Who framed Madame Moitessier?

Nicholas Penny

  • Metropolitan Jewellery by Sophie McConnell
    Metropolitan Museum of Art/Bulfinch, 111 pp, £17.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 8212 1877 8
  • Italian Renaissance Frames by Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca and Laurence Kanter
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, 111 pp, £25.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 8109 3455 8
  • The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600 by Peter Thornton
    Weidenfeld, 407 pp, £65.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 297 83006 6
  • Palaces of Art edited by Giles Waterfield
    Dulwich Picture Gallery, 188 pp, £20.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 9501564 5 0

The pale blue, wide-open eyes of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc, under their large geometrically-perfect lids, are placed high on the canvas, to the left of its centre, and it seems a great distance down her long neck and the gently undulating slopes of her black satin dress – over which a gold watch-chain drops, and beside which a languid arm, veiled in tulle, is arranged – to her hand in the lower right corner of the painting, which reposes upon a diamond rivière, as upon a tiny pet, half-concealed in the folds of what must be her lap. This cunning emphasis on marginal detail, so characteristic of Ingres, may prompt the visitor to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to wonder whether it was modesty which made Madame Leblanc decline to exhibit so very valuable a possession more ostentatiously in her portrait, or the painter’s reluctance to let sparkle distract from form in the centre of his painting. Readers of Metropolitan Jewellery will learn of another possibility. Two years before the painting was completed, in 1823, a French fashion journal had suggested that diamond rivières should only be worn by dowagers. There is much else to be learned from Metropolitan Jewellery, a picture book with stimulating illustrations, juxtaposing real jewellery in the Metropolitan Museum with paintings there in which jewellery appears.

A more substantial book, also of interest both to students of painting and to students of the decorative arts, is Italian Renaissance Frames, a scholarly catalogue of one of the greatest collections of frames in the world, published to coincide with an exhibition held at the Metropolitan in 1990. The exhibition was far more popular than anyone had expected and the beautifully produced and designed catalogue sold out immediately but has since been reprinted. It sets entirely new standards for the physical examination, stylistic and structural description and illustration of this special form of furniture. Relatively few of these frames have paintings in them which belong to them and those that do are always the early ones where the frame was engaged – part of the same structure as the painted panel.

Most museum visitors have little idea of how rare it is to see a painting in its original frame: in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery there are only two paintings made between 1450 and 1510 which retain their frames, although about a fifth have genuine old frames found for them in this century. The ratio isn’t much better in later centuries. Tragically, a painting often has to shed its frame to retain its lovers. Kenneth Clark, seeking to persuade the Trustees of the National Gallery to purchase Ingres’s portrait of Madame Moitessier, had it removed from the florid gilt composition frame which the artist had probably selected (and possibly even designed) for it, fearing it would make the whole picture look ‘Victorian’. The frame migrated to the Tate Gallery but was later reclaimed. One could argue, however, that this frame was as much determined by the architecture and decor of the sort of room in which it would hang as it was by the character of the painting, and thus that such a frame will never look quite right unless the painting is returned to an opulent drawing-room. Precisely because frames are related to decor, they are liable to be the victims of fashion. There comes a date when florid composition frames are as ‘impossible’ as wearing a diamond rivière.

The only thing that is missing from the Metropolitan Museum’s catalogue is any discussion of how the frames might actually have related to the pictures once within them. The difference between a tight, sharp, thin, polished walnut frame made in 16th-century Florence and a luxuriant scrolled and swagged and gilded frame made in Venice at the same date is, after all, as great as – and reminiscent of – the difference between a Bronzino and a Veronese. What is discussed is the relationship of the frames to architectural motifs and to other types of furniture.

Peter Thornton’s The Italian Renaissance Interior is a long, erudite and entertaining investigation of such matters as how rooms were lit and heated, how ceilings were constructed and decorated, where carpets came from and how they were displayed. It is chiefly of value as a history of materials and techniques, but it includes a great deal of interesting social history, as the section on the ‘furniture of hygiene’, for example, demonstrates. The captions for the many illustrations provide an alternative to reading the main text, so that this is a work of scholarship and a picture book. It is, however, not a museum picture book.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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