A Frame to Conjure With

Reframing historical paintings is an art unto itself
Photo by Cami Mesa A Frame to Conjure With
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A few years ago, if you had the good fortune to work as a porter at one of the major auction houses in New York or London, you might have had the greater good fortune to be handed a picture frame, discarded by one of the purchasers of the painting. It was one of the perks of a badly paid, but fascinating job.


The frames, lugged to the Portobello Road or some other street market and flogged for the highest sum, supplemented the immediate needs of the porter. A vanishing world indeed.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s now hold separate auctions of the frames that they used to discard. Galleries with red velvet walls now hang empty frames, refurbished and glittering with new gold leaf, waiting for new occupants, a Renoir perhaps, or a Manet, and even, to put things more locally, an Aaron Gorson. Now, frames can sell for $5,000, $10,000 and up.

In her office at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Chief Curator and Curator of Fine Art Lulu Lippincott has pinned a series of color photocopies of some of the best-​known paintings in the museum on her walls. In the museum catalogs they are normally illustrated naked, free of their frames, but on Lippincott’s walls they are illustrated in their frames. Beneath them, the same paintings appear in other photocopies, by the magic of digital photography, inserted in alternative frames. They are different. Sometimes a subtle change has been effected, sometimes something more radical by this tentative framing. She is currently formulating plans to reframe part of the collection.

When you look at a picture on your walls or on the walls of a gallery or a museum, your eye ought to concentrate on the surface of the image alone. A frame, in principle, should help you do that as discreetly as possible, while at the same time protecting what might well be a very valuable artwork. (We often forget that a frame is a protective device.) Before the invention of the stretched canvas some 500 years ago, paint was directly applied to a robust panel of wood with some kind of a border either painted or tacked on. But even then the framing served as a way of isolating the experience of looking, opening a window into another world of experience.

Framing satisfies many needs. For an artist, how his or her picture looks in a frame may be regarded as the primary need. Museums, when they know that an artist has chosen a particular frame or perhaps even designed it, treat that frame with special respect. At the Carnegie Museum you will see J.A. McN. Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Senor Pablo de Sarasate (the virtuoso violinist) in a frame designed by the artist himself. That little butterfly on the frame is actually Whistler’s signature, corresponding to his signature on the canvas. The portrait is a blackish monotone, but when you walk slowly by it, it is strangely redeemed by its frame.

The same could also be said, with even stronger reason, of Fernand Khnopff’s symbolist Portrait of Madeleine Mabille, which hangs a short distance from the Whistler and whose frame was also designed by the artist. The artist has rigged up the girl, the daughter of an industrialist, and perhaps a little plain, in a stunning white dress in a formally composed setting to ethereal effect. The unusual frame accentuates and even advances the composition of the portrait to the extent that both may be described as integral to each other.

Frames designed by the society architect Stanford White (the only architect to my knowledge to have been deliberately killed by a Pittsburgher) were much chosen by the artists of the gilded age, including John Singer Sargent and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Originally constructed by the New York framemakers Cabus, they were, after White’s death in 1906, manufactured by the Newcomb-​Macklin Company. (The company continues to produce some of the Stanford White styles to this day.) Note Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s Lady in Black and Rose, c. 19051909, in the Carnegie Museum, in a typical White frame, probably by Newcomb-​Macklin. (The gilding, notes Lippincott, is a little over-​cleaned). Other White frames, agreeably grubby, can be found hanging around Carnegie Music Hall, improving the appearance of portraits of early Carnegie Institute worthies.

Frames and architecture frequently rub shoulders, both historically and in the context of the modern white-​cube gallery. In 1900, Henry Clay Frick acquired Pascal-​Adolphe-​Jean Dagnan-Bouveret’s painting Consolatrix Afflictorum from the London dealer Tooth. The architectural frame in the Renaissance style (atypical of a Dagnan-​Bouveret frame) was damaged in transit to Pittsburgh and repaired. The painting was installed in the dining room at Clayton by about 1902. An early photograph survives indicating its original placement, an odd one, directly in front of the rather dreary fireplace in the room. The painting was later removed from the room and the original frame was lost.

When Clayton was restored prior to its opening as a house museum, it was decided to re-​install the painting and a reconstruction of the frame was commissioned from the Pittsburgh cabinet makers Wilson and McCracken, who had only the early photograph (in black and white) and little else to work on. That photograph did not reveal the nature of the surface of the frame. Was it originally gilded or only partly gilded? (It was known that the original’s early repairs included some gilding.) Trace gilding exists on the Carnegie Museum’s Dagnan-​Bouveret, given by Frick, but the frame is stylistically dissimilar.

The final solution, choosing a basically dark wood frame in sympathy with the interior of the room, is essentially guesswork, but inspired. The frame anticipates the taste that was to dominate the Fricks’ New York townhouse, now The Frick Collection. Interestingly, the painting is currently de-​installed at Clayton, and the dining room currently explores an earlier phase of Clayton’s decorative scheme.

A frame is also indicative of the needs of the client. An artist or, more usually, the dealer will try and anticipate that. The typical client for much of the 20th century was rich, American and with a penchant for French or English 18th-​century furniture. The paintings had to fit, even if they were of a more modern vintage. The results have been hallowed by time but are occasionally ridiculous.

One dealer, Lord Duveen, selling the finest paintings to his chosen American millionaires, removed the original frames from his Gainsboroughs and bespoke carved and gilded new ones, often far grander and certainly in better condition than the originals. The dealer Wildenstein chose either original French 18th-​century frames or fine reproductions for his Cézannes, often dabbed over with a chalky white or yellowish goop. It worked well in the period apartments overlooking Park Avenue or Central Park in New York (as well as translating easily to Palm Beach, Monte Carlo and even Beverly Hills). The Carnegie has a few such paintings, remarkably fine, in frames that are beginning to look a trifle anachronistic. They too are coming under the curator’s scrutiny.

The dealer’s frame is an unexplored topic. In Pittsburgh, the dealers J.J. Gillespie and Wunderley Brothers handled most of the art sold in the region for the greater part of the 20th century. They tended to favor certain styles of frame and attached their distinctive labels on the reverse of the work. Gillespie also undertook the restoration of a body of antique frames. The smoky condition of the city might explain why so many local frames have been regilded, often very poorly. It is likely that Gillespie and Wunderley also acted as agents for Newcomb-​Macklin and other frame manufacturers, for their labels have been found on the reverse of a few Stanford White frames containing work by local artists.

Until recently the private collector seldom showed any great interest in the frames in his collection. He or she accepted the frames they came in, deferred to the dealer and often to the interior decorator (the latter has come to show an increasing interest, if often ignorant, in the framing of a work of art).

Motive in framing has always been mixed. Economy plays as significant a role as extravagance. An overdeveloped ego can result in an over-​elaborate frame masking the defects of a mediocre painting.But modernism changed much of that. In fact, modernism could almost be defined as anti-​frame.

Again, walk through the Carnegie Museum, which is still organized on historical themes, and watch the impact of the frame recede. On occasion you will see no frame at all, as in the exceptional case of Monet’s Water Lilies. Gilded moldings disappear; plain wood or flat painted frames predominate. Note, in particular, Arthur Dove’s Huntington Harbor II (c. 1926), which has a plain zinc frame made by the impoverished artist. You almost can’t see it at all.

In a letter to the curators at The Tate Gallery in 1979, the British modernist Ben Nicholson (18941982), looking back over a long career, made the following observations: “I have considered the frame which surrounds a work of mine as a vital part of its presentation. Therefore, I have always seen to the framing of my work myself …

1. Frames should be made of natural wood with little graining and of a color which is not too hot, nor too yellow, and which is not stained or varnished.

2. The corners of the frame should not be mitered diagonally. The four sides should abut each other, aligned so that the top side extends over the left side vertical and that the right-​side vertical rises so as to extend over the side of the top lateral. Similarly, the left-​side vertical is to extend across the end of the bottom lateral while the bottom lateral is to extend across the end of the right-​side vertical.”

No prescription can be taken as normative, but Nicholson sums up concisely the serious concern for framing that still prevails today.


Graham Shearing

Graham is a collector, critic, curator, consultant and writer who has lived in Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years. After studying law at the University of Cambridge and reading for the English Bar, he was distracted by the lure of art and has been so ever since.

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