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Most famous are Matisse's Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra).
Since decoupage was considered to be a "poor man's art," it isn't surprising that common household materials can be used to create exquisite effects. The list of supplies is short: