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A little "light" reading...

We love frames.  The more we learn, the more we want to know...


‘I have been interested in frames as long as I have been interested in pictures’ 
— Heinz Berggruen

I flew to Paris, in 1991, you flew in those pre Eurostar days, with the art journalist Susan Moore, to talk with Heinz Berggruen, the noted dealer and collector, about his taste in antique frames for framing his pictures. The Berggruen Collection of classical modern art, including works by Picasso, Braque, Cézanne, Seurat, and Van Gogh, described by the then Director, Neil MacGregor, as ‘a collection of heroes’ was temporarily exhibited in newly refurbished rooms in London’s National Gallery and had just opened.  The collection was noted for its taste and consistently high quality. The same uncompromising eye that shaped his selection of works of art, as a dealer and as a collector, also concerned itself with their presentation and I wanted to ask him about his personal choice of frames. ‘I have been interested in frames as long as I have been interested in pictures’ said Berggruen.

There is no consensus for the framing of modern paintings. Whilst Old Master paintings are usually given a frame appropriate for the country and period there are no guidelines for the collector of modern pictures to follow. Museums such as MOMA and the Guggenheim experimented with ‘down framing’ and ‘de framing’ in the 1970’s and 1980’s, controversially removing the period gilded frames which William Rubin, MOMA’s former Director of Paintings and Sculpture, described as ‘eye catching fluff’ and surrounding works by, amongst others, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, with simple narrow strip frames which critics say, give the pictures the appearance of reproductions. 

Berggruen’s opinion on framing was characteristically robust ‘The directors of the Guggenheim and the Met may feel that the frame has no function, but it is important and meaningful to marry a picture to frame that corresponds to it’ It is a marriage that Berggruen regards as essential. He uses the frame to ‘heighten…the spirit of the painting’ and to ‘bring out the mood of the painting or the mood of the artist’ stating that ‘there is a soul in a frame that reflects on the painting’.

Berggruen has a preference for 16th and 17th century Italian and Spanish frames which have a particular rapport with the works of Picasso and ‘reflect the spirit of the painting-if you like the spirit of the artist’ He is particularly pleased with the framing of his portrait of Dora Maar – The Yellow Sweater in its Spanish 17th century carved and gilded frame with acanthus leaf and pearl ornament. ‘For me the intensity of expression is heightened by this very bold and even aggressive frame’.

The success of the framing of what he describes as his ‘almost Baroque’ Harlequin and guitar lies in the complex carved surface and the tonality of the gilding of the Baroque Italian frame.

Berggruen has reframed most of his collection. It is rare that a newly acquired painting is framed to his taste. He tries to find words that convey the extraordinary transformation that takes place when a picture is reframed. ‘When I bought Cézanne’s Path in Chantilly it was in a frame which did not give me satisfaction, so I changed it.’ The difference he found amazing ‘a metamorphosis’. The Neapolitan 17th century frame he chose gave the painting ‘an entirely new feeling.’ It was a change he described as ‘a mystery’ saying ‘everything that I thought was wonderful in the picture was brought out by this frame’.

But not all of his contemporaries, collectors or artists, have taken so much trouble over framing. ‘Acquiring a frame’ said Berggruen ‘takes patience and setting aside time’ Patience which paid off in the instance of framing his Van Gogh Public gardens in Arles for which he found with Wiggins an exceptional ‘cassetta’ frame which fitted the painting perfectly.

One has a sense from talking to Mr Berggruen that the framing of a new acquisition heightens and expands the pleasure of possession. The search for the perfect frame, the trials and false starts, are to be savoured and ones which he ‘would not forgo… for anything’.

This Frame Note is based on the booklet
FRAMING MODERN MASTERS A conversation with Heinz Berggruen
written by Journalist and Art Critic Susan Moore and published by Wiggins. 
© 1991 Arnold Wiggins & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0 951 2135 3 9

Copies available, contact us for more information.

The Berggruen collection is now exhibited in Museum Berggruen, Berlin


JUNE 23, 2017

Letting the Frame Speak for the Artist and the Era


By J. Peder Zane

Oct. 28, 2015


To appreciate one of the most provocative developments in art, museumgoers are shifting their gaze from the dance of shadow and light, color and texture that graces the canvas to consider the painting’s essential but often ignored partner: the frame.  


The art world equivalent of Ginger Rogers — in the sense of making the main attraction look good — frames have long subtly shaped the viewer’s experience while being taken for granted.

But now frames are experiencing a renaissance of attention and respect from both museum curators and collectors. “I don’t remember a single discussion of frames in graduate school,” said Mark Cole, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Now frames are increasingly seen as rich areas of study and as precious historic objects that must be preserved.”

This interest is also driving up prices, especially for period frames, which are far rarer than old master paintings. Eli Wilner, a leading New York dealer specializing in American frames, started his business in the 1980s by haunting Catskills antiques shops and scouring the trash of high-end Manhattan dealers who preferred to slap on a new frame rather than restore a creaky older piece. Today he can command $20,000 or more each for frames he found or might have paid $20 for.  


“My antique frames are so rare I tend to want to sell my copies,” Mr. Wilner said. “And many people prefer this option because my prices are so very dear,” he added with a laugh.

The new appreciation of frames — which celebrates the best as artworks in their own right, as evocative of the period of their creation as the paintings they embrace — represents a change in the relationship between artworks and their owners. Traditionally, paintings have been seen as possessions. Just as the wealthy clad their footmen in livery, collectors dressed their paintings in “livery frames.”


The painting itself has been inviolable, but frames have offered dealers, collectors and curators the opportunity to put their stamp on work. It has been common for each generation to select new frames to express its sensibilities. Napoleon famously dictated that the Louvre’s collection be reframed.

Sometimes the impulse is high-minded: New frames allow museum curators to present old paintings in a fresh light. Sometimes it is more prosaic: As the segue from an artwork to its surroundings, frames help collectors coordinate their décor — or express their dissatisfaction with the previous owner’s taste. (Sorry, Mom.)  


And, quite often, frames are a marketing tool that allows dealers to bolster the value of paintings; nothing says expensive like an elaborately carved and decorated gold-covered frame.


Until the late 19th  century, artists were not usually involved in framing. Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York, noted that this changed with the Impressionists, many of whom “rejected traditional styles of framing” and embraced anti-bourgeois attitudes, favoring simple white frames. Nevertheless, dealers in America who championed their work placed it in heavy gilded frames.  


“When Degas saw that one of his friends had put one of his paintings in a gilded frame, he took it off the wall,” she said.  


His effort, however, was ultimately in vain; almost all of the original Impressionist frames have been lost.

Today, honoring the artist’s intentions is often the gold standard for framing older works. Instead of reflecting changing tastes, the approach is to match paintings with historically accurate frames, to come as close to seeing them as the artist did, said Rebecca Lawton, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.

“As museum curators, we must present a work of art authentically,” Ms. Lawton said. “Frames are a crucial part of this, because most artists cared very deeply about them.”

Some artists make this task relatively easy. Thomas Eakins and Childe Hassam, for example, designed many of their own frames. Camille Pissarro filled a notebook with his drawings of frames. John Singer Sargent and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were among the artists who commissioned frame designs from the architect Stanford White. No one took the notion that a frame was part of the artist’s vision further than James Whistler, who signed his frames — rather than his paintings — with a signature butterfly, so the two would not be separated.

Such figures are the exception. Although old masters like Dürer, Filippo Lippi and others are known to have occasionally designed frames, in most cases the artist’s intentions are unknown, and the painting has long been separated from its original frame, said George Bisacca, a conservator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  


“We go out of our way for historical accuracy, because paintings and frame styles are related,” Mr. Bisacca said, “in the sense that there are certain things, certain types of profile or ornament or finish that can only be conceived of in a certain period, certain elements and ideas about composition, correlations that influenced the creation of the artwork and he frame.”  


To achieve this, curators must become archival detectives, using modern technology to divine clues about the past. They search databases of antique frames and use the Internet to consult curators and frame dealers from around the world. They scour writings by and about artists for hints about their thoughts, and they study the framing choices of the artist’s circle of friends and contemporary collectors.

“Eureka” moments can prove to be false leads. Do the grainy black-and-white photos from artists’ studios showing known work in a specific frame reflect the style they preferred or the one they could afford? Do the earliest images showcase the taste of the artist, the gallery owner, the curator or the collector?

Curators sift and juggle these factors to make their best judgment. Then they work with dealers to search for an existing “period frame” — or a high-quality replica — that allows viewers to come as close as they can to seeing the work in an accurate context.

Still, Mr. Bisacca added, many Picassos look splendid in 17th-century carved Spanish frames, which were often favored by the artist himself.

While frames have received spotty, sporadic attention from scholars through the centuries, modern interest in them is generally traced to the pioneering work of the German art historian Claus Grimm in the 1970s, especially his study “The Book of Picture Frames.”

The frame-appreciation movement gained further traction in the United States when the Metropolitan Museum mounted its 1990 show “Italian Renaissance Frames,” organized by Mr. Bisacca and Laurence Kanter, now chief curator for the Yale University Art Gallery. Seeing the exquisite beauty of these frames was a revelation for many, especially after decades during which many contemporary artists viewed frames as a distraction, minimizing them or avoiding them altogether.

It was also exciting, opening a fresh, if sometimes frustrating, field of inquiry for curators and other scholars. It can be hard enough establishing the provenance of paintings, much less that of frames, whose history is intimately connected to landfills.

Nevertheless, this growing appreciation and knowledge have led to efforts to keep paintings in their original frames and to find suitable period designs for orphaned paintings, or to commission appropriate replicas or models reflecting the spirit of the old.


This has also put new financial pressures on museums. “Funding for frames can be a little tricky, because a lot of institutions are cash-strapped,” said Mr. Cole of the Cleveland Museum. “Also, some museums might prefer to acquire a new object than reframe a painting already in their collection.”

On the other hand, Mr. Wilner, the framer, said his restoration work had increased fivefold during the last year, as museums with tight budgets for new acquisitions concluded that this was “an economical way to dress up their collections.”

Mr. Wilner is also sponsoring a competition in which he will frame five works of 18th-to-mid-20th-century American art free. He expects to receive about 50 entries from museums by the June 15 deadline.

Finally, the new emphasis on historically accurate frames raises fascinating, if unsettling, questions. As frames shape the viewing experience, have the millions who have stood awe struck in front of Impressionist paintings and other masterworks through the years never, in fact, seen them properly? Has their appreciation of these beloved paintings been askew, tainted or incomplete?


Ms. Easton of the Center for Curatorial Leadership said that those provocative puzzles go with the territory. “In some ways, a painting never looks more beautiful than when it is on its easel, and the artist takes his brush away for the last time. And the frame is part of leaving that moment.”

For a van Gogh, a $48,000 Frame

Vincent van Gogh completed his work on “Landscape Under a Stormy Sky” in the late 1880s. , Recently Felix Terran has been carving a frame for the painting, expected to fetch $50 million to $70 million at Sotheby’s this year.

Bent over a rod of bass wood, he used one and then another of the scores of chisels laid out before him to create a teardrop-shaped curve. Over the next few days, he would carve several hundred of these delicate gadroons to replicate the Museum of Modern Art frame in which nestles van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”


As Mr. Terran sculpted the wood, four other craftsmen at Eli Wilner & Company’s workshop in Long Island City, Queens, were preparing to do their part to build this single frame. They would create molds for the ornaments that adorn the frame; painstakingly apply gesso, an easily sanded paint mixture; and then add various types of gold, finish and inks. The frame would require about 200 hours of labor and cost about $48,000.

The craftsmanship required to build the van Gogh frame embodies the synergistic relationship between classic art and modern science that informs the growing movement to replicate and restore historic frames.

The handful of experts in the United States and Europe who perform this rarefied work have spent decades mastering the craft. “We’ve learned how to be the best frame fakers in the world,” Eli Wilner said.


“Those fakes, however, often require more work than the originals, because while they must be historically accurately, they cannot in most cases gleam with newborn luster,” he said.

To achieve effects satisfying to the modern eye, frame makers must not only master antiquated materials and techniques used during specific periods, but they must also account for the ravages of time. If they succeed, museumgoers and collectors will barely notice their work.



The rules for displaying art are changing, say the masters of modern-day framing, who suggest putting your Picasso in a heavy-gilt number

and your Warhol in a Plexiglas box

Back in 2013 a photograph of a lost van Gogh painting, A Vase with Five Sunflowers, was discovered in the archives of a Japanese museum. The significance of the discovery was not confirmation of the painting’s existence (sold to a Japanese collector, it was known to have been destroyed in a fire during World War II), but that it showed the painting in its original frame, as chosen by van Gogh himself. Instead of the ornate gilt frames most often used to display the paintings of the Impressionists, the Dutch artist had opted for a simple wooden frame painted orange, a color that complemented and accentuated the vibrancy of the artwork itself.

 It was a telling example of how, for many a great artist, the frame was crucial to the final look of the finished artwork. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was known to have employed a range of finishes, including patina and paint, when creating frames for his works, even adding his signature butterfly symbol to them. Joan Miró was inspired to paint Pintura amb marc modernista to fit an Art Nouveau frame found by a friend at a flea market, and fellow Iberian artist Salvador Dalí often chose the frame before he so much as lifted his paintbrush. “When in New York he would come into our showroom and choose a frame as inspiration,” says Larry Shar, president of Lowy, the New York-based fine art services company that has the largest archive of antique frames – more than 5,000 – in the United States. “Most often he chose a frame from the 17th or 18th centuries.”


The frames pictured in the photo at top are just a small selection of the 5,000-strong archive stored by the fine-art services company Lowy. The company creates, conserves and restores frames from its New York headquarters, and offers tours of its impressive facilities upon request. Photographs: Anna SchoriIt is not surprising that it was these frames that caught Dalí’s eye. This period marked the creative high point of the frame’s artistry, with richly textured designs of delicately carved scrolls and foliage, elaborately gilded. Sometimes more expensive than the paintings they were commissioned to partner, these Rococo frames were a far cry from the simple, stylized geometric designs that first appeared on vases and tomb paintings around 1000 BC. It took until the 11th and 12th centuries, when the frame moved from being a painted or mosaic boundary into a structure separate from the artwork, for its own artistic development to begin. Early altar frames were adorned with precious gems and gilded angels to illustrate and extol the glory of Heaven, the frame acting as a door or window into a world beyond.

When choosing a frame, think about where the painting will go, and the story you want it to tell
Michael Gregory

The Renaissance saw the frame move beyond the remit of the church and into wider society, and the box-like cassetta frame, a style that remains popular today, combined a strict linear outline with subtle decoration. Frames grew more decorative throughout the Baroque years and by the 18th century, they were a showcase for superb craftsmanship that brought together the joiner, carver, and gilder. Under Louis XV, the frame reached ever-greater flights of fancy, fabulously ornate and gleaming with gold. These grande-luxe designs reflected the power and wealth of the French throne at the time. Later, mid-19th-century American frames featured tobacco, corn, or wheat motifs to reflect the country’s agricultural muscle.

While the earliest frames spoke to the artwork they contained, by the 17th century they reflected the architecture and interior design of the time. “They had become a bridge between the illusory world of the painting and the decoration and architecture of the space in which they sat,” says Michael Gregory from London-based Arnold Wiggins & Sons, which provides frames to the British Royal Household, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery (which, until September 13, is holding an exhibition of empty frames to showcase their artistry), as well as museums and private collectors worldwide. “The English returning from their Grand Tours with French, Dutch, and Italian Old Masters wanted to show off their taste and wealth and so chose frames that fitted in with their homes.” In America, the principal buyers of art were the Gilded Age families such as the Vanderbilts and the Hearsts; their homes were decorated in the style of 18th-century France and so artworks were stripped of their original frames – van Gogh’s painted ones among them – and set in those that were suitably grand.

Art collectors can choose frames from any era, so long as the frame accentuates the vibrancy of the artwork itself and fits with the room it's being exhibited in. Photograph: Anna SchoriToday, choosing a frame for a pre-20th-century painting reflects this historic schism: does one choose a frame that fits with the age of the painting or one that reflects the style of the room in which it will be displayed? For Shar, Old Masters (those painted before 1800) deserve a period frame. “A frame in a style original to a painting reflects the taste of the time and gives it a historical context,” he says. “The marriage of frame to picture was very important to the integrity of the artwork at that time, far more than it is today.”

Gregory of Arnold Wiggins is less prescriptive. “There is no correct frame for a painting, only a sense of correctness,” he says. “Now you have the luxury of choosing a frame from different styles and periods, and what is fascinating is that you can have a picture on an easel and try five or six antique frames, and with each one the picture changes, the different frames bringing out different details.”

Whichever your choice, a frame should not jar with the art within. “The color or patina of your chosen frame should be complementary to the painting, like a certain color dress should enhance the complexion of the person wearing it,” says Shar. “The profile and ornament of the frame should enhance the composition and spirit of the artwork in just the same way a waistline or shape of a dress should complement the figure of the person wearing it. And don’t try and make a painting appear more expensive or grand than it is by adding an overly grand frame. A frame should respect the integrity of the painting.”

Gregory advises: “When choosing a frame, think about where the painting will go, and what story you want it to tell. A Picasso in an antique gilt frame will stand out in a contemporary interior – it also makes the statement that a Picasso is now seen as an Old Master.” Antique or reproduction frames can complement modern art as well. Gregory often worked with 20th-century artist Cy Twombly: “The richness and textural nature of antique frames appealed to his painterly nature.”

“Much contemporary art can be framed very successfully in antique frames,” continues Shar, “particularly if the art is expressive in nature and not minimal and passive. Abstract Expressionists look very much at home in a proper 17th- or 18th-century Spanish or Italian frame – the dialogue the frame can have with the art makes for an engaging viewing experience, and a powerful statement.”

Contemporary frames are, on the whole, less decorative than antique ones. “Today the focus is very much more on the protection of the art long-term as we develop our knowledge of materials and technology in fine art conservation framing,” says Hannah Payne of London-based John Jones, which has worked with Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Wolfgang Tillmans, Damien Hirst, and Andy Warhol. “In the past it was more about presentation and grandeur, with heavily decorative, gilded frames reflective of the period.”

However, that doesn’t mean modern frames cannot be special. Welded frames in either aluminum or brass are often used to display photographs and John Jones recently created an aluminum “bubble” frame for a Helmut Newton print. “Newton’s works are traditionally framed in black wooden designs, however the curved lines of the dome-hooded hairdryers in the image inspired our designers to do something special,” says Payne.

Cubed acrylic boxes are also increasingly popular, and protect works from airborne pollutants and ultraviolet light – aesthetically they also provide a contemporary feel that doesn’t distract from the art. Warhols look particularly good in this kind of “frame.”

Wood can be styled up with a variety of finishes and color washes. Artist Idris Khan wanted frames that created the illusion of the artwork hovering within the frame (shown above). To do this, John Jones used oak, leaving the surface of the frame with a grainy and organic finish to complement the artist’s detailed text work.

Rachel Loos writes for The Daily Telegraph and The Times, and is former editor of Elle Decoration UK

Art News World

APRIL 30, 2015

What goes around: The art of framing

The right frame doesn’t just set off a painting to perfection, it can also increase its sale value. So why are they so often overlooked? A new exhibition at the National Gallery aims to give frames their due, as Emma Crichton-Miller reports


In July 2007 a magnificent painting came up for auction in the Important Old Master and British Pictures Sale at Christie’s London. Raphael’s portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino (1492 – 1519) (below) had originally been commissioned to seal the duke’s betrothal to Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, a cousin of the French King François I. The sumptuous, billowing, strawberry-red sleeves of the coat, the fine fur collar with its delicate, individually delineated hairs and the richly patterned gold velvet costume had been painted both to enhance the duke’s physical stature and to advertise his wealth, with the discreetly held gold box in his right hand indicating his dynastic legacy. It was the most important Raphael to come to sale since 1892.

In the run-up to the auction, the painting was not on general view. Those who asked to see it were taken into a special viewing room, where the painting was set like a precious relic in a magnificent Renaissance gold frame, surrounded by a curtain. Here it glowed with vivid intensity, the lighting in the room enhancing the masterfully painted play of light over the red, silver and gold clothing, the gilded frame strengthening the contrasting effect of the green background, the black hat and Lorenzo’s dark eyes. The eye of the viewer was attuned to the exaggerated curves of the Duke’s costume by the lively sinuous pattern of scrolling vine and foliage carved on the frame’s frieze, which also echoed the leaf pattern on the duke’s torso.

For the many people who saw the painting in those circumstances, the impact of the experience will have been crucial in their appreciation of the picture’s value. Yet when the painting sold for an astonishing £18.5 million (well beyond the top estimate of £15 million), then a world auction record for Raphael, who thought about the frame? Who would have imagined that, far from the being the one the painting had always inhabited, the frame had been bought specially for the occasion of the sale from one of the world’s leading experts by Richard Knight, co-head of Old Master Paintings? For Paul Mitchell, the scholar and dealer who sold the frame, it was its union with one of the greatest Renaissance paintings ever to grace a contemporary saleroom, and not the Medici nuptials, that represented the perfect marriage.

Frames are the Cinderellas of the art world; they do a tremendous amount of work. They protect the artworks they support; they show off the qualities of a picture, drawing attention to its formal structure, its patterns and colours, enabling them to resonate fully with a viewer; they mould the response of the viewer to the work by suggesting the value we should attach to it; they accommodate a painting to its setting, acting as a liaison between the dream world of art and the decorative scheme of the museum, gallery or private home the work inhabits. They are partly furniture and partly sculpture. At their best, they are works of art, carved by the foremost sculptors of their day, and yet their own brilliance must also serve that of the paintings they encase. As Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, puts it drily in his elegant guide, A Closer Look At Frames: ‘Frames are thus not a marginal consideration in the history of art.’

And yet, anomalously, to all but certain connoisseurs and collectors, museum curators and auctioneers and the artists and dealers who depend upon them, they are practically invisible. In books of art history, in auction catalogues, the frame is expunged. In museum shops, postcards feature the artwork alone, without the frame that has been a critical part of the visitor’s experience of the work. Partly this is a necessary recognition that the artwork, especially if it is an Old Master, has most likely been separated from its original frame. Paintings have regularly been reframed by new owners, both to assert ownership and to incorporate the work within different and sometimes elaborate interior decorative schemes. But the consequence is a collective blindness to these often remarkably beautiful creations.

‘The best frame-makers could charge more for their frames than many artists could for their paintings’

In April, Penny is hoping to put that to rights. Retiring from the National Gallery this year, he is leaving as his legacy the exhibition, Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames (1 April – 13 September), the first of what he hopes will become a series of exhibitions on frames. He has had a fascination with the subject since he was made Keeper of the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean Museum in 1984. The Ashmolean has an excellent historic collection of frames, including the grandly swagged, beribboned and gilded 17th-century frame Grinling Gibbons created especially for the portrait of the Ashmolean’s founding donor, Elias Ashmole.

Later, as Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery from 1990 until 2000, Penny spent two years personally making a detailed study and inventory of every frame in the collection. This has become the basis for a personal global archive of frames. He also embarked on an investigation into how the National Gallery’s 19th-century directors had set about the business of framing, much, he says, to the puzzlement of many colleagues: ‘It was respectable to be interested in Victorian furniture 30 years before it was respectable to be interested in Victorian frames.’

It was even a frame that was responsible for his famous rediscovery of another Raphael, The Madonna of the Pinks. Invited to visit the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle to advise on his collection, Penny noticed that the painting, then considered a cheap copy of the original, was framed in an extremely expensive 1850s frame, a Renaissance revival example designed by Giovanni Montiroli — ‘a fantastic piece of boxwood carving.’ As he reports, ‘Immediately I realised that at the time they were sure that it was a Raphael,’ and so he volunteered to have the painting re-examined. The rest is history. The frame, now discarded for a more appropriate early 16th-century Venetian one, still lies in his office, with the painting’s Alnwick inventory number attached.

Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames is not the first museum exhibition on the subject. Over the past 30 years there have been several, for instance at the Rijksmuseum in 1984, the Chicago Institute of Art in 1986, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990, and at the National Portrait Gallery in 1996. This last, which focused entirely on English frames, unleashed such a storm of interest that the NPG created a dedicated website, still a primary source of information.

These have mostly been survey exhibitions, however. With this new show, Penny hopes ‘to deepen the study of the subject’. And where better to start than with these exuberant, idiosyncratic early frames, with their scrolls and masks, their bare-breasted female ‘terms’ and bouncing cherubs, their goats’ heads and birds plucking fruit? They mark a moment in Venice, in the early 16th century, where they are thought first to have emerged, when frames became independent from their traditional architectural contexts within churches and palaces.

While earlier tabernacle frames, mostly built to house sacred images, evoke religious architecture, these Sansovino frames mix miniature pilasters and broken pediments with decorative details lifted from contemporary furniture, printed illustration and even stucco ceilings. Confusingly they owe nothing to the architect Jacopo Sansovino, a Venetian contemporary whose style was more strictly classical than these imaginative caprices; indeed, they were only named ‘Sansovino’ frames much later, and were also made in Florence and other parts of Italy. So popular were they by the early 17th century that the spendthrift Duke of Buckingham was importing them from Venice for his pictures, though English frame-makers soon cottoned on to the new fashion. As Caroline Campbell, the exhibition’s curator, points out, ‘They were designed to be aesthetically pleasing in their own right.’

‘In today’s art market our clients expect to see things in a form that is immediately presentable on their walls’

As such they hail from a time when the most celebrated frame-makers in Europe could charge more for their frames than many artists could charge for their paintings. In 18th-century France, a master framer such as Jean Chérin, whose elegant, intricately carved works represent another peak of craftsmanship, had had to become both a master carpenter (menuisier) and a master sculptor (sculpteur) to ply his trade. According to Mitchell, such frames can be ‘enormously dynamic, with great subtlety in both design and execution.’

Today, however, the status of the frame as a work of art in its own right has declined. While most of the frames to be exhibited in the National Gallery show come from one private collector, dealers report that such enthusiasts are extremely rare. Christie’s, along with Sotheby’s and Bonhams, no longer holds dedicated frame sales, although there are such sales in Paris and at the renowned frame auction house, Conzen, in Düsseldorf. Marcus Radecke, Christie’s European director of furniture, explains that ‘it’s become a very small market’. Occasionally frames appear in furniture sales. In October 2013, for instance, a large north Italian, early 18th-century frame, ornamented with putti, dolphins and shells and flower-filled cornucopiae, which had been turned into a mirror, fetched a substantial £52,500 at Christie’s London on an estimate of £25,000–£40,000.


On the other hand, as Michael Gregory of the antique frame business, Arnold Wiggins & Sons, suggests, ‘People are more aware of the image today, than they are used to looking at real life objects — and so, paradoxically, the frame has become critical.’ Museums have been forced to raise their game, reframing not just for scholarly or conservation reasons but to enhance the visitor experience, and collectors are growing more demanding. James Bruce-Gardyne, the auctioneer the night the Raphael made its record price, and Senior International Director and Head of Private Sales for Old Master Paintings at Christie’s, says that reframing has become an intrinsic part of the presentation of works of art, ‘integral to the process of auction or private sale’. He comments: ‘In today’s art market our clients expect to see things in a form that is immediately presentable on their walls.’

While for Modern and Contemporary works of art this may lead collectors to such hi-tech specialists as John Jones in London, for Old Masters the first stop are the frame dealers, with stock accumulated over many years, waiting for the right picture to come along. Conzen has been in business for more than 160 years. Gregory comments ruefully, ‘People don’t really understand how long term I work.’ He recently framed a pair of Dutch pictures for a museum after 22 years of looking for the right frames. It is not enough simply to put on any old good-quality frame; the frame must, in Gregory’s phrase, ‘crystallise’ the painting.


The National Gallery, for instance, has a remarkable early French frame of quite spectacular workmanship which was commissioned in 1710 by a Parisian collector to hold Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633–4). It entirely overpowers the artist’s carefully balanced composition, and goes against Poussin’s own stated preference for plain mouldings and matt gilding. Mitchell, moreover, has waged a long campaign against the careless reuse of French 18th-century portrait frames, tipped on their side, for Impressionist landscapes. The cartouches and ornamented corners used to focus interest on an important sitter play havoc with the very different geometries of these 19th-century paintings. You can, he says, ‘asphyxiate with rococo’.

Dealer Charles Daggett, who specialises in 18th- and 19th-century frames, confirms however that today, ‘75 per cent of the collectors who visit me have a very clear idea of the sort of frame they want.’ This upsurge of educated interest has led to a terrible shortage of supply. As Daggett comments, in nine out of 10 cases, ‘It is the frame that is contemporaneous with the painting that fits it best.’

Despite this, it has become fashionable to frame contemporary works in Renaissance Italian or Spanish frames, as Picasso and Matisse did, making those most highly sought-after frames even scarcer. Rollo Whately, however, is one of a number of framers, including Gregory and Mitchell, who will create almost exact copies of original period examples, with the same techniques and materials as the artisans of the past. Unless there is a great deal of elaborate carving, he says, a good copy is often the best solution. An original, however, is still a joy: ‘Because they are neglected by conservators, frames that are two or three hundred years old can still be found in perfect original condition. Frames are great survivors.’ As the Sansovino show will demonstrate, by exhibiting one particularly fine survivor with the National Gallery’s recently restored and reattributed Titian, Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (about 1528), when the marriage of frame and painting is right, both parties sing.

Edge trimming

From Van Gogh to Matisse, great painters have always agonised over framing their work. So why does nobody notice?


By Phil Daoust

First published on Thu 2 Jan 2003 10.36 EST


Think of your favourite famous painting, the one you could describe with your eyes closed. Now try to remember how it is framed. A riot of gold-leafed carvings? A simple strip of ebony? Nothing at all? A tenner to a penny says you haven't the faintest. The market in images has no room for frames. Magazines, newspapers, exhibition catalogues and art books act as if they don't exist, cropping them out of reproductions even when the painters saw them as integral parts of their work.

Charles Willson Peale's trompe-l'oeil Stairway, which he framed like a doorway leading on to a wooden staircase, complete with lintel, posts and a bottom step that you could actually climb, is stripped of all these elements to become a bog-standard image of two young men on a staircase. Michelangelo's Doni Madonna is separated from the five prophets who gaze in at the mother and child from the grotesque gilded surround. Ingres's Portrait of Madame Moitessier, who is posing in a sumptuous flowery dress, loses the extravagant border of gilded blossoms and buds that the artist designed. Matisse, who described the four sides of a frame as "the most important parts of a picture", must be turning in his grave.


But the frame-deniers aren't having things all their way. William Bailey, a framer-turned-lecturer and consultant to New York's Museum of Modern Art, has produced an eye-opening book on the subject. For him, the frame is not just a pretty border that protects the canvas, it is a mediator between viewer and painting. "The design," he writes in Defining Edges, "must effect a transition from the existing physical location, usually a wall in a room or a gallery, into the illusionistic realm of the painting. This should occur graciously and imperceptibly. The frame should also prepare the eye and mind of the viewer to accept and embrace the domain of the painting on its own terms."


Bailey can point to countless famous painters for whom the frame was a central part of their art. Van Gogh worried incessantly about framing his work. Only one of his paintings retains its original frame, but it is hard to imagine a more perfect combination. For Still Life with Fruit (1887), he took a simple wooden border and painted it with two shades of yellow, cross-hatching it to echo yet update the carving of a traditional gilded frame. The result delights in its own right and forces your attention to the image it encloses. "It's the epitome of the idea of the gold frame, from a man with no money to purchase one," says Bailey.


Whistler, who could afford the real thing, created such a sensation with his experiments with finishes, patinas and paint that, even now, manufacturers turn out "Whistler-style" frames. Degas scandalised his contemporaries by using bright colours, and found time to invent a shape of moulding that remains popular with framers. In the 1930s, Hannah Gluck even patented her design, a quintessentially deco triple-stepped rectangle that could be painted to match its surroundings, or even wallpapered. That same decade, Dali created the ultimate inner landscape by placing one of his desert scenes inside two human-shaped frames in Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds.


Major living artists such as David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin still believe frames serve a purpose beyond the purely practical. "They're where the picture stops and the world begins," Hodgkin says. When he paints, he carries his brush strokes over from the canvas on to the frames themselves "to make them part of the picture". Some traditionalists inevitably find this rather shocking: Brian Sewell of London's Evening Standard was outraged when Hodgkin painted over an 18th-century gilt frame. But the artist is unapologetic: "One is operating in a sort of no-man's-land between the picture and the world. There are all sorts of ways one can use that area."

It would be interesting to see what future generations make of Hodgkin. Will some future collector or curator strip off his painted-over frames or add further borders? While those who reproduce art apparently take no interest in its setting, those who have custodianship usually think it could be improved. "The frame is the only thing you can change about a painting," says Michael Gregory, managing director of Arnold Wiggins, a leading British frame dealer. "Once you've bought it, that is the only way you can personalise it."


Even in the 18th century, rich owners thought nothing of reframing a picture to suit the changing decor of their homes. A century later many of the impressionists saw their white or coloured frames swiftly discarded by conservative dealers and collectors.

Reframing is sometimes less than sympathetic. Bailey shudders at the thought of Van Gogh's unpretentious painting of clogs. "Around it is one of the most gorgeous Louis XV frames ever made - a gossamer, rich frame. They're both fantastic items. But in my mind, when the lights go down, they must have the most tremendous arguments and try to get as far from one another as possible. They have nothing in common." Gregory, however, points out that apparently incongruous juxtapositions can work. His firm has supplied antique gilt frames for a number of Picassos. "Sometimes it's a way of interpreting a painting," he says, "and Picasso is now seen as an Old Master."

If the ornate frame has become a must-have for a certain kind of collector, framelessness is often seen as the natural state for contemporary art. But you can also view it as a mark of the reverence with which the artist is treated today. In the 19th century, when exhibition organisers crammed paintings on to every available inch of wall, European artists developed what became known as the salon frame, its ever-wider border a way of keeping the competition at arm's length. Now curators and collectors are constructing virtual frames of "quiet time" and "breathing space" around their cherished possessions.

To see one of the best examples, take a trip to Tate Modern, where a whole room is devoted to Rothko's abstract Seagram Murals. The canvases were originally due to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, but Rothko decided they didn't belong with the rich grunting at the trough. At the Tate, nothing but a murmur reaches them. The lighting is muted. The rectangles of red, maroon and black lie against grey walls, rather than the gallery's usual white.

A few minutes here and you feel cut off from the world. Rothko's pictures have no frames in the conventional sense. But what is this whole setting if not a frame? Every time a gallery or artist takes such elaborate steps to display work in the best light, what are they doing but framing it? The frame hasn't gone away; we have just stopped noticing it.