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Begin - Online Appraisal Information - Art of the Frame - Introduction
1. Form and function

Viewers seldom ‘see’ the frame when contemplating a picture, and yet it occupies a substantial proportion of the picture/frame ensemble and, as such, inevitably has a significant peripheral influence on the painting within. Existing literature makes few references to the way in which the forms and functions of frames are achieved in their design or to the aesthetic relationship between a picture and its frame. The subject was summarized by Guggenheim (1897):
The form and character of the frame are governed by the laws of aesthetics and of human sensation. The intention must be to engender a sense of harmony and to concentrate the beholder’s attention on the painting. A frame constructed in accordance with a proper understanding of art and science will enliven the painting’s colors, detach them from their surroundings and unite them into a harmonious and effective whole.

The frame and its functions can be assessed in terms of three fundamental and interrelated factors: overall shape or design, ornamentation and finish. The four component sides of the frame isolate the picture from the wall to a degree according to their scale and width. Its cross-section may be a flat border, a hollow molding whose real depth enhances the picture’s illusory perspective, or a bolection molding projecting the subject forward from the wall surface. The contour of the frame is often broken by projecting corners and/or centers, as in the cartouches of Louis XIV and 17th-century Spanish frames and outset corners in the Palladian style, to create a play of diagonal and/or horizontal and vertical axes across the picture’s composition. These projections, invariably employed in portrait frames, act as spatial coordinates; their axial geometry reinforces the pictorial composition and thereby focuses the viewer’s attention on the sitter. At the same time this external contour, contrasting with the interior rectangle, assumes a distinctive and visible pattern on the wall. The elevations of virtually all frames share the common basic features of a narrow molding adjacent to and delineating the boundary of the picture, echoed by another molding nearest the wall and divided by a broader space between. The decoration of these surfaces determines the character and style of the frame and has been achieved over the centuries in countless ways, from the modest to the magnificent. Indeed the history of frames may be seen as a survey of the use of ornament throughout the ages, skillfully handled by designers to enhance and focus the subject without distraction.

In general there is a subtle balance and counter play between moldings and their decoration. The innermost molding, if decorated, is complemented by an adjacent plain frieze or hollow, the latter being a visual rest from the outer surface, more broadly decorated since further from the picture. Usually the scale of the painting’s composition and detail is in proportion to that used for the ornament on the frame, such as the miniaturized techniques of Dutch works with fine ebony ripple moldings, or the broader leaves and architectural motifs surrounding the bold draperies and settings of Baroque figure subjects. A powerful ornamental device employed to draw attention inwards is the use of a rhythmical series of raked lobing, usually running from centers to corners, known as gadrooning. Common in Mannerist and Baroque frames, this motif suggests a 360° sweep of lines radiating to and from the subject.

The third essential characteristic of the frame, as in all decorative art objects, is the color and texture of its finish. The vast majority of frames are gilded or parcel-gilt; others are polychrome or of plain polished wood. From the earliest times gold has been employed in a multitude of ways to enhance the frame and therefore it’s content. Its glowing, reflective properties have endowed the frame with a special significance, literally highlighting the picture it contains as well as harmonizing with surrounding furnishings. Even more than the frame’s form, the gilt finish uniquely isolates a work of art. Accustomed to constant, flat electric lighting, we tend to overlook the fact that paintings have been viewed for centuries by flickering candlelight. In the vast evening gloom of cathedrals and churches, altarpieces would seem to be surrounded by a pulsing ‘halo’ of light, and in palatial interiors or on domestic over mantels gilded frames were strong focal points regardless of the aesthetic merits of their pictures. Paintings on the four walls of parade rooms and galleries far outnumbered the furniture on the floor, and their impact was vastly enhanced by their gilded finish. Similarly, polychrome and parcel-gilt finishes were employed to great effect by medieval, Renaissance and Baroque decorators in Catholic countries. Church and court interiors were ablaze with color, and frames were richly painted to coordinate simultaneously with their surroundings and to accentuate their pictures’ color schemes. Color in frames heightened dramatic effect: painted and polychrome moldings with flashing gold corners and centers animated portraits and accentuated the chiaroscuro drama within Spanish and Italian subjects.

The visual contrasts inherent in Classical architectural ornament, through its deployment of moldings and enrichments, depended on an understanding of the properties of light. All those involved in the design of frames, especially architects, were skilled in the disposition and ornamentation of moldings, as well as the interplay of their surface textures and varied finishes. The effectiveness of undecorated plain molded frames depended on a careful juxtaposition of forms from the repertory of Classical moldings to create a sequence of linear rectangles. From whatever viewpoint, there would then always be a series of facets whose gilded surface directed light. Paintings carrying deep, hollow profile frames would gain added luminosity by the light reflected on to them from the inside upper surfaces of the scotia.

The most sophisticated understanding and exploitation of the reflective possibilities of gold leaf are seen in French Baroque and Rococo frames, concurrent with Italian and English variants. Jean Berain I, Daniel Marot I and Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, among others, designed sequences of ornament—shells, foliage and flowers linked by strap work—to be carved and recut in the gesso in low relief against a background of textures: cross-hatching, punch work and sanded and plain surfaces. All these components, when gilded, the raised areas burnished and contrasting with matt gold grounds (as in furniture mounts), created a complex orchestration of light that mirrored the paintings’ broad or fine passages of brushwork, as well as ensuring that the frame was a decorative work of art in its own right, on a par with surrounding objets d’art.

The importance of the play of light on smooth and patterned surfaces governed the design of ebony and ebonized frames made by northern European cabinetmakers. Devoid of gold leaf or paint, and excepting examples veneered with tortoiseshell and luxury inlays, the aesthetic effect of such frames depended solely on their proportions, profile and a series of plain or finely decorated rectilinear moldings that caught and fragmented the light. This manipulation of light draws attention to the subject, whose color scheme is also optically enhanced by the neutral surroundings of its black frame.

2. Stylistic overview

Paintings and relief carvings have had borders from an early period—although this is a sophisticated development, defining the permanence and isolation of the image in contrast to the apparent transience of, for example, cave paintings, layered on a rough, unbounded surface. Stylized geometric margins appeared first on vase and tomb paintings between 2000 and 1000 BC, dividing narrative scenes and decorations into horizontal bands. Later, vertical divisions were added (e.g. Tomb of Sennefer, Luxor; c. 1453–1419 BC), while architectural frames were applied to wall carvings. A millennium later, in Classical Greece, the borders of mosaics became the organizing structure of the whole, arranging figures and scenes into an abstract pattern of circles and spandrels, squares and lozenges. Then, when images—devotional, memorial, didactic or aesthetic—began to be important in their own right and not merely adjuncts to walls and vases, the framing edge took on other functions. It became protective and emphatic, as with Byzantine and Carolingian ivory-carvings for book covers and diptychs, which would have architectural borders to safeguard them, and to provide focus and depth. On 11th- and 12th-century metalwork altars the frame was also protective, but, set with gems and other inlay, it symbolized the celestial glory of the Trinity and the saints. Even the decorative margins of illuminated manuscripts hint at the richness of heaven, reflect the imagery of the text or set up a tension with the text through grotesque details.

In the 12th and 13th centuries carved wooden frames appeared, the forebears of the modern movable frame. The first examples, like the engaged borders of the ivories and the metalwork altars, were in one piece with the painted ground. The panel had its surface lowered by gouging into a shallow box shape, the surrounding wall of which became the frame. The whole panel was then covered in gesso and gold leaf, the image being painted on the smooth, sunken surface. Patterns could then be punched into the gilded gesso to define robes, haloes, the junction of picture and frame, and the frame itself; so that, apart from the physical unity of both, there was a close identity of ornament and tone through the work. Larger altarpieces were developed, the painting ground formed of boards bonded together with transverse supports, dowels and glued linen layers, while separate moldings, plain or simply carved, were laminated on to the outer edges to form the frame. This became increasingly elaborate: painted, carved or punched on its top edge, with auxiliary moldings on either side. Finally, in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, the silhouette of the frame altered: at first a peaked pentagon imitating a basilica in cross-section, the altarpiece acquired tiers of painted images, each framed by a complex of inner decorative moldings to simulate the nave, aisles, crypt and clerestory of a medieval church. The outer frame gained weight and solidity to support this edifice, with lateral buttresses in Italy, and was ornamented with architectural features: pinnacles, crockets, tabernacle work, cresting and niches. National variations of this style developed throughout Europe. Eventually the increasing size of these great screens, especially in Spain, meant that they could no longer exist as independent structures; at a height of c. 9 m they had to be applied to the back wall of the church, often around an apse, as a pictorial paneling in which the frame was merely a separating device between each scene.

The cathedral silhouette continued as the form for free-standing altarpieces, but in the early Renaissance this outer contour became that of a Classical temple: a single frame, usually rectangular, around a single scene (the sacra conversazione, within a ‘real’ perspectival space). Neri di Bicci summed up the Renaissance aedicular frame as a squared form with predella, fluted lateral pilasters and architrave with frieze, cornice and foliage above; but it was soon as ornamental as the Flamboyant Gothic type, including decorative carving, pastiglia, painting and sgraffito on all surfaces, and added such features as modillions at the base. The architrave could expand into a triangular or segmental pediment, or the picture could be continued inside a broken pediment. Italy led in this evolution and in that of the non-aedicular frame, the cassetta and its variants, movable wooden case or molding frames, applied from the 14th century to secular subjects and simpler religious images. Again, each country developed its own versions of the cassetta, and travel, trade and political connections all helped to spread framing motifs, moldings and other influences from country to country. Renaissance designs, however, spread less quickly than the more florid High Gothic, Mannerist and Baroque styles.

With the Baroque period and the burgeoning of the great courts of Europe, the mainspring of patronage transferred from the church to the king, with his need for unparalleled public displays of wealth and power. The index of artistic leadership also began to move from Rome to Paris, and a golden age of frame making began in France. This produced virtuosos of carving, gilding and recutting of gesso; creators of vast, three-dimensional sculptural frames for ceremonial portraits and Old Masters, colored with a range of gold leaf; confectioners of delicate Rococo settings transcending the medium of carved wood, which were fitted to fantastic interior schemes of fretted boiseries. English and German carvers produced their own versions of Baroque and Rococo frames; and in England the Palladian idiom and Grecian style of Robert Adam spawned further integrated schemes, including ceilings, carpets, furniture and picture frames. Paintings were hardly more under this regime than elements in an abstract arrangement of objects, anchored to their setting by the correspondence of their frames with the ornamentations of surrounding objects.

A second wave of classical design in England and France during the late 18th century heralded a more uniformly international vocabulary of frame making. With the Napoleonic Empire straddling Europe, the court style it promulgated could be reproduced both by craftsmen travelling with the Bonaparte rulers and by local carvers using patterns from Paris. In the early 19th century national differences tended to vanish, and the processes of the Industrial Revolution further homogenized and bastardized the art of making frames. Years of war and national debt meant that the carvers themselves were vanishing, unaffordable luxuries, and the first 40 years of the century were marked by repetitious, standardized models, cheaply made of composition on a deal base and finished with ersatz base-metal ‘gilding’. However, artists throughout Europe fought back sporadically by generating individually designed and carved frames. In the mid-19th century the Pre-Raphaelites revived old techniques of frame making and ornamentation, experimented with geometric, naturalistic and symbolic motifs, and abandoned stock plaster patterns for original designs carved in oak and other ‘honest’ materials. These practices were strongly influential in Europe, being diffused through the great international exhibitions of the late 19th century and by the mutual links of artists in different countries. Symbolist, classically inspired and Art Nouveau frames appeared, sometimes in striking admixtures. The Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists experimented with simple forms whose coloring was inspired by recently published scientific studies of light and color. Creative frame making thus came almost wholly under the control of the artists themselves, rather than of master carvers who could design in their own right.

By the 20th century there were few remnants of original frame craftsmanship left. A handful of artists persevered in earnest re-creation of archaic methods, but Picasso and Braque subverted this approach, using the frame as a prop for jeux d’esprits: ropes became the setting for collages; painted and pasted borders replaced more formal designs; and fragments of frames were drawn around or appear in the background of paintings. Surrealists also treated the frame as a visual pun, or, like the Symbolists, as part of the work itself. There was little similar invention in the late 20th century; as in the early 19th there were few artists’ frames but great reliance on mass-produced moldings. The tendency was also to dispense completely with formal framing or to employ a minimalist technique of painted battens edging the stretcher, giving nominal protection without affecting the image.

3. Purpose

While the border was physically part of the work, as in early wall paintings and mosaics, its role was unquestioned because there could be no division of image and setting. With independent works, the purpose of the frame was increasingly to focus on and isolate the significant image; with the creation of large altarpieces, a symbolic dimension was added. The purposes of a Gothic altar frame are multiple. In the dimly lit churches of Spain and Italy, a gilded setting with faceted columns, buttresses and canopies could catch light and throw it on to the paintings within. The cathedral outlines and ever more complex architectural features meanwhile provided an analogue of the celestial Church, of which the actual church of brick and stone was a faint earthly echo. Such details as inset jewels, painted ‘stained glass’, gilded angels and the busts of prophets helped to magnify the glory of the central image, bringing a reflection of heaven to the poorest worshippers. Well-lit northern European churches did not require so much gold to illuminate their altarpieces, and although edge moldings and pictorial grounds are usually gilded, the main frame area is painted in bands of color, marbled, patterned, hung with donors’ armorial bearings, inscribed or made precious with antique cameos and intricate mosaic work. These decorative techniques were again designed to reveal to the lay worshipper an analogue of Heaven, while inscriptions gave the educated spectator a further gloss on the painted scene, and coats of arms identified the gift both to God and to the Church.

Renaissance aediculae similarly create an allegorical pattern of the spiritual temple and imply the Classical concepts subsumed by Christianity, such as the Platonic ideal. Pure Renaissance examples are most common in Italy; they provide wide areas of reflective gold to compensate for the loss of the pictorial gilt ground. Secular Renaissance frames adapted the use of gold to illuminate; they also deploy complex relief patterns to animate the light given off by the frame. Depth and width are exploited to support the painted composition; and different types of carved or painted ornament reflect shapes within the picture. This relationship may reveal an abstract sense of pattern in the scene, undiscoverable without the original frame.

Besides provision of light and correspondence of pattern, the late medieval and Renaissance frame has another particular purpose. The early arched settings of small altarpieces suggest a church door opening on a spiritualized vision; the closeness of simple tabernacle forms and of the cassetta to an architectural opening reinforces the idea of the frame as a window, giving on to a world whose space and perspective are connected to those of the spectator. This architectural transition to the world of the painting is mirrored outwardly by the logical transition to the wall where it hangs, so there is no dislocation between a Flemish landscape and its embossed leather background or between a vision of Olympus and a Rococo boudoir. As paintings related less and less to their surroundings, this interval of passage became proportionately of greater importance. The decoration of the frame can enhance or modify this effect: in northern trompe l’oeil frames, where the painting is carried over the wooden molding (for example a cloth or hand hanging down into the spectator’s world), the window-like function is intensified, and the image given greater ‘reality’. Carved architectural ornament, in sympathy with the outer and/or the painted worlds, also achieves a unity that is aesthetically coherent and that heightens the realism of the work. Ornament can also sustain a picture against the overwhelming opulence of a Baroque or Mannerist background: Louis XIV and Louis XV frames hold their own in Versailles, for instance, although it is also true that an over-elaborate design can itself swamp a small or subtle painting.

Further functions of setting can be seen in the trophy frame, which annotates and reveals the subject. Status and interests can be indicated for a portrait; hunting and battle scenes are given importance by appropriate motifs; and religious symbolism can be expanded. Ownership can also be proclaimed by the trophy frame, for example by the use of heraldic cresting. The trophy frame is related in some ways to the livery or gallery frame, which again proclaims ownership and links the painting as part of a collection to a single house or patron. Where the design is flexible and unassertive, the livery frame can bind a collection together or unify a roomful of disparate images; where it is contemporary with the pictures, it will usually harmonize naturally with the composition and with the wider architectural ‘frame’ of the interior. It can equally fragment this unity, however, where it is visibly anachronistic or aesthetically at odds with the image.

The idea of frame as window begins to break down when the abstract and decorative purposes of the picture consciously equal or surpass the representational elements. Arrangements of line and harmonies of color, for example in the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler and Albert Joseph Moore, are picked up in the geometric, carved and painted frames. Here, no attempt is made to contrive depth or spatial connection through the frame; instead, the choice of profile and ornament is aimed at flattening the pictorial image and emphasizing its decorative qualities. Symbolists and Secessionists followed this tendency, which also fed on their production of posters in flat, linear designs within ornamental borders. The loss of perspectival space within the picture and the importance given to flat patterning, color and texture meant that the frame itself was increasingly unnecessary. Stock plaster moldings had long been the conventional way to provide a neutral frame that would not ‘interfere’ with the work, now that any alteration of the artist’s vision began to be seen as undesirable, and the simultaneous wish for a Ruskinian honesty of presentation ended ironically in the 20th century in small strip frames, minimalist battens fastened to the stretcher sides and, finally, in no frame at all. This movement was bolstered by the architectural trend towards function and away from ornament. This provokes questions as to whether a frame is unnecessary interference with the artist’s intention; whether this is only so in the case of abstract work; whether minimalist architecture and pictorial detail require minimal—or no—framing; whether the architecture itself provides sufficient frame; or whether, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, all pictures need frames for the image to cohere and avoid dissolution (see 1986 exh. cat.). Allied issues have been raised in the 20th century: the framing of heterogeneous museum collections; unsuitably framed individual pictures; institutional interpretation of the artist’s assumed intentions; and the treatment of collectors’ frames when they have a later date than the paintings they contain.

4. Frame makers and reframing

The frame maker’s relationship to artist, architect and patron is as relevant as historical knowledge of framing; especially the changing status of artist and carver, which illuminates the different values that have been set on the frame. Medieval altarpieces were executed by an equal team of carver, gilder and painter, in which the carver’s wage might well be the highest. The painter had little say in the design, often receiving the carved, gilt panel only after the others had finished with it. Some early designs by artists do exist for a few works (e.g. by Dürer, Filippo Lippi, Lorenzo Lotto and Vittore Carpaccio); their rarity may be because few have survived or because they were uncommon. Even where contracts exist putting the painter in charge of the commission or requiring his design for a frame, the ornamentation may have remained the carver’s province.

During the Renaissance dynasties of exceptional carvers flourished, particularly in Italy; these also enjoyed equal status with the artist and were often important architects/sculptors responsible for the interiors where the works would hang. A painting could still be commissioned when its frame was already complete, and there was little sense that the work of carving or gilding was inferior (e.g. Leonardo gilded the frame for his Virgin of the Rocks, 1480’s; Paris, Louvre). Gradually, however, framing was left more in the artist’s hands, and the ‘name frames’ began to emerge: these are designs associated with a particular painter, such as the ‘Maratta’, ‘Canaletto’, ‘Longhi’, ‘Lely’, ‘Wright’, ‘Morland’ and ‘Whistler’ frames. Distinct from the producers of these stock designs, however, a master carver was still socially on a par with the artist and was often engaged directly by the client to provide an exceptional frame. In France the master carvers, their workshops and the guilds became rich and influential; craftsmen began to stamp their frames with a studio mark; and dozens of pattern books were published and diffused throughout Europe. Sculptors, ornamentalists and cabinetmakers all produced frames that can be classed as superb carvings, exquisite designs or precious pieces of furniture. The quality of these, residing not only in the original composition and carved detail but also in the application of layers of gesso, the recutting of the gesso and the use of toned gilding and part burnishing, was reflected in the high prices they commanded, although in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the cost of paintings rose proportionately faster than that of frames, and stock designs were relatively cheap.

Collectors tended to pay to frame their acquisitions suitably, as with the galleries built from the 16th to the 18th century to house specific collections, for which the architect would often design background hangings, decoration and frames. The jewels of a collection received settings approximating to their perceived worth. On the other hand, a Dutch patron of the 17th century or the early 18th would look to fashionable France rather than a native style when framing his most prized paintings, and French collectors of northern paintings would naturally do the same; from the time of their execution until quite a recent date, portraits by, for example, Rembrandt might be framed in French Baroque gilt frames, which can kill the contents.

The position of the frame maker crumbled, along with that of other luxury trades, because of the impoverishment and restraint caused by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of the late 18th century and the early 19th; and, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, mass-produced products began to replace handmade goods. Machine-stamped lengths of molding created cheap frames for the engravings churned out by new processes; framed pictures for the better-off middle and working classes became affordable; and there was a gradual infiltration into the higher end of the market and a consequent slump in demand for hand-carved frames. Other products of the mass market—composition and papier mâché, base metal instead of gold leaf—all fed this trend, and by 1813 the number of carvers had shrunk by almost nine-tenths. The artist’s position remained unaffected: indeed, his status had changed from the artisan of the Middle Ages to the inspired creator of the Romantic Age, leaving the carver or frame maker reduced to the stature of mere craftsman. In the later 19th century the artist would become rich, titled and influential; but there was no equivalent place for the carver, just as there was no longer widespread demand for his skill. The design of any frame outside a production-line type was firmly in the artist’s hands; and although the rarity of a tailor-made pattern executed by one of the few good carvers remaining meant that its price was comparatively high, still its maker would never be given the recognition, equal with the painter, that he had enjoyed five or six centuries earlier.

So little were good authentic frames valued that the early panel paintings shipped out of Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries were taken wholesale from their carved Gothic settings, and the latter were burnt to salvage the gold leaf. Museums in Europe and the USA reset the panels in pastiches of the original, with iron-like composition Gothic Revival ornament finished with drab oil-gilding and base leaf. Imitation French Baroque frames with stamped ornament were used on Italian Renaissance and Mannerist works; and original Louis XIV carved frames were stripped of their gilding, washed with subdued color and used to marry Impressionist paintings to the Louis Revival interiors of their American purchasers. Soon this ubiquitous practice had fixed a generalized Louis XIV pattern in the public mind as the ‘Impressionist frame’. Similarly, Turner’s works lost their gilded hollow, ‘Morland’ or laurel frames, often ending in neutral grayish 1960’s moldings with inner hessian slips. Remedying this divorce of paintings from their contemporary settings began in earnest only in the late 20th century; the process is handicapped by the small number of original frames surviving and by the reluctance of institutions to spend on displaying authentically the pictures they have rather than on acquiring new ones. Curators may also baulk at hanging diverse styles of frame side by side, preferring to preserve a neutral pre-existing ‘gallery’ style or to create a new one. The loss of balance, color and focus in many paintings is severe, and only the custom of illustrating art books with unframed reproductions could have blinded the spectator for so long to the effects of such misalliance. Some art history methodologies locate the work in its social and historical setting; it needs also to be appropriately sited in an immediate physical context that will take account of its original purpose and surroundings or subsequent place in a noted collection. It needs a frame.

5. Historiography

The dislocation of contemporary frames from their pictures has been a deterrent to art and furniture historians alike. The frame frustrates both disciplines and has long remained in a no-man’s-land between the fine and the decorative arts. 99% of the illustrations in art histories exclude the frame, despite its crucial role in evoking its painting’s milieu. This neglect has virtually eliminated the frame from the viewer’s consciousness and critical appreciation. Since the early studies by Bode (1898–9), Roche (1931) and, later, Heydenryk (1963), recognizing the significance of frames, deeper exploration began in the last three decades of the 20th century and is gathering momentum. Grimm’s broad and copiously illustrated survey Alte Bilderrahmen (1978) remains the standard work on the subject. Two important and beautifully illustrated books on the history of Italian frames, La cornice italiana… (1992) and La cornice fiorentina e senese (1992), together with studies by Mosco, are impressive successors to the pioneer works by Guggenheim and Morazzoni, placing Italy in the forefront of national frame history

Appraisals of museum-frame collections have prompted exhibitions with excellent catalogues, exposing a new level of scholarship to an international audience: the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, undertook a detailed stylistic and regional analysis of its Italian frames in Italienisch Bilderrahmen des 14.–18. Jahrhunderts (1976); Prijst de lijst (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum., 1984) is a meticulous account of 17th-century Dutch frames with their original pictures; The Art of the Edge (1986) surveys the role and development of the frame in the context of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection (and includes for the first time in English one of the few essays dealing with the conceptual issues of the frame, by José Ortega y Gasset); Cadres de peintres (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay, 1989) focuses on the integrity of 19th- and 20th-century artist-designed frames, a theme that is developed by the catalogue In Perfect Harmony (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. van Gogh, 1995); and Italian Renaissance Frames (1990) is an in-depth catalogue of the frames and frame makers of the Renaissance paintings in the Lehman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Art of the Picture Frame (London, N.P.G., 1996) examines the portrait frame as it is affected by the input of patron, artist and frame maker; while Frameworks (London, Paul Mitchell, 1996), running in tandem with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, analyses the frame within its larger setting. Permanent displays are far less common. The only museums showing (empty) frames as works of art have been the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and the Dallas Museum of Art (Reves Collection), TX, both of which concentrate on 17th- and 18th-century French frames. Since 1995 these have been joined—and surpassed—by a private collection of 240 European frames donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. This displays four centuries of the highest quality design and craftsmanship, and will become a focal centre for the study of frames. Alongside these institutional landmarks have appeared Mendgen’s book (1991) and an increasing volume of specialized individual studies in leading art and museum journals, indicating the enormous depth of the subject’s potential. An entire issue of the Revue de l’art (no. 76, 1987) was devoted to a stimulating overview of all the main contributions to frames, together with nine specialist articles and a comprehensive, indispensable bibliography. Two examples of frame studies being integrated with art-historical texts for the first time are the descriptive appraisal of frames in the picture guide of the Thyssen–Bornemisza collection (1989) and the essay on frames within an artist’s monographic exhibition catalogue (Wright of Derby; London, Tate, 1990).


H. Harvard: ‘Cadre’, Dictionnaire de l’ameublement et de la décoration, i (Paris, 1887), pp. 510–15
M. Guggenheim: Le cornici italiene dalla meta del secolo XV allo scorio del XVI (Milan, 1897)
W. von Bode: ‘Bilderrahmen in alter und neuer Zeit’, Pan, iv (1898–9), pp. 243–56
R. Thorel: De l’influence du cadre dans les oeuvres d’art (Paris, 1904)
F. Feneon: ‘Les Cadres’, Bull. Vie A. (Feb 1922)
W. Ayrshire: ‘The Philosophy of the Picture Frame’, Int. Studio (June 1926)
S. Roche: Cadres français et étrangers du XVe siècle au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1931)
F. S. Meyer: A Handbook of Ornament (Chicago, 1945)
J. White: The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space (London, 1957)
A. Strange and L. Cremer: Alte Bilderrahmen (Darmstadt, 1958) [25 figs]
H. Heydenryk: The Art and History of Frames (New York, 1963) [100 figs]
M. Shapiro: ‘On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image Signs’, Semiotica, i (1969), pp. 223–42
P. Thornton and W. Reider: ‘Pierre Langlois, ebéniste’, Connoisseur, clxxviii/718 (1971), pp. 283–8; clxxix/720 (1972), pp. 105–12
J. Gloag: Guide to Furniture Styles: English & French, 1450–1850 (London, 1972)
C. Grimm: Alte Bilderrahmen: Epochen–Typen–Material (Munich, 1978) [extensive bibliog.; 483 figs]; Eng. trans. as The Book of Picture Frames (New York, 1981) [with suppl. on American frames by G. Szabo; 30 figs, 489 pls] [g]
P. Thornton: Seventeenth-century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (New Haven and London, 1978)
W. Ehlich: Bilderrahmen von der Antike bis zur Romantik (Dresden, 1979)
G. Lacambre: ‘Cadre’, Petit Larousse de la peinture (Paris, 1979), pp. 258–60
P. Mitchell: ‘The Framing Tradition’, Picture Framing, ed. R. Wright-Smith (London, 1980), pp. 12–32 [9 color pls]
T. Clifford: ‘The Historical Approach to the Display of Paintings’, Int. J. Mus. Mgmt & Cur., i (1982), pp. 93–106
F. G. Conzen and G. Dietrich: Bilderrahmen: Stil–Verwendung–Material (Munich, 1983)
P. Cannon-Brookes: ‘Picture Framing: A Neglected Art’, NACF Rev. (1984), pp. 84–93 [12 figs]
S. Jervis: The Penguin Dictionary of Design and Designers (Harmondsworth, 1984)
P. Thornton: Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620–1920 (London, 1984)
S. E. Fuchs: Der Bilderrahmen (Recklinghausen, 1985) [146 figs]
P. Lewis and G. Darley: Dictionary of Ornament (London, 1986)
The Art of the Edge: European Frames, 1300–1900 (exh. cat., Chicago, IL, A. Inst., 1986) [incl. J. Ortega y Gasset: ‘Meditations on the Frame’, p. 21]
Rev. A., 76 (1987) [whole issue devoted to frames]
C. de Watteville: Guide to the Exhibited Works in the Thyssen–Bornemisza Collection (Lugano and Milan, 1989) [cat. entries on frames by P. Mitchell and L. Roberts, pp. 365–71]
Wright of Derby (exh. cat., London, Tate, 1990) [with essay on frames by P. Mitchell]
E. Mendgen: Künstler rahmen ihre Bilder: Zur Geschichte des Bilderrahmens zwischen Akademie und Sezession (Konstanz, 1991)
In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame, 1850–1920 (exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. van Gogh, 1995)
Frameworks (exh. cat., London, Paul Mitchell, 1996)
The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain (exh. cat., London, N.P.G., 1996)
E. Wilner: The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame (San Francisco, 2000)
H. Heydenryk: The Right Frame: The Essential Guide to Framing (New York, 2003)
The Art of the Frame: Gems from the Simoni Collection (exh. cat. by S. Smeaton; Pensacola, FL, Mus. A., 2004)
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