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Art Frames: You Can’t Fully See the Picture Without the Frame

Sometimes what’s around the picture is just as important as what’s in it.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Frame Stories”.

By John Dorfman

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When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened its New American Wing Galleries for Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts on January 16, the most attention-grabbing work on view was undoubtedly Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). It wasn’t just its massive size (at about 21 feet wide and 12 feet high it needs its new specially high-ceilinged, vaulted room to breathe and is the largest freestanding canvas at the Met) and its status as an icon of American history painting (according to the Met it is the number-one requested image in the museum’s holdings)—it was also what surrounds it. The gilded frame, made by New York master artisan Eli Wilner, is massive and sculptural, with huge shields at the corners and stars along the sides, topped by a crest consisting of an eagle surrounded by bristling arms above a banner that reads, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.” With a framing job like this, what usually occupies the periphery moves to center stage.

Wilner’s bravura performance is actually a painstaking replica of the original frame, which was lost sometime before 1918. In 2006, a Met curator, Kevin Avery, stumbled upon a volume of pictures by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady that document an 1864 art exhibition held in New York to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission, a nonprofit that raised money to help injured Union soldiers. In several photos, Avery saw Washington Crossing the Delaware, mounted in an elaborate frame very different from the understated, narrow one in which it hung at the Met. According to Wilner, all the evidence needed to reconstruct the frame was in those photos—although there was some writing on the shields that was impossible to decipher from Brady’s print, and Wilner holds out hope that somewhere out there are more photos or other documents that would enable him to add in the missing script.

The task, of course, only began with the photos. Figuring out the dimensions and proportions, not to mention designing, carving and gilding the frame, took four years, the eagle crest being the part that took the longest to complete. “I was worried that my chief carver would get carpal tunnel syndrome!” says Wilner. “Structurally, this is the largest frame we have ever done. The Thomas Morans we did for the Smithsonian were around 7 by 14 feet, which is tiny compared to this.” The Leutze frame was so heavy (1,400 pounds) that for the weight-bearing elements the craftsmen had to consult with architects. In the larger sense, says Wilner, “the challenge was to re-create the frame so it would measure up to the painting.” He—and the Met’s curators—believe that a monumental canvas like the Leutze needs a monumental frame or else it will look diminished. “If you’re ever going to speak about frames as sculpture, as I do,” he says, “that’s the frame.”

The attention paid to historical accuracy in the case of Washington Crossing the Delaware illustrates on a grand scale the current trend in framing—historical authenticity rules. An Early Renaissance panel should go into a tabernacle frame, a Baroque painting will be complemented by an elaborate gilded frame encrusted with scrollwork, while an Ashcan School canvas needs a frame with a darker finish. If originals aren’t available, high-grade framers will create something in the appropriate period style. Until relatively recently, though, authenticity was not a major concern—what went with the décor was a concern, and as a result ephemeral fashions that actually clashed with the aesthetic of the artwork at hand influenced framing choices.

“Framing has been changed almost every decade,” says Wilner, “to make the pictures look more modern, to go with new furniture or for collectors to mark them with their own taste. Napoleon removed all the frames at the Louvre and put on Napoleonic frames—which was undone right after his death.” In the later 19th century, frame styles that prevailed under Napoleon’s royal predecessors were enormously popular; it was believed that “Louis frames” dignified any work, and in the early 20th century they were seen as lending art-historical credibility to Impressionist and modern works that were still fighting for acceptance, according to framer and frame historian Simeon Lagodich of Gill & Lagodich in New York.

Within the last 15 or 20 years, on the other hand, says Wilner, “curators, collectors and art dealers are very, very aware of the time in which a painting was made, and are ensuring that the frame equals that moment. If a painting was done in 1810, they make sure the frame is in 1810 style, not 1850 or 1780 style.” Collectors are increasingly taking their cues from the scholarly establishment, “and the protocol exists in the minds of our real tastemakers—who are the curators—that frames should be paid attention to. Furthermore, because trends in collecting influence auction houses, it becomes a circular process led by museums.” (However, Elizabeth Goldfeder of GK Framing in New York points out that even though collectors are trying to be more period-correct, as a group they are still less likely than museums to make historical accuracy an absolute requirement and are still interested in harmony with décor.)

Experts are quick to point out that the fundamental reason for historical authenticity isn’t really historical, it’s aesthetic, and it has to do with artist intent. A surprising number of artists thought of the frame as part of the finished product, or even thought of the painting and the frame as inseparable aspects of an integral work. Van Gogh sometimes went outside the canvas and painted over onto the frame. In many cases artist have designed or even constructed their own frames. Edgar Degas, who remarked, “The frame is the reward for the artist,” was perhaps an extreme example: According to a story that Wilner says he “hopes is true,” Degas walked into a collector’s home and saw one of his paintings on the wall, reframed. He paid the collector back his money and took it off the wall. Many Degas frames don’t survive because dealers found it hard to sell his works in them.

Other notable artist–framers include Dante Gabriel Rossetti (as well as several other Pre-Raphaelites), who designed beautiful gilded neo-Renaissance frames that he lettered with his own poetry. (The Blessed Damozel, in Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, is one of the best examples.) Thomas Eakins designed a wide, flat frame for his 1897 portrait of mathematics professor Henry A. Roland and festooned it with equations and diagrams. Mary Cassatt designed frames, as did Camille Pissarro, Edward Hopper, and Piet Mondrian. Whistler was a major frame designer and, not surprisingly, was very opinionated on the subject. Maurice Prendergast’s work was framed by a true master, his brother Charles, who preferred to frame watercolors on paper right to the edges rather than using mats. Architect and interior designer Stanford White was also prolific in the field. “When Mr. White gets tired of designing houses,” according to an 1887 newspaper article, “he relaxes his brain with designs for picture frames. He does a limited number of these, most of them for personal friends, and whoever is the proud possessor of one may regard himself as particularly fortunate.” White, who rarely asked to be paid for these framing jobs, was known for framing the works of American painters Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Abbott Handerson Thayer.

Picasso was not a frame designer, but curators have come to respect his framing choices for his own work. Partly for cultural reasons, partly for aesthetic reasons, he favored Spanish baroque frames. Recently the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser Collection had Picasso’s Woman With Yellow Hair (1931) reframed according to the master’s evidently subtle thinking. From old wood, Gill & Lagodich created a hand-carved 17th-century-Spanish-form frame with ebonized patina and a gilded side edge. “If Picasso chose a big 17th-century frame, it makes his painting look more forward-thinking,” says framer Tracy Gill. “When you put it in a strip frame, it doesn’t have that contrast, and the frame doesn’t give it power.” At the Guggenheim, as well as at other museums including MoMA, the tide is turning against framing modernist works in the sort of piously low-key strip frames and plexi-boxes that were considered right at mid-century and in favor of more traditional gilt frames—though not as elaborate as those used in the early 20th century.

Gill tells the story of the reframing of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) at the Art Institute of Chicago as an example of how much the right frame can do to unleash the power of a painting. When the Institute was preparing the painting for exhibition in 2006, the conservators removed the original, metal-gilded overvarnished dealer frame and also removed the linen liner. “When they saw it on the easel, the composition totally changed,” recalls Gill. The curator came to the conclusion that since Nighthawks is a nocturne, it ought to be in a silver-colored frame. Traditionally, says Gill, framers have favored silver leaf for night paintings because “it lets the moonlight shine out of the picture.” She and the Chicago curators located another frame, designed by Hopper himself, and used that as the basis of the new Nighthawks frame, which uses white gold to give the silvery tone. “It really opens up the painting,” says Gill. “Now can see the coffee urns, the window, the white on the server’s coat, things you didn’t notice before. That frame paid attention both to the period and to the painting, although it wasn’t original.”

Another recent trend in frame choice is an interest in rough folk or homemade frames from the mid-20th century. “You can find them in flea markets; they can look like lumber,” says Lagodich, who is enthusiastic about them. “Some of the ones you find are somewhat primitive or simple objects, made by artists that didn’t have the resources to gild them, just polychrome or painted white. They have great architecture and can look really modern. Some are actually variations on modernist designs, like Mondrian. I actually think that’s the frontier of our profession now, like the way mid-century modern is so popular.”

Perhaps the ultimate frontier is the collecting of frames for their own sake, without pictures in them. It might sound postmodern of metaphysical, but for New York collector Edgar Smith, it’s a natural outgrowth of his interest in American decorative arts. Smith has been amassing Beaux Arts and Arts & Crafts frames and displaying them in his home for the past decade. He is a particular fan of Stanford White’s work. At the other end of the spectrum Lagodich says that he and Gill, his wife, “started out collecting empty frames as surreal objects” before they ever became framers. Lagodich was originally a painter himself and, influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, “thought frames were the most useless things.” His collecting of frames as objects unto themselves brought him to an understanding of their value. In 2000, he and Gill lent to a show at Wesleyan University titled “Frames of Reference: From Object to Subject,” in which vintage empty frames were hung alongside contemporary artworks that explored the concept of framing and the picture space.

As to why frames are only now coming into their own as a subject, Wilner offers a provocative theory: Generations of art-history students were taught using projected slides of artworks, and “the slides are always masking the frames. All these art historians turned into curators and directors of museums and hadn’t learned about frames in school.” Now, a visit to the Met, the Guggenheim or the Art Institute of Chicago should be enough to convince a perceptive viewer that you can’t fully see the picture without the frame.

A.P.F. Master Frame Makers, New York, NY, 212-308-6152,
The Cooley Gallery, Old Lyme, Conn., 860-434-8807,
Gill & Lagodich, New York, N.Y., 212-619-0631,
GK Framing, New York, N.Y., 212-431-0633,
Gold Leaf Studios, Washington, D.C., 202-833-2440,
House of Heydenryk, New York, N.Y., 212-206-9611,
Julius Lowy, New York, N.Y., 212-861-8585,
Diego Salazar Frames, Long Island City, N.Y., 718-937-9077,
Shepherd Framing (at Shepherd & Derom Galleries),
New York, N.Y., 212-744-3392,
Alan Shuptrine, Chattanooga, Tenn., 423-280-2403,
Eli Wilner, New York N.Y., 212-744-6521,

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: March 2012

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