Monday, 23 December 2013

Picture Frames

It may seem odd that a blog about art, architecture and furniture should open with a post on the topic of picture frames, but the setting of a picture has such an impact on how we view it and I have been to so many exhibitions where the poor framing of paintings negatively affected my appreciation of the artwork itself, that I feel able to argue that frames are marginal only in the literal sense and that a brief exploration of their importance will be both fun and instructive.

[Detail of a frame in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. My own photo]

A brief history of frames

Frames originally served a purely practical purpose, acting as rigid frameworks to protect paintings from warping and damage. On altarpieces, they had the function of demarcating related but separate scenes from one another.1 On the Ghent altarpiece (see below), for example, framing provides a separate niche for different characters or groups of characters, emphasising the symmetry of the composition (on the upper row, from left to right: Adam, musical angels, Mary, the Almighty (in the centre), John the Baptist, musical angels, Eve) and the division between the heavenly realm in the upper row and the earthly in the lower. The framing also enables the inclusion of hinges to the altarpiece, so that it can be kept closed (the two folding panels are decorated on the outside also) or opened, according to the occasion.

[The Ghent Altarpiece. Image from:]

In the case of altarpieces, the frame frequently took precedence over the artwork itself: for example, Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486) and its associated two paintings of angels by other artists were painted to fit into a wooden frame already carved by Giacomo del Maino.2 The composition of a painting might therefore be heavily influenced by the shape and scale of the frame it was intended to fit into.

The value of frames might serve as a status-marker: Louis XIV allegedly commissioned frames at an expense sometimes exceeding that of the paintings they were intended for,3 with opulent, elaborate designs in gilt wood.

In the nineteenth century, the walls of the Salons exhibiting paintings were covered in works crammed together from (almost) floor all the way to the ceiling (see below). There was huge competition among painters to have their work displayed at eye-level, where it would be most prominent- and some employed broad frames in order to give their painting 'breathing space' so they could stand out amid all the crowding.

[Artist's representation of the Salons. Image from:]

In the twentieth century, Modernist painting abandoned the use of frames. Without this isolating structure around the canvas, the separation between the painting and the wall on which it hangs led to the adoption of white walls in galleries as an imperative.4

How frames are chosen

With the exception of altarpieces, frames are generally removable. The owner of a painting (whether an individual or a museum) can therefore choose a frame to suit his/her taste, enabling the owner to personalise the painting. Factors frequently taken into consideration when choosing a frame include:
- the colours in the painting (a light painting will be best viewed within a light frame, a dark painting within a dark frame; coloured frames are most suited to a painting if they pick out one or two of its colours, though not the most prominent colours to avoid overwhelming the eye)
- the style of the painting (frames have gone through styles just as paintings have, and a baroque frame may be deemed to more accurately preserve the character of a baroque painting, for example- in general, it can be said that the period which produced a painting will have produced the best frame styles for that painting),
- the style of the room in which the painting is set (the frame serves as the divider between the painting and the wall on which it hangs; it should clearly distinguish the painting from the wall but also act as a bridge between the two, allowing the viewer to appreciate the art within the physical context of the architecture and decor).

In some cases, the frame is an inextricable part of the painting. This is particularly true when the frame has been designed by the artist. In the examples given below, the replacement of the painting's existing frame by another would be damaging to the viewer's understanding of the painting- and the prevalent tendency to crop out frames in the reproductions of paintings in books 5 is arguably reprehensible as it represents an unjustified veiling of part of the artwork.

A selection of noteworthy frames

1. The Portrait of Engelbert II, Count of Nassau (late fifteenth century), features an ingeniously-designed frame that adds dimension to the painting: the prince's hand and the falcon's tail rest on the frame, outside the picture.6 If frames sometimes help us to view the scenes in paintings as though through a window that opens into another world, here the prince is looking out from that window into our world and is thereby made more immediate to the viewer.

[Portrait of Engelbert II. Image from]

2. Titian's Penitent Mary Magdalene of 1565: here we have a very repentant-looking prostitute surrounded by... scantily-clad men in seductive poses. It's wondrous. Sadly, I wasn't able to find more information about it- a project for later, perhaps, and in the meantime, any information would be most welcome!

[Penitent Mary Magdalene by Titian. Image from:]

3. Charles Willson Peale's life-size portrait of his two sons, the trompe-l'oeil Stairway (1795), appears strikingly modern even today thanks to its photographic realism and the artist's three-dimensional architectural framing: the frame is a doorway that leads into the painting's staircase, and even includes a real bottom step!7 Here the frame is not a window into another world but a doorway through which the viewer and the boys look at each other, and the former feels invited to follow the latter up the stairs.

[Stairway by Charles Willson Peale. Image from:]

And, to convey the importance of the frame, here is a reproduction in which the frame has been cropped out:
[Image from:]

4. In his Beata Beatrix (1870), Dante Gabriel Rossetti mourns the death of his wife Lizzie Siddall, representing her as Beatrice, whom Rossetti's namesake the Italian poet Dante Alighieri loved. The frame of this image is inscribed with quotes from Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice and Dante's love story is told, linking the frame to the theme of painting, in which we see the sundial on 9, the age at which Dante and Beatrix met and the time at which she died one morning. The four medallions on the frame feature the sun, the moon, the stars and the earth, perhaps symbolising Lizzie/Beatrice's spiritual journey after death.8

[Beata Beatrix by Rossetti. Images from:]

In 'The Beloved (The Bride)' (1865), Rossetti offers a rereading of the Song of Solomon to speak not of the love of Christ by those who believe in him but as a song about human lovers: Rossetti's 'beloved' is a beautiful woman pushing back her exotic veil to reveal her face to her lover. The frame features passages from the Song of Solomon (and from Psalm 45, about the arrival of a bride). Reading these extracts while facing such a stunning woman would probably have been very strange to a Victorian audience used to a much more spiritual reading of those words!
Finding an image of this painting that does not crop out the frame is a bit of a battle - and even the Tate's book 'The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde' does not show frames in its reproductions! (I think this proves my point: frames are not appropriately appreciated.) I've found one image, but it is of very poor quality.

[The Beloved by Rossetti. Image from:]

Without frame, a better-quality image:

[Image from:]

5. Edgar Degas was very particular about the framing of his paintings, and became incensed if his frames were interfered with-9 he famously fell out with one of his friends who had reframed a work Degas had painted and given him, leaving the man's house one evening midway through dinner carrying the painting rolled up under his arm. Degas designed about forty frames (see below) and used white or pale frames when exhibiting his works, in order to enable the colours of his paintings to stand out. For Degas, the frame must enhance, not overshadow, the painting. He wrote that “it is the artist’s duty to see his painting properly framed, in tune with the colouring of the work, and not with a harsh gold frame.” Nineteenth-century dealers, however, often reframed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings with traditional and elaborate gilt frames in order to convince buyers that these works, though controversial in their rejection of the style and values of the Académie des Beaux Arts, were consequential.10 The frames chosen were therefore intended as messages of prestige and importance.

[Sketches of frames by Degas. Image from:]

6. The frame of George-Pierre Seurat's 'Evening, Honfleur' (1886) was added by the painter a few years after he had completed the canvas. Seurat used the same painting technique, pointillism, on the frame as he had in the painting to extend the beach scene beyond the canvas,11 creating a vibrant effect and freeing the image from the confinement of its frame.

[Evening, Honfleur by Seurat. Image from:]

7. Gustav Klimt supported the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), whereby fine and applied arts are combined to unified effect. At its grandest scale, this ideal produced the Palais Stoclet (for which Klimt designed murals to fit within the interiors created by Hoffman); at a smaller scale, it saw Klimt designing the frames of his easel paintings. Klimt, who is famous for using in his paintings materials other than paint and rather associated with crafts (the applied arts, as opposed to fine art), designed and even made many of his own frames specifically for certain paintings. Each painting is thus arguably only fully understandable as the artist intended when it is viewed within its frame.

Pallas Athene (1898): Klimt used gold leaf both on the frame and in the painting, and similar geometric shapes appear in the painting and in the frame, thereby relating the frame (the physical yet abstractly-shaped reality) and the image (the realistic illusion). This recognition that the canvas is an artificial device on which images are represented was developed in his later (and most famous) works, which featured two-dimensional geometric shapes around his realistically-modelled human figures (see for example his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer).

[Pallas Athene by Klimt. Image from:]

Judith with the head of Holofernes (1901):  (frame made by Gustav's brother Georg). The focus of this painting is on Judith: less than half of the head of Holofernes is visible, on the edge of the painting. The frame, which names the two characters in this painting, enables the viewer's attention to be drawn away from the alluring woman and reveals to us the otherwise marginal and shadowy severed head of her victim. Despite the clear identification of the characters by the frame, for years this painting was referred to as 'Salome': the orgasmic expression on the face of the femme fatale depicted in Klimt's painting was not deemed suitable as a representation of the biblical pious widow who risks her life to save her city but rather brought to mind the erotic and blood-thirsty Salome whose dancing entranced King Herod.12 Perhaps Klimt anticipated this reaction by Viennese society when he designed the frame, and named the characters so prominently precisely to draw attention to this unexplored aspect of Judith. The background behind Judith is said to be influenced by Assyrian reliefs (which were coming to light in the late 19th-early 20th centuries), and the scrolls and rosettes which decorate the frame likewise have parallels in Assyrian iconography.

[Judith with the head of Holofernes by Klimt. Image from:]

Frames today

Frames are increasingly gaining recognition as important to the artwork, and the price of antique frames has therefore risen.13 Nonetheless, perhaps because of the prohibitive price of crafting a frame, in many museums, paintings are displayed in the frames that were chosen for them when they were acquired by the institution- frames that are not always the most appropriate for their paintings, either in terms of style or colour.

Do you notice frames when you look at paintings? Do you think the frame of a painting is an important aspect of the work? Do you frame your prints, drawings and/or paintings? How do you choose your frames?
I hope you enjoyed this post! Comments- positive and negative- much appreciated!

For a fun experiment where a painting is given four different frames, with interesting effects on its appearance:

For a more detailed, but still short-and-sweet, history of frames:

For detailed explorations of various paintings and their frames:

4. Savedoff, B., 1999. 'Frames', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57:3, 345-356
5. ibid.
6. Savedoff, B., 2003. 'More on Frames'. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:3, 324-325.
9. Savedoff 1999.

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