Framing Contemporary Watercolors

Contemporary framing can often become bland and uninteresting when the same plain style of frame is used for everything. I’m pleased to have worked with the artist Shelly Malkin in framing 29 of her luminous watercolors for her exhibition ‘Of Paradise, Storms, & Butterflies’.

Using a variety of treatments and finishes that honor and enhance each composition, we also floated the artwork without any over mat to emphasize the appealing edges of the paper.

Several of her paintings are in dramatic 40” X 60” and 27” X 83” formats; for these we selected a molding with a face of 1 to 1 ¾” width and sides that angle back toward the wall at a 45-degree, rather than the standard 90-degree, angle.

To amplify the effect of the large sheet size on the 40” X 60” artworks a special mount was used that raises the paper an additional 3/16” off the surface of the background.
This same style of float was used for a series of three ethereal tondo paintings to highlight their circular shape. 

In a pair of paintings composed as a quadrant of four images we used a tray style of frame that implies a view through a window.  

In the ‘After Sandy’ series a blue-gray finish underscores the harsh beauty of broken trees and devastated yet regenerative landscapes. 

Finally, all paintings were framed with UV-filtering acrylic that will protect the delicate nature of the medium.  Contemporary simplicity does not have to be without nuance and substance. I welcome your inquiries.

A Special Gallery Tour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing

In the Luce study center. Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

In the Luce study center.
Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

On Sunday, September 25, 2016 I was pleased to offer a frame-centric guided gallery talk about frames in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The group who had requested the tour was the Metro-Atlantic Chapter of the Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA).

The PPFA is a national organization of framers and frame shop owners; I had been delighted to have offered a keynote address at two of their annual conferences and to have also taught classes on several topics including the life and frame designs of noted architect Stanford White. The enthusiasm of PPFA members for American frame history makes them a wonderful audience, and the Sunday gallery talk was no exception.

We started the tour in the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art. (Galleries 773 & 774.) Many people do not realize that the study center visible storage contains an entire case of significant, untenanted American frames of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We started there and discussed things such as fabrication techniques and stylistic evolution of frame design between 1800-1930.

Next, we moved up to the paintings galleries and touched on a variety of different artworks: Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836), Eastman Johnson’s The Hatch Family (1870-71), artworks by Dwight Tryon and Thomas Wilmer Dewing in Stanford White frames and Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) by John Singer Sargent (1883-4).

Discussing the frame on Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm- The Oxbow, 1836. Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

Discussing the frame on Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm- The Oxbow, 1836.
Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

Original Stanford White frame on Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s Tobit and the Angel, 1899. Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

Original Stanford White frame on Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s Tobit and the Angel, 1899.
Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

Our tour concluded in the Grand Salon (Gallery 760), which contains masterpieces such as Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863), Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes (1859) and of course, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851). The Leutze painting holds special interest for framers as the original frame, known only through two extant period photos. The frame was recreated for the painting by Eli Wilner & Company and went on view in 2012 following the expansion and reinstallation of the American Paintings galleries. There is an excellent bulletin from the MMA detailing all aspects of the project. The unique design, complex crest and monumental scale of the frame all make the grandly framed painting a dramatic and compelling sight. 

In the Grand Salon gallery, in the background Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863. Photo by Susan Gittlen

In the Grand Salon gallery, in the background Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863.
Photo by Susan Gittlen

The group in front of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

The group in front of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851.
Photo by Eric Michael Tollefson.

It was an enjoyable day where much was shared and we all took delight in celebrating the artistry inherent in picture framing.

Picturing Prestige at the Museum of the City of New York

Two generations of the Marston-Phillipse family by English painter John Wollaston (1710-1775)

Two generations of the Marston-Phillipse family by English painter John Wollaston (1710-1775)

On view now at the Museum of the City of New York Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700-1860 draws from the permanent collection and showcases some of the finest examples of early New York City portraiture. Early, in this case, means the late 18th and early 19th centuries when New York became a thriving, populous center of the still-young United States.  Portraits were the most popular form of painting at the time, an important and prestigious chronicle of the wealthy and successful merchant class.

From a frame perspective the exhibition offers the opportunity to see some fine examples of late 18th Century carved and gilded frames as well as some fine examples of American frames typical of the 1840’s.  I recently walked through the exhibition with Dr. Bruce Weber, MCNY Curator of Painting and Sculpture and curator of the show; much of the information about the artists and sitters included here draws upon Bruce’s knowledge and research.

As you enter, there are two remarkable groups of late-18th Century portraits; at left is a group of four portraits depicting two generations of the Marston-Phillipse family by English painter John Wollaston (1710-1775). 

At right are four portraits of mother Sara Bogart Ray (Mrs. Richard Ray) and her three sons by John Durand (active 1766-1782). Little is known of Durand though historical material regarding the portraits indicates that the frames were made by Thomas Strachan, a British maker working in New York.

Sara Bogart Ray (Mrs. Richard Ray) and her three sons (Cornelius Ray, Richard Ray, Jr., and Robert Ray with dog) by John Durand (active 1766-1782). 

Sara Bogart Ray (Mrs. Richard Ray) and her three sons (Cornelius Ray, Richard Ray, Jr., and Robert Ray with dog) by John Durand (active 1766-1782). 

The frames on the Wollaston and Ray portraits are different in design though both are not only carved, but also typify the British Rococo style popular during this time. Both expressions are light and delicate in appearance and include C-scrolls, S-scrolls and gadrooning. The Wollaston frames have a leafy primary section with gadrooning as a small accent at the sight edge and pierced carving at the corners and centers.

Mary Crooke Marston (Mrs. Nathaniel Marston), c.1751 by John Wollaston (1710-1775)

Mary Crooke Marston (Mrs. Nathaniel Marston), c.1751 by John Wollaston (1710-1775)

Detail of one of the four frames on the portraits by John Wollaston

Detail of one of the four frames on the portraits by John Wollaston

In contrast, the Ray frames eliminate the central panel entirely and use both the gadroon ornament as a bold anchoring motif at the sight edge

Richard Ray,Jr., c. 1766 by John Durand (Active 1766-1782), Detail

Richard Ray,Jr., c. 1766 by John Durand (Active 1766-1782), Detail

Detail showing gadroon sight-edge on Richard Ray, Jr. by John Durand

Detail showing gadroon sight-edge on Richard Ray, Jr. by John Durand

and exuberant yet delicate scrolls around the entire frame- with the exception of the corners and centers, which are accented by acanthus leaf flourishes.

Detail showing acanthus leaf flourishes and C-scrolls at centers on Richard Ray, Jr. by Durand

Detail showing acanthus leaf flourishes and C-scrolls at centers on Richard Ray, Jr. by Durand

It is remarkable that all these delicate frames have survived intact!

Also noteworthy in the show are a number of frames from the 1840’s. In America during that period it was popular to use a silk tulle on the frame as a ground for the applied ornament. The tulle gives the surface a delicate topography

Detail showing silk tulle ground on frame for Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks), d.1845 by Shepard Alonzo Mount

Detail showing silk tulle ground on frame for Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks), d.1845 by Shepard Alonzo Mount

not unlike that of the intricate surface recutting seen in earlier 18th Century French Louis frames.

Detail showing surface recutting on an 18th century French Louis XV carved frame.

Detail showing surface recutting on an 18th century French Louis XV carved frame.

Indeed, each of the frames on the portrait of Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks), dated 1845 by Shepard Alonzo Mount (1804-1868) seen below

and the double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, circa 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittel (1822-1894)

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, circa 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittel (1822-1894)

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, circa 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittel (1822-1894)

Detail of frame on Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, circa 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittel (1822-1894)

Detail of frame on Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, circa 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittel (1822-1894)

both echo Louis XV frames with swept sides, projecting corners and centers and lush floral embellishments. Typical of the ornamentation of 19th Century frames, all these motifs were molded and applied not intricately carved as were their 17th and 18th-century French predecessors. 

Late 18th Century French Louis XV style carved frame

Late 18th Century French Louis XV style carved frame

These late 18th Century and 1840's frames are just highlights- there are a number of other excellent frames in the Museum of the City of New York exhibition- on view until September 18, 2016, it is well worth a visit.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Part I: a review of the 2015-2016 exhibition, with a general note on some frames

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, an exhibition: first shown at the Grand Palais, Paris, from Sept. 2015- January 2016; then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 15 May 2016; and continuing at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 10 June- 11 September 2016; reviewed here by Suzanne Smeaton, independent frame historian.

It is always a gift when a new exhibition includes notable frames, and the show of portraits by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is certainly one of these. This exhibition, which was called a ‘ravishing, overdue survey’ by the art critic of the New York Times, is indeed beautiful, displaying a comprehensive collection of the artist’s intimate, insightful and skillfully-wrought portraits. They range from work produced at the end of the 18th century in France, to those she painted in Italy, Austria and Russia, having been forced to leave her country at the outbreak of the Revolution. Marie Antoinette was an early advocate for and patron of Vigée Le Brun, and her patronage provided access to many in the upper echelon of French society, and later in the courts of Europe.

Having recently seen the exhibition Louis Style: French Frames, 1610-1792 at the Getty, I was struck by the array of fine French frames, especially the many Louis XVI examples. I was also fortunate to walk through the exhibition with my friend and colleague Cynthia Moyer, Associate Conservator for frames in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition the fact that she has worked on some of the frames in the show, Cynthia’s keen eye, and specific knowledge of gilding, French decorative art and frames, provided me with a deeper understanding of the nuances of many of the patterns there.

Jacques-François Le Sèvre, c.1774, private collection; Etienne Vigée, post 1773, Saint Louis Art Museum; Mme J-F Le Sèvre, c.1774-78, Private Collection

Near the entrance of the exhibition is a telling installation of three portraits showing Vigée Le Brun’s stepfather, brother, and mother, each framed in a different style, which together encapsulate contemporary taste.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Madame Jacques-François Le Sèvre, c.1774-78, 25 5/8 × 21 1/4ins (65 × 54 cm), Private Collection

The oval portrait of the artist’s mother, Mme Le Sèvre (1774-78), is a quintessential late 18th century NeoClassical design, with a flat top edge, leafy acanthus in the cove, beads, frieze, and rais-de-coeur at the sight edge. The same moulding (albeit with slightly different proportions) frames the portrait of Madame Grand of 1783; this time surmounted by a complex and sinuous arrangement of ribbon (this is beautiful in its delicacy though most vulnerable: Cynthia Moyer stated that the carved ribbon had required strengthening and many small repairs.) Gene Karraker notes in his book, Looking at European Frames, that the oval format became popular during this time (especially for female sitters) because they were more economical to produce, requiring less carved ornamental moulding and no elaborate corners or centres.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, The artist’s brother, Louis-Jean-Baptiste-Etienne Vigée, post-1773, Saint Louis Art Museum

The middle portrait of the three, of Vigée Le Brun’s brother Etienne, 1773, is in a Louis XV-Louis XVI transitional design with swept rails and centre-&-corner ornament. The frame embodies ‘symmetrical Rococo’, where the graceful carving is rendered in carefully balanced forms – a departure from the asymmetric rocailles of earlier Louis XV frames, and a sign of the emerging taste for NeoClassicism.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Etienne Vigée, corner detail

Cynthia called my attention to a small flourish of delicate, flat leaves on the frame; such a specific ornament might indicate a particular maker or atelier [see appendix below]. A similar motif is found on the frame for The Princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris, 1793, although the frame of Etienne has a rectangular sight, and that of the princess has an oval sight with spandrels; there are other differences in the various ornaments employed.

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Louise Vigée Le Brun, Jacques Francois Le Sèvre, c.1774, Private collection; corner detail of frame

The portrait of J-F Le Sèvre, Vigée Le Brun’s stepfather, is in a popular Louis XVI design with an egg-&-dart motif beneath the top edge and a festoon of flowers emerging from a ribbon-bedecked central cartouche. This particular arrangement, with a central top element and swags down each side, is especially well represented in many variations throughout the show. Indeed, at least twenty of the seventy-nine paintings on view have these frames. The festoons or garlands (referred to dismissively as ‘cordes à puits’, or well ropes, by Charles-Nicolas Cochin) vary in their component parts: many are composed of husks (Princess Anna Alexandrovna Golitsyna, c. 1797, The Baltimore Museum of Art), some bay leaf-&-berry (Comtesse de la Châtre, 1789, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and others are lush combinations of many different flowers (Marie Antoinette With a Rose, 1783, collection of Linda and Stewart Resnick). There is an unusual example on Madame Etienne Vigée, 1785, private collection: rather than a rectangular or oval frame topped by a fronton or ribbons, the top rail arches up at the centre and becomes part of the large central rocaille ornament from which the festoons radiate.

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Louise Vigée Le Brun, Madame Dugazon in the rôle of ‘Nina’, 1787, 57 1/2 × 45 1/4in. (146 × 115 cm); frame: 78 3/4 × 60 5/8 in. (200 × 154 cm); Private collection

Another remarkable variant is on Madame Dugazon in the rôle of ‘Nina’; the swags of bound bay leaf-&-berry cascade down each side and appear to penetrate the frame from the front, emerging at the sides.

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Louise Vigée Le Brun, Comtesse de la Châtre, 1789, 45 x 34 1/2 in. (114.3 x 87.6 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Allan Harris on Flickr

Nearby, the frame for the Comtesse de la Châtre is a fluted hollow frame with a top edge of centred guilloche, and a ribbon-bedecked scrolling clasp at the crest, from which the bunched bay leaf-&-berry emerges. This clasp is ornamented with piastres between acanthus leaves; the bay leaf festoon is caught at the corners on illusionistic nails, as in the case of most of these fronton frames. Cynthia noted that the frame is not original to the painting and has been cut to accommodate the Comtesse; it is an appropriate and very successful choice.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Marquise de Pezay, & the Marquise de Rougé with her sons, Alexis & Adrien, 1787, 489/16 x 613/8 ins (123.3 x 155.9 cm); frame: 70 x 80 x 7 1/2 in. (177.8 x 203.2 x 19.1 cm), National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo: Marie Wise

Amongst other styles of frame on view is a magnificent tour-de-force of carving, on the large transitional Louis XV-Louis XVI frame for The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with her two sons. Both front and back edges are swept, and the back edge has a guilloche moulding, both of which points are characteristic of transitional frames. The whole object is masterfully carved and extravagantly embellished. Garlands are swagged around the concave frieze of the frame, the garlands at the bottom defying gravity and arching upward.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Peace bringing back Abundance, 1780, Musée du Louvre

Other transitional Louis XV-XVI frames in the exhibition include those on Peace bringing back Abundance, and Giovanni Pasiello, 1791, Château de Versailles. Both frames are of the same design: a top edge of egg-&-dart, a fluted hollow and a flat frieze, anchored by a sumptuous rocaille ornament at each corner that extends across the fluting and over the frieze in leafy tendrils [see appendix].

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette & her children, 1787, Château de Versailles; corner detail of original frame with crest in situ at Versailles

NeoClassical designs are a striking counterpoint to the ebullient forms of Louis XV frames. While there are many loans from the collection of the Musée National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, there is a strict prohibition against photography of any of them. It is worth noting, however, that the large portrait of Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) from Versailles is exhibited in a rather modest frame. The original NeoClassical frame, quite grand and of significant size, was too large to fit within the constraints of the ceiling heights, so a temporary exhibition frame was made [see appendix below].

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya, 1796, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

There is an especially pleasing fluted frame on Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya, 1796. When seen from a distance the overall restraint belies a sophisticated combination of classicizing ornament: a narrow unembellished top edge gives way to an assertive egg-&-dart embellished with leaf sprigs, a shallow fluted frieze with leaf buds in the channels, and a cabled astragal-&-triple bead at the sight edge. This may have been cut to fit the painting, as the sight edge does not conform to the arrangement of beads at the corners.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya, corner detail

The show is a sumptuous offering of Louise Vigée Le Brun’s sensitive and sublime likenesses; that so many are displayed in historically appropriate frames of the late 18th century is a gratifying complement.


An appendix: some of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s frames (oil paintings)

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Louise Vigée Le Brun, Comtesse de la Châtre, 1789, 45 x 34 1/2 in. (114.3 x 87.6 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art; reframed. Photo by Allan Harris on Flickr

Unfortunately we cannot depend upon the many strikingly beautiful frames on Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portraits being those in which they first entered their client collections; her continuing popularity as an artist has ensured that a particularly fine and ornamental class of frame has for a long period been considered indispensible to displaying her work (as with the Comtesse de la Châtre, above). However, as Bruno Pons points out relative to collections of art made in 18th century France, the frames would in the main have been fairly simple [1]. Likewise Blondel d’Azincourt, in his notes on arranging a collector’s cabinet, suggests only that the central works in a hanging may need an focal ornament at the crest of a frame, which implies that the supporting paintings had in general much less decorative settings:

‘Quelque fois même on fait ceintrer le haut de la bordure, ou l’on y met un ornement qui la couronne. Ce sera par exemple une guirlande qui surmonte le reste de la sculpture, ou si c’est un tableau qui représente un sujet, on y place les attributs qu’exige l’idée du peintre’ – Sometimes one may even highlight the crest of the frame by setting an ornament there which crowns it. There could, for example, be a garland carved at the top, or – if it is the frame of a subject painting – one might choose trophies which express the artist’s ideas [2].

Henri Danloux, The Baron de Besenval in his salon de compagnie, 1791, National Gallery, London

Both the drawings of the yearly Salon by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-80), and interiors such as Danloux’s portrait of Baron de Besenval confirm this state of affairs, so that the overpowering sense of carved riches in this exhibition of Vigée Le Brun’s work – although in many ways extremely just and attractive – may not reflect how the paintings were originally framed.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, The artist’s brother, Louis-Jean-Baptiste-Etienne Vigée, post-1773, Saint Louis Art Museum

Because of her association with the Queen, Vigée Le Brun had, like court painters of an earlier generation – Watteau, Lancret and Boucher – access to the carvers of the Bâtiments du roi, and her portraits of Marie Antoinette would certainly have been framed appropriately to the Queen’s status. This is less likely to be true of, for instance, the family portraits of her brother and errant stepfather, where very simple frames might be expected; yet the image of Etienne Vigée has ended up in what appears to be an example of the workshop of Jean Chérin, one of the more distinguished suppliers of the Menus-Plaisirs of the Royal Household.

Chérin stands out amongst his generation of carvers, as Paul Mitchell has established, being classed as a menuisier-sculpteur when he was admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1760, rather than as a simple menuisier or a menuisier-ébéniste.[3] His frames in transitional style, between the grand-luxe of Louis XV and the NeoClassicism of Louis XVI, are models of balance, hesitating between opulence and restraint. They are notable for several characteristics: the back edge is swept in S-scrolls like the top edge, and is decorated with a continuous intrelac moulding (not really visible in the image above); the corners and centres are symmetrical, but are set in delicate bands of rocailles; the sight edge is decorated with beading and rais-de-coeur; and the plain hollow frieze has the flourish of tiny leaves remarked by Suzanne Smeaton, above. These may be described as feuilles-à-tiges, after the example of the roses-à-tiges motif, and they appear (with the other characteristics noted) on other frames by Chérin.

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Jean Chérin (1733/34–85); transitional-style frame, c. 1770, carved, gessoed, & gilded oak; modern mirror glass, The J. Paul Getty Museum

One example is the Chérin frame in the collection of the Getty Museum, now on a looking-glass, which was shown in the exhibition of frames, Louis Style: French frames 1610-1792, at the museum from September 2015 to January 2016 . The motifs used – for instance in the corners and at the crest – are slightly different from those on the frame of Etienne Vigée; however, the latter is very close to the signed frame in the collection of Paul Mitchell, whilst the Getty frame is itself signed, indicating the variety of detail possible in an item which was in the mainstream of a certain style.

Louise Vigeée Le Brun, The princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris, 1793, Private collection

The oval portrait of Princess Caroline of Liechtenstein has a very similar frame to that of Etienne Vigée, but the quality seems less fine, and the spandrels which fill the corners around the oval are not properly integrated into the overall design. The inner fillet, for example, which in the latter picture borders the hollow frieze next to the sight mouldings, is awkwardly islanded in the frame of the princess, and sprouts secondary rinceaux of small leaves at top and bottom which conflict with the original sprays (now transformed to ivy leaves). This might be a workshop design, but seems more likely to be a copy, since it is hard to believe that a carver as accomplished as either Jean Chérin himself, or his son, Jean-Marie Chérin (fl. 1770s-post 1806), could be responsible for such an ungainly design.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Marquise de Pezay, & the Marquise de Rougé with her sons, Alexis & Adrien, 1787, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo: Marie Wise

The painting of the marquises de Pezay and de Rougé has a frame much more likely to be the real McCoy: the plastic nature of the carving, the complex interrelationship of rhythmic arcs around the contour, the variation of form in the corners and centres, and the triumphant flourish of the enlarged cartouche at the top, all indicating a better designer and carver than the craftsman of the last frame. This work was shown in the Paris Salon of 1787, and (presuming that this indeed is original, as the inscription may perhaps confirm) the solidity and undulating rhythm of the frame must easily have created a necessary space around the painting on the vast crush of the Salon walls. Unfortunately, a museum backing frame was added to this work some time ago, so it is not possible to check for a framemaker’s stamp, and none has been recorded for it. There are, of course, other candidates for its creation; see ‘Identifying the framemakers of 18th century Paris‘ by Edgar Harden.

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Louise Vigée Le Brun, The artist’s brother, Louis-Jean-Baptiste-Etienne Vigée, post-1773, Saint Louis Art Museum, corner detail (top); Peace bringing back Abundance, 1780, Musée du Louvre; corner detail (bottom)

The frame of Peace bringing back Abundance in the Louvre is an example of the straight-sided version which developed from the transitional swept frame, as NeoClassicism took a firmer grip on the collective imagination. Otherwise, the corners display many of the elements seen in the frame of Etienne Vigée – the leaf terminal, rocailles, the little leafy rinceaux, and the double ornament at the sight edge – yet nothing is as crisply carved, or as confidently composed. The undercut scrolling leaves which spring from flowers at each side of the corner conflict with the fluted hollow, and the flat frieze beyond is too narrow comfortably to contain the rinceaux, which lose all their delicacy and élan.

Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette & her children, 1787, Château de Versailles; corner detail of original frame with crest in situ

The great fronton frame on the portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children, which was too large to travel with the painting from Versailles, has moved on into the purer NeoClassicism of the Louis XVI style.

Jacques-Louis David, Mme de Verninac, 1798-99, Musée du Louvre. RF1942

It is very close to a design which can be seen more clearly on David’s Portrait of Mme Verninac – a further enrichment of the fluted concave NeoClassical moulding now framing the portrait of the Comtesse de la Châtre. The scotia or hollow fills most of the width of the rail, and is decorated with an intricate ribbon guilloche, the interstices of which are ornamented with leaves and flower buds. The ogee moulding above this is finely carved with cross-cut acanthus, and the sight edge with rais-de-coeur. The enlarged version of the pattern seen on Vigée Le Brun’s group portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children has a slightly richer sight edge, but is otherwise only aggrandized by the massive scrolled cartouche with the arms of France at the crest, supported by branches of palms and finished with a coronet. It is almost certainly the work of one of the major framemakers or sculpteurs from the Bâtiments du roi; it surrounds the portrait with a continual shimmer of light, as reflections ebb and flow across the fields of ornament – an echo of the animation the painter has bestowed on a family group which is both domestic and ceremonial.


[1] Bruno Pons, ‘Les cadres français du XVIIIe siècle et leurs ornements’, Revue de l’Art, no 76, 1987, p.41

[2] B.A. Blondel d’Azincourt, ‘La Première Idée de la curiosité, où l’on trouve l’arrangement, la composition d’un cabinet, les noms des meilleurs peintres flamands et leur genre de travail’, Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie, Université de Paris, IV, MS 34, fol.1-12, published as the Appendix to Colin Bailey, ‘Conventions of the 18th century cabinet de tableaux: Blondel d’Azincourt’s La Première Idée de la curiosité”, The Art Bulletin, vol.69, no 3, Sept., 1987, p.446

[3] Paul Mitchell, ‘A signed frame by Jean Chérin’, The International Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship, 1985, no 4, p147. A menuisier-sculpteur was the equivalent of a sculptor in wood, as opposed to the other gradations of framemaker, the menuisier or carpenter-carver, and the menuisier-ébéniste or cabinetmaker.


Posted on May 9, 2016 .

A Tale of Two Portraits

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At a recent Christie’s sale preview I saw two portraits that caught my eye due to their frames. It was gratifying to learn that both frames were original to the portraits.

The first, painted in 1844 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) is a portrait entitled ‘Ferdinand-Philippe-Louis-Charles-Henri of Bourbon Orleans, Duke of Orleans’. The Duke looks out with an imperturbable, regal bearing from a most elaborate surround inspired by earlier Louis XV style frames with prominent corners and centers and a lavishly decorated inner spandrel.

 It’s interesting to note that Louis XV frames would have been completely hand carved, while this frame, as a 19th century object, utilizes molded and applied composition ornament.

That the frame is original to the portrait is affirmed by a charming watercolor depicting the portrait of the Duke of Orleans in situ in the Grand Salon of Eisenach Castle, painted by the sitter’s younger brother Prince de Joinville in 1849.

Note the portrait in original frame on the wall at right.

Note the portrait in original frame on the wall at right.

The second portrait dates nearly 300 years earlier c.1541 and is by Renaissance painter and tapestry designer Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c.1500-c.1559).  The simple arch-top frame is painted black with simple, inner gilded moldings near the sight edge. The bottom of the frame with its canted horizontal rail is referred to as a wasserschlag or rain sill, a popular device in Northern European frames of the period that implies a window inviting the viewer inward.

The identity and position of the sitter is articulated in the script that occupies the central flat of the frame and tells us that it is Joost Aemszoon van der Burch, legal counsel to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V at the Council of Brabant.

The elegantly austere surround on the stoic, commanding presence of van der Burch couldn’t be more different from the florid extravagance of the Duke of Orleans and his dispassionate gaze and I am captivated by them both. Both men meet us in perfect attire, each emblematic of his own place and time.

Credit due to the Christie’s cataloging staff for suppling such excellent background on both artworks.

 

French Louis Frames at The Getty Center

Carved and gilded French Trophy Frame designed by Gilles-Marie Oppenard

A trip in early December 2015 to The Getty Center in Los Angeles provided an opportunity to see some of the finest examples of 17th and 18th Century French frames. I’d reached out to colleague and Getty frame conservator Gene Karraker to make a visit and he was a gracious host. It’s a terrific show and I am thrilled to have been able to see it. I was unexpectedly delighted to see my friend and colleague Lynn Roberts of The Frame Blog (London) there to join us, a special surprise arranged by friends and frame colleagues Rob and Barbara Markoff of San Diego.

The exhibition "Louis Style French Frames 1610-1792” (September 15, 2015- January 3, 2016) surveyed frame design in France when frame design, carving and gilding were at their zenith.  While I am offering here my own cursory impressions and observations of the show, the Getty website has a feature on the exhibition that provides a valuable download-able pdf of all label text with in-depth information on each era and individual frame . Further excellent reading can be found in the 2009 book ‘Looking at European Frames: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques’ by D. Gene Karraker.

The exhibition is in one high-ceilinged room with both an upper and lower row of frames and I especially appreciated being able to see the range of stylistic evolution from LOUIS XIII to LOUIS XVI frames. It is fascinating to see the use of profiles, forms and ornament as they reflected changing taste in decoration and style. Beautifully patterned Louis XIII frames reflect the Italian influence of the Italian queens Caterina de Medici (reigned 1547-1549) and Marie de Medici (reigned 1610 and mother and regent for the young Louis XIII) and the craftsmen they brought with them. 

 

Louis XIII frames reflect the influence of Italian design and craftsmanship.

 

Increasingly ornate frames during the Louis XIV period even occasionally incorporated the sunflower motif- the symbol of the ‘Sun King’.

 

Note the sunflower motif on the corners of the frame at upper left.

 

During the transitional Regence period (1715-1723) ‘center and corner’ frames became increasingly popular and lavish surface decoration with nuanced surfaces prevailed.

 

Center-and-corner frames became increasingly popular during the Regence period.

 

 

The most ebullient designs are embodied in the Louis XV style frame when exuberant Rococo ornament, swept sides and pierced carving were utilized to create frames of astonishing beauty and complexity. 

Swept sides and pierced carving are typical of Louis XV frames.

Note the reparure ('recutting') in the surface.

Note the reparure ('recutting') in the surface.

The surfaces are further embellished with recutting (reparure) a method of incising additional detail into the frame surface. The decoration is as delicate as fine jewelry.
The survey concludes with Louis XVI style frames that embody the restraint of Neoclassical forms. Straight edges and linear geometric patterns celebrated antiquity and the recent archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The fluted cove style frame first appeared and gilded surfaces used the interplay of matte and burnished surfaces to striking effect.

The final wall includes a didactic section showing tools of the carver and gilder, and images from pattern books and Diderot’s Encyclopedia.

 

Tools, pattern books and images from Diderot's Encyclopedia.

 


There’s even a small tablet that allows you to look at four different artworks in several different frame styles to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.  It’s a wonderful glimpse into the artistry of gifted craftsmen.

Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ mural

Entrance to the installation of ‘America Today’ by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930-31.

Benton’s extraordinary mural ‘America Today’ (1930-31) is now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Modern Wing for all to see and enjoy.  Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was commissioned to paint the mural for a boardroom on the third floor of The New School of Social Research in New York City. Conceived and executed in nine months, the mural depicts all the dynamism of early 20th Century America and includes images ranging from cotton picking in the rural South to the machinery and workers of urban America and the social life of the city.  After several decades at the New School the mural was acquired by AXA (then Equitable Life) in 1984 and in 2012 AXA donated the mural to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From a frame perspective the mural is of interest for its unique use of frame molding. Benton collaborated on the molding designs with the Austrian-born architect of the New School building Joseph Urban (1872-1933), one of the founders of American Art Deco. The moldings are silver-gilded and of a shape that underscores Urban’s Art Deco aesthetic. In preparatory sketches and drawings by Benton it is clear that the use of the molding was an integral part of the design and installation plan.

The mural is not only enclosed by the molding in the conventional manner: single passages of molding enter from the top and bottom in arcs and angles and terminate within the mural, penetrating areas of the composition and serving as breaks and transitions from one passage to another. It is a fascinating and unique use of the frame.

Early 20th Century Painted Frames

During my summer travels in the Netherlands I visited the Kröller Müller Museum in De Hoge Veluwe national park. Renowned for their many extraordinary paintings by Van Gogh, I was delighted to see the framing treatments on many of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in the collection.

Nature morte géométrique  (“Geometric Still Life 1”) o/c, dated 1919, George Valmier (French, 1885-1937) 

Detail, Valmier: note the sympathetic angled profile of the frame and the contratsting white angle near the sight edge.

Three Cubist artworks clearly demonstrate how effectively a painted frame can showcase a composition. The George Valmier (1885-1937) ‘Geometric Still Life 1” of 1919 is framed in a simple profile: a primary outer portion that slopes back toward the wall at a 45˚ degree angle, painted a medium grey with the sight edge of the frame another 45˚ angle painted in white. The grey is carefully keyed to match areas of the canvas painted in the same tone and the white inner edge of the frame sets off the black edge that Valmier painted around the entire perimeter. The choice of color and the clean angles of the profile harmonize and support, rather than constrain, the vitality of the composition.

On Gino Severini’s “Still Life With A Guitar” also dated 1919 another angular profile in white and pale grey surrounds the painting. At first glance the profile is a simple raised inner flat in grey at the sight edge surrounded by a wide, flat panel in white. A closer look, however, shows that the inner grey flat has an additional small step where it meets the white panel, and the outermost side edge of the wide white panel has also been painted in the same grey as sight edge. These subtle and sophisticated touches create a fascinating dialog of steps and planes with the artwork.

“Still Life With A Guitar” o/c, dated 1919, Gino Severini (Italian, 1883-1966) 

Detail, Severini: note the extra small step of the silver-grey part of the profile as well as how the back edge where the frame meets the wall has been colored in the same manner.

A third example on “Playing Cards and Siphon” of 1916 by Juan Gris (1887-1927) demonstrates the power of a color scheme that speaks directly to the image. The profile slopes in toward the canvas: the top-most outer edge in black gives way to the primary center panel in grey, followed by an inner liner at the sight edge that is painted the same deep ochre of the table. The transition from the grey panel to the ochre liner is bridged by a narrow band of dark grey-black and adds to the sense of contrast in Gris’ dramatic composition while the matte quality of the frame surface further supports the lush darkness of the composition.

All three are excellent examples of how a sensitively painted surround can be an effective alternative to a gilded or natural wood surface.

“Playing Cards and Siphon” o/c, dated 1916, Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887-1927). A sophisticated color scheme in matte paint surrounds the dramatic tones of Gris’ composition.

The progression in both shape and color leads the eye inward and adds visual interest by emphasizing key colors from the image.

Note how the inner ochre liner has been painted with a grey-black to provide a transition where it meets the grey panel. Also, how a black fillet between the frame and the canvas adds subtle visual interest.