Back in 2013 a photograph of a lost van Gogh painting, A Vase with Five Sunflowers, was discovered in the archives of a Japanese museum. The significance of the discovery was not confirmation of the painting’s existence (sold to a Japanese collector, it was known to have been destroyed in a fire during World War II), but that it showed the painting in its original frame, as chosen by van Gogh himself. Instead of the ornate gilt frames most often used to display the paintings of the Impressionists, the Dutch artist had opted for a simple wooden frame painted orange, a color that complemented and accentuated the vibrancy of the artwork itself.
It was a telling example of how, for many a great artist, the frame was crucial to the final look of the finished artwork. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was known to have employed a range of finishes, including patina and paint, when creating frames for his works, even adding his signature butterfly symbol to them. Joan Miró was inspired to paint Pintura amb marc modernista to fit an Art Nouveau frame found by a friend at a flea market, and fellow Iberian artist Salvador Dalí often chose the frame before he so much as lifted his paintbrush. “When in New York he would come into our showroom and choose a frame as inspiration,” says Larry Shar, president of Lowy, the New York-based fine art services company that has the largest archive of antique frames – more than 5,000 – in the United States. “Most often he chose a frame from the 17th or 18th centuries.”
It is not surprising that it was these frames that caught Dalí’s eye. This period marked the creative high point of the frame’s artistry, with richly textured designs of delicately carved scrolls and foliage, elaborately gilded. Sometimes more expensive than the paintings they were commissioned to partner, these Rococo frames were a far cry from the simple, stylized geometric designs that first appeared on vases and tomb paintings around 1000 BC. It took until the 11th and 12th centuries, when the frame moved from being a painted or mosaic boundary into a structure separate from the artwork, for its own artistic development to begin. Early altar frames were adorned with precious gems and gilded angels to illustrate and extol the glory of Heaven, the frame acting as a door or window into a world beyond.
When choosing a frame, think about where the painting will go, and the story you want it to tell
The Renaissance saw the frame move beyond the remit of the church and into wider society, and the box-like cassetta frame, a style that remains popular today, combined a strict linear outline with subtle decoration. Frames grew more decorative throughout the Baroque years and by the 18th century, they were a showcase for superb craftsmanship that brought together the joiner, carver, and gilder. Under Louis XV, the frame reached ever-greater flights of fancy, fabulously ornate and gleaming with gold. These grande-luxe designs reflected the power and wealth of the French throne at the time. Later, mid-19th-century American frames featured tobacco, corn, or wheat motifs to reflect the country’s agricultural muscle.
While the earliest frames spoke to the artwork they contained, by the 17th century they reflected the architecture and interior design of the time. “They had become a bridge between the illusory world of the painting and the decoration and architecture of the space in which they sat,” says Michael Gregory from London-based Arnold Wiggins & Sons, which provides frames to the British Royal Household, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery (which, until September 13, is holding an exhibition of empty frames to showcase their artistry), as well as museums and private collectors worldwide. “The English returning from their Grand Tours with French, Dutch, and Italian Old Masters wanted to show off their taste and wealth and so chose frames that fitted in with their homes.” In America, the principal buyers of art were the Gilded Age families such as the Vanderbilts and the Hearsts; their homes were decorated in the style of 18th-century France and so artworks were stripped of their original frames – van Gogh’s painted ones among them – and set in those that were suitably grand.
Today, choosing a frame for a pre-20th-century painting reflects this historic schism: does one choose a frame that fits with the age of the painting or one that reflects the style of the room in which it will be displayed? For Shar, Old Masters (those painted before 1800) deserve a period frame. “A frame in a style original to a painting reflects the taste of the time and gives it a historical context,” he says. “The marriage of frame to picture was very important to the integrity of the artwork at that time, far more than it is today.”
Gregory of Arnold Wiggins is less prescriptive. “There is no correct frame for a painting, only a sense of correctness,” he says. “Now you have the luxury of choosing a frame from different styles and periods, and what is fascinating is that you can have a picture on an easel and try five or six antique frames, and with each one the picture changes, the different frames bringing out different details.”
Lowy’s craftsmen use traditional techniques to restore and make all pieces by hand. Photograph: Anna Schori
It’s not unusual for contemporary art to be framed in antique frames, if it suits the composition. Photograph: Anna Schori
Founded in 1907, Lowy enjoys a rich heritage that sees only the finest craftsmen being hired to work on its extensive archive of more than 5,000 antique art frames. In fact, the company has the largest collection in the United States. Photograph: Anna Schori
As well as conducting restorations, Lowy advises museums, galleries and private collectors on their own conservation and framing issues. Photograph: Anna Schori
A reproduction of an elaborately gilded and richly textured 17th- or 18th-century frame can take more than 200 hours to complete. Photograph: Anna Schori
Whichever your choice, a frame should not jar with the art within. “The color or patina of your chosen frame should be complementary to the painting, like a certain color dress should enhance the complexion of the person wearing it,” says Shar. “The profile and ornament of the frame should enhance the composition and spirit of the artwork in just the same way a waistline or shape of a dress should complement the figure of the person wearing it. And don’t try and make a painting appear more expensive or grand than it is by adding an overly grand frame. A frame should respect the integrity of the painting.”
Gregory advises: “When choosing a frame, think about where the painting will go, and what story you want it to tell. A Picasso in an antique gilt frame will stand out in a contemporary interior – it also makes the statement that a Picasso is now seen as an Old Master.” Antique or reproduction frames can complement modern art as well. Gregory often worked with 20th-century artist Cy Twombly: “The richness and textural nature of antique frames appealed to his painterly nature.”
“Much contemporary art can be framed very successfully in antique frames,” continues Shar, “particularly if the art is expressive in nature and not minimal and passive. Abstract Expressionists look very much at home in a proper 17th- or 18th-century Spanish or Italian frame – the dialogue the frame can have with the art makes for an engaging viewing experience, and a powerful statement.”
Wall Stars: Modern Surroundings
Contemporary frames are, on the whole, less decorative than antique ones. “Today the focus is very much more on the protection of the art long-term as we develop our knowledge of materials and technology in fine art conservation framing,” says Hannah Payne of London-based John Jones, which has worked with Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Wolfgang Tillmans, Damien Hirst, and Andy Warhol. “In the past it was more about presentation and grandeur, with heavily decorative, gilded frames reflective of the period.”
However, that doesn’t mean modern frames cannot be special. Welded frames in either aluminum or brass are often used to display photographs and John Jones recently created an aluminum “bubble” frame for a Helmut Newton print. “Newton’s works are traditionally framed in black wooden designs, however the curved lines of the dome-hooded hairdryers in the image inspired our designers to do something special,” says Payne.
Cubed acrylic boxes are also increasingly popular, and protect works from airborne pollutants and ultraviolet light – aesthetically they also provide a contemporary feel that doesn’t distract from the art. Warhols look particularly good in this kind of “frame.”
Wood can be styled up with a variety of finishes and color washes. Artist Idris Khan wanted frames that created the illusion of the artwork hovering within the frame (shown above). To do this, John Jones used oak, leaving the surface of the frame with a grainy and organic finish to complement the artist’s detailed text work.