Tin Frames

Art of Tinwork Frames in Mexico and in the Southwest of The United States

Essay by Jillian Franzen 

The history and use of tinwork in Mexico and New Mexico for so many everyday and religious items shows how inspiration and ideas travelled from Europe to Mexico and to the United States. Bishop Lamy from France was appointed to New Mexico in 1850, four years after the U.S. Army occupation in the West and recruited other French priests who brought lithographs of saints with them for distribution. They encouraged people to use these new lithographs (fig. 1) instead of the traditional wooden retablos. The sacred images created a need to fabricate frames and nichos (fig. 2) to protect them thus introducing a new material, more durable than wood, which could be used as a support to paint their own retablos.

Tin was used for a variety of religious and decorative items such as crosses, nichos, and sconces, but frames were by far the most popular item making up about two-thirds of all surviving tin pieces. The use of tin along with the style that was used to decorate it are unique to New Spain because of the heavy Spanish influence. Steel punches were used to create intricate designs in the metal that were inspired by Spanish metalwork techniques. Tinplates were imported from Europe and brought to the region in the form of containers and cans for food. The lithographs distributed to the locals came from France and Germany whereas the glass used in frames and the oil paints used to decorate the frames or retablos were all brought to New Mexico from Mexico through the Santa Fe Trail.

 Tin became a popular material for frames because it was easy to obtain since the U.S. Army began their occupation, and it was a much cheaper option than traditional silver. Tinplate was made of a thin sheet of iron dipped or coated in a thin layer of tin. It was food-safe, so it was often used to make containers for oil, lard, or other supplies. After the containers served their purpose, the tin could be easily salvaged or could be bought for a very low cost. Tinplates from ceiling panels were also common sources of the material for painted retablos. The panels were made in a standard size, one that was too big to make a frame or retablo from, so it was often cut into quarters. The common sizes of retablos we see today hint that they may have come from a tinplate ceiling tile. The smallest pieces are only a couple inches in length because they were meant for personal use. Larger pieces can be up to three feet tall because they were meant to be used in churches.

Most of the homemade frames are squares or rectangles and use decorations to cover the joints at the corners. Some simple frames were made by cutting the tinplate and peeling back the corners to reveal the painting beneath it (figs. 1, 3). The more elaborate frames have a basic rectangle shape framed by glass with added elaborate scalloped extra pieces around the top edge and corners (fig. 4). Some frames are round because they were made from the bottom panel of a large can. Still, other frames are octagonal because they are made from several pieces wedged together. There were elaborate tin frames with glass panels around the edges decorated with paintings on the backside of the glass, called reverse glass painting (fig. 5).

Figure 1. Our Lady of Guadalupe. Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century 
Lithograph with tin and glass frame, 5½ x4”  
NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1965.2.2 
Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tollad 

Figure 2. Saint Joseph. Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century 
Oil on tin with tin and glass nicho. 12½ x 9½”  
NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1965.2.27  
Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland 

Figure 3. Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century 
Oil on tin with tin frame, 7 x 5”  
NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1968.3.3 
Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey 

Figure 4. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century. 
Engraving with metal and glass frame. Print 6¼ x 5¼” 
NMSU Art Gallery Collection # 1998.6.5 

Figure 5. Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners. Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century 
Oil on tin with tin and glass frame, 6½ x 4½”  
NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1965.2.7 
Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland 


Coulter, Lane, and Maurice Dixon Jr. New Mexican Tinwork 1840-1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. 

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. “A Noble Metal.” Artes de Mexico 44, (1999): 82-85. 

Pinkerton, Susan. “New Mexico Tinwork.” exhibition catalogue in Connecting with the Divine:   Devotional Art in New Mexico, 38-39. Santa Fe: New Mexico State Printing & Graphics, 2010.