Back to the Wall

Nicholas Penny

  • In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame 1850-1920 edited by Eva Mendgen
    Reaktion, 278 pp, £45.00, May 1995, ISBN 90 400 9729 1

It is often assumed that easel pictures have always hung on walls, but in fact the backs of many small Renaissance panel paintings, both sacred and secular, were decorated, suggesting that they were designed to be handled as well as hung, and many portraits had lids so that their frames formed the sides of boxes in which the pictures could be safely stored, as well as making handy and attractive borders for the image. The picture-frame began to be an important part of interior decoration in Italy in the second half of the 16th century by which time easel pictures had become increasingly important as wall furniture.

In Venice the ‘Sansovino frame’, composed of scrolls and masks and swags, was derived from the stucco compartments that architects designed for frescos and reliefs on walls and vaults. It often also matched the carved ornamentation of chairs and tables. Elsewhere in Italy frames were made in which the mouldings nearest the picture were the most prominent and the rest of the structure stepped – and the ornament flowed – back towards the wall. Though inconvenient for many practical purposes, this type of arrangement helped to integrate the picture with its setting. Where numerous pictures were displayed in a single interior, sets of frames were designed which ensured that paintings, however different in size or character, looked well on the wall. The bold and fantastic frames carved for the Medici in Florence – the most famous early examples of this practice – were clearly designed by sculptors or architects.

Meanwhile, the tabernacle frame, which provided a sacred image with an entablature and sometimes a pediment and pilasters or columns, declined in importance. Although architectural, such frames seem to have had no close relationship to the architecture in which they were placed. Intended to isolate a sacred image, often with its own candle, within a domestic space, tabernacle frames had belonged to the picture. Increasingly, frames belonged chiefly to the room.

Painters often designed their own frames in the Renaissance, and they did so again in the 19th century, but the practice was unusual in the 17th and 18th centuries. This may seem surprising, because it is striking how well paintings of this period look in frames made at the same date. Meticulous depictions of flowers or sober Dutch wives in crisp white ruffs arc happiest bound by hard sharp dark mouldings with a taut skin of silky ebony, rosewood or tortoiseshell in the flat. The convivial portrait en negligée, or the broken chain of lovers in a sweetly disordered park, deserve the carved and gilded frames with restlessly curvaceous surface, outline and section that were made in mid-18th-century France.

Yet it could not be plausibly argued that these styles of frame evolved in response to the needs of particular styles of painting. The dark rectilinear frames reveal the same neat machined finish, techniques of veneering and exotic materials found in contemporary cabinets, while the French rococo frames were the work of sculptors who also carved ornamental wall-panelling, and were sometimes created by the leading designers of the luxury furnishings with which they danced in unison.

However well French 18th-century frames matched – or were matched by – contemporary paintings, they simply took the Old Masters over by force. If the prim Dutch matron entered an opulent Parisian hôtel she was divested of her dark suit and dressed for the ball. Poussin’s Worship of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery, London, is shown in an exceptionally splendid frame that was made for it in Paris more than fifty years after it was painted. Its rolling section, scrolling ornament and contrasted textures and sheens give it a vivacity which upstages that of the dancing Israelites – and the fact that the painting has irrevocably darkened while the gilding is unusually well-preserved (and inevitably overdramatised by electric lighting) makes it all the more evident. Poussin himself is known to have recommended plain mouldings with matt gilding for his paintings.

A frame is often a vestige of the decorative scheme into which a painting was inserted and even if it now seems incongruous it often deserves affectionate regard as a manifestation of the prejudices of previous generations, which cling to all old things we are likely to love. The urge to divorce an old picture from a later frame is often greatest in the very circumstances in which history should be most respected, for it is the interior of the modern museum which exaggerates any incongruity. Were the frame which surrounds the Poussin to retain a cornice above it, consoles beside it and chairs beneath it, all carved and gilt in a style to match, it might, paradoxically, be more easily dissociated from the painting within it. Today, the frame demands attention because it is out of sympathy with both the painting and its setting.

Even more discordant is the sight of an Italian baroque frame with large open-work foliage and scrolls gesticulating against a plain wall. Such frames were often originally designed to blend with the broad patterns of a damask hanging. But Italian frames were not always extravagant. Those in the galleries of Roman palaces, where paintings were tightly packed, tended to be uniform, rectangular, relatively simple and designed to suit paintings that varied in style as well as in size. Eighteenth-century Roman mouldings of this type were so frequently copied by frame-makers in England and used in all sorts of setting that it is easily forgotten that they were designed by architects for a particular style of interior.

After about 1820 the frame still often constituted a part of a scheme of interior decoration, or indeed of architecture, as in the case of those designed by Schinkel for the picture gallery in Berlin, or by Giovanni Montiroli for the Cammuccini collection of Old Masters at Alnwick Castle, or by Stanford White for paintings by Abbot Thayer in the Freer Gallery in Washington. But the involvement of leading architects and sculptors declined: the public exhibition and the art dealer came to assume a dominant position in the art world and specialist frame-makers began to supply products appropriate for both. Frames chosen for exhibitions might be temporary, which encouraged economy, while at the same time a desire to attract attention, or to protect oneself from a near-neighhour’s attempts to do so, encouraged the massive and the brash. Off-the-peg frames and standardised mouldings and decorations became commonplace; the kinds of ornament that previously would have been carved were now often imitated in ‘composition’ or in plaster of Paris, and were sometimes cut out by machine. For the first time, frames were made in imitation of those of previous periods. Some of these were ingenious variants or inspired pastiches, though most were merely crude simplifications, vulgar exaggerations or pedantic replicas. This increase in awareness of past styles eventually led to the collecting of old frames, which in turn made possible the first illustrated studies of frames and their history, published about a hundred years ago.

Recently, the literature on frames has expanded rapidly: the days are long past when the only reliable modern publication on the subject was Claus Grimm’s succinct survey of 1977, Alte Bilderrahmen, There were major scholarly exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum in 1984, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986 and at the Metropolitan Museum, New York in 1990. These were museum initiatives, but the stimulus for the revival of interest in the history of frames has often come from frame-makers and dealers – such as Paul Levi, to whom the catalogue of the Metropolitan’s exhibition of Italian Renaissance frames is dedicated, or Timothy Newbery, who is one of its co-authors. Dealers have also mounted small scholarly exhibitions in both London and Paris. The most splendid of all recent books on frames, La Cornice italiana: dal Rinascimento al Neo Classico (Electa, 1992), which reproduces in excellent colour many of the finest frames in museums in all parts of Italy, and contains illuminating introductory essays and catalogue entries by Enrico Colle and Patrizia Zambrano, was edited by one of the leading Italian frame dealers, Franco Sabatelli. Wiggins have sponsored learned articles on frames in the Burlington Magazine, and another London dealer, Paul Mitchell, is the author of the best brief survey of Italian frames in a 1984 volume of Furniture History and of an appendix to the catalogue of the Wright of Derby exhibition at the Tate in 1990, which is devoted to that artist’s frames (a supplement which all major monographic catalogues should try to emulate).

Few of these exhibitions and publications are concerned with the 19th century. In Perfect Harmony is indeed the first book devoted to the investigation of picture-frames of that period. Frame-makers and dealers are not represented in it, and this may explain the lack of information on materials and techniques, as well as the absence of the sectional diagrams which have been so valuable a feature of the recent scholarship. Instead, the book is more concerned with aesthetics and the meaning of the frame. Of the 11 essays it contains, those on Van Gogh, on ‘Les XX’ (the Belgian avant garde of the Fin de Siècle) and on German and Austrian artists (Lenbach, Böcklin, Stuck, Klimt) are the most valuable – which is appropriate since the book was published in association with an exhibition of the same title shown at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam earlier this year and now at the Kunstforum, Vienna until 19 November. The emphasis is on artists, not on frame-makers, and mostly on artists who were reacting against the norm – who were against routine exhibition mouldings, against the opulence of dealers’ frames, against mass-production, even against gilding – and at times we may feel in need of a fuller account of the conventions they opposed. But the scholarship is very impressive, faltering only in the section on the Pre-Raphaelites and other British artists.

In his stimulating preliminary essay Wolfgang Kemp gives special attention to the highly controversial frame that Caspar David Friedrich designed for his Cross in the Mountains. It consists of a gothic arch composed of palm fronds, and a predella decorated with wheat, a vine and a diagrammatic eye. In 1808 Friedrich exhibited the painting in this frame in his studio before sending it to Tetschen Castle, where, he claimed, he intended it to serve as the chapel altarpiece (it was in fact hung in a bedroom). The design of the frame did not, however, originate in response to the painting’s projected function as an altarpiece, but in the artist’s desire to endow landscape with a sacred status. It is an extension of the painting, amplifying its meaning.

Many artists of the later 19th century designed frames with similar additions: symbolic plants, gothic texts, Egyptian ornament and so on. And tabernacle frames were revived, not only for subjects of orthodox devotion but increasingly, in the last decades of the century, to enshrine ideal beauty, the artist’s muse, or a terrible vision. The use of such frames made it clear that Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel, Franz von Stuck’s Die Svende, Bastien-Lepage’s Sarah Bernhardt or Leighton’s Bath of Psyche demanded special attention or at least a central position – indeed Bastien-Lepage’s frame is made of steel, which would it itself have encouraged other pictures to keep their distance. Leighton’s tabernacle frames are Greek in style (with Ionic capitals of the Bassae type), not in order to match a neo-Greek interior but to suit his Greek heroines. He was unusual not only in implying a comparison between architectural form and statuesque figures, but in making his frames an extension of an architectural space within the picture (reviving, here, a Renaissance idea). Old photographs reproduced in this book give an idea of how such paintings were displayed – Rossetti’s narcotic religiosity distinctly ill at case in Frederick Leyland’s genteel drawing-room, or Stuck’s Die Svende mounted on an altar within the theatrical interior of the artist’s villa from which all suggestions of domesticity have been drained away.

Artists in this period may have been obliged to submit to the humiliating competition of the gigantic annual exhibitions, but many of the most successful were able to compensate for this by a special display of their works in their own environment. In Perfect Harmony takes us into Franz von Lenbach’s villa in the 1870s, where Renaissance bric-à-brac, in suffocating profusion, postured as spiritual heirlooms, and into the eerily empty blue room of Fernand Knopff’s villa, where one painting hung – his portrait made in 1887 of his sister wearing an ivory-coloured dress and standing against a pearl grey wall. It was framed in slender silver mouldings, above a shelf on which a fragile porcelain vase and a tennis racket were arranged with sacramental care. In the Renaissance the tabernacle frame had been intended to isolate the sacred image within a room, and it sometimes served that purpose in the 19th century, but on occasion a whole room could he turned into a sacred space, a secular shrine. We catch a whiff here of the high-minded self-indulgence of today’s avant-garde ‘installations’.

Most of the radical ideas about framing in the last decades of the 19th century which are documented in this book were conceived by artists, and chiefly, often exclusively, with reference to the needs of their own paintings. Whistler also had views about wall colours and hangings; and both in his own house and in special exhibitions, as well as in the home of one indulgent (but eventually exasperated) patron, he designed or modified whole rooms so that, together with the frames, they would complement his paintings. The ‘XX’ and the Vienna Secession had similar ambitions. As in previous centuries paintings and frames were integrated into schemes of interior decoration, but now the environments were controlled by the painter, rather than created by architects and sculptors.

Many of Whistler’s reeded frames have survived, as have a few of Degas’s similarly severe mouldings, although gilded as he had not intended. But only one example of a painted moulding remains round a Van Gogh, and the plain white frames favoured by the Impressionists have vanished almost without trace. Of the numerous early Impressionist paintings shown at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year none retained its original frame (although one, a Guillaumin from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, does have something comparably simple). On the other hand, the majority of the large pictures in the same exhibition which were shown at the Salon in the 1860s and 1870s retained the frames chosen for that occasion (presumably by the artists), almost all of them heavy, with deep, often fluted, hollows and with rich bay leaf or oakleaf ornament on the outer mouldings. This is not difficult to explain: the big Salon pictures were acquired by or for municipal museums which had neither the motive nor the means to reframe them, whereas the Impressionist pictures passed through the hands of dealers and private owners, each one eager to eradicate the traces of his or her predecessor. Moreover, the original extremist white frames can never have been easy to integrate in a drawing-room.

The Impressionists’ ideas about frames changed rapidly, and modern commentators, if they were less reverent, would admit that the ideas were inconsistent. Camille Pisarro’s opinions are carefully recorded in a chapter of this book. He moved from white frames in 1877, to frames which complemented the colour schemes of his paintings (a green frame for a red sunset and so on) in 1879, but wanted to return to white frames in 1882 when, together with his dealer, Durand-Ruel, he devised a new type of white frame which had a gilded outer moulding. In 1887, exhibiting with Georges Petit, he wanted (but didn’t get) a broad white border set within an oak outer frame ornamented with gilded laurels. By this date he was no longer averse to gilding, and there is evidence that the standard frame for Monet’s paintings of the same period – presumably tolerated and perhaps sanctioned by the artist himself – was the typically lavish dealer’s frame, ‘éternel cadre doré, à chicorées et à choux’, reviled by the avant-garde critics.

The great mystery in the story of Impressionism is which artist or dealer first hit on the solution of using second-hand French frames of the late 17th or early 18th century which were then either partly stripped down to the white gesso or partly overpainted in grey, to stifle the gilding. These old frames were inexpensive and the solution perhaps originated as an economy, but it soon came to be regarded as chic, and was widely adopted. Deplored by some art historians as a compromise with bourgeois taste, these frames can be both subtle and original in character. Their condition and age as well as style may act as a comment on the picture within, at once asserting the place of such paintings within a great French tradition (something especially dear to Renoir) and emphasising their departure from tradition, their matt (originally unvarnished) finish, broken texture and light palette.

In the 1860s some artists, including Anselm Feuerbach and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, employed imitations of 16th-century Italian frames for paintings made in a 16th-century style and with figures in 16th-century costume. Franz von Lenbach not only found genuine antique frames for his paintings but, we learn in this book, actually made pictures to match such frames. By the end of the century, when the Impressionists were perhaps already adopting second-hand French frames, a few fashionable portrait-painters, especially those who venerated Velasquez, seem occasionally to have adopted 17th-century Spanish and Italian frames – a good example may be found on Sargent’s splendid portrait of Mrs Hirsch, currently on loan to the Tate. Meanwhile, inspired by the example of Wilhelm von Bode in Berlin (Bode was in turn influenced by the leading Italian antique dealers), museums began gradually to try to find old frames for old paintings. This became the National Gallery’s policy soon after the Great War, and in 1932 fine Italian Renaissance frames collected as furniture in the previous century by the Victoria and Albert Museum were fitted round pictures in Trafalgar Square.

Two or three avant-garde artists also seem to have taken an interest in old frames (Picasso liked old Spanish ones) and to have used them, sometimes in order to achieve an ironic effect. But more of them have been averse to frames of all kinds. It may at first seem that the 20th century’s most notable contribution to the history of the picture-frame is the attempt to do away with it altogether, or to rely on minimal, unmoulded borders of bare wood or aluminium. But as the century draws to a close the second-hand frame gains in favour everywhere. Every museum and every wealthy collector now wants period frames for their Old Masters and, if there is none of the right size, a frame is adapted or a copy is made of an authentic model and given a distressed finish. A chapter of In Perfect Harmony by Louis van Tilborgh traces the bizarre framing history of the pictures inherited by Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, concluding with the Van Gogh Museum’s recent unhappy attempt to reconstitute the artist’s original ideas. Meanwhile, museums in Britain and the United States have been putting the artist’s pictures into rough 17th-century mouldings.

To find the right frame, one which draws attention not to itself but to the painting, one which is acceptable in the company of other frames, one which has the tone of gold that will make a blue sky glow, or sufficient rigidity to contain, and contrast with, any rush or bustle in the composition, or enough depth to make the pictorial space seem deeper, or enough small ornament in low relief to help grand forms to expand, is a fascinating and frustrating task. The right frame for an old painting is indeed likely to be an old one, yet it need not date from the same time and place as the painting. The new curatorial pedantry which insists on authentic period costume is offensive to the poetic mind. It is also ridiculously expensive.

But suppose a patron of determined taste were to commission from an architect or sculptor with sensitivity to mouldings and ornament a uniform frame for his or her collection. This solution still has its attractions, especially if we value a harmonious relationship between paintings and architecture, and want pictures to look truly at home within a room. It was, after all, precisely this concern that conditioned the creation of the great frames of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the very works which have now become the most expensive form of antique furniture on the market. The old frames we strive to match with old paintings were made to fit rooms which have mostly vanished.