Friday, December 11, 2015

The reasons why frames for art change over time

I learned a few new things about framing art while writing this week's blog post Do frames help to sell art?

Today's post is also about framing and shares some facts you might not be aware of.

You can find the references to articles read in arriving at a wider knowledge of framing and framing choices at the end of the article.

The purpose of a frame

A frame has four main purposes. It serves to:
  • support and protect the artwork
  • make it easier to hang
  • separates - and connects - the painting from its surroundings 
  • enhance its presentation - and avoids our attention being distracted from the painting
Picture frames have traditionally been made out of wood. The type of wood and the design of the frame - and the way the wood is jointed and bonded - tells us a lot about 
  • where a frame comes from, 
  • the age of a frame and
  • the expertise of the person who made it.

Frames Change

Frames change for four reasons:
  • a change in technology
  • a preference for buying new over trying to conserve
  • a change in ownership
  • a change in fashion
most of the frames on paintings in the Gallery are not original to the works they now surroundA Bounty of Frames | National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)
Throughout most of the modern (that is, post medieval) era, original frames were discarded whenever a painting changed ownership, and a new frame more suitable to the work of art's new surroundings was provided.Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

A change in technology

The Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design and their Manual a resource about art and its making has have a fascinating article about Framing Art and the Art of the Frame By Ingrid Neuman

Early artwork is most likely to retain its original frame

Between the 13th and 15th century art was typically painted on boards and the frame was an integral part of the woodwork and the artwork. Consequently where the painting has survived, it's very often the case that its frame has survived too.

There were three types of frames:
  • Integral - Frame and painting were made of one piece of wood. The surface for the painting was hollowed out of a plank which provided the frame surround. 
  • Semi-integral - This is similar to the integral frame except just the uprights were made of the same wood as the panel. It's a more unusual approach to framing.
  • Engaged - the mouldings for the painting were made and attached by glue and nails to the board for the painting before the artist started to paint. The entire construction was then painted with gesso before the painting was started.
For more information read Early Frames: Integral, Semi-Integral, and Engaged

So if you are particular about what sort of frame is used by your artwork maybe you should start painting on boards? :)

Technology changes post 15th century

As technology changed - painting moved from board to canvas backed by stretchers - the frame became separate from the artwork.  From this point on artwork might have several changes of frame in its lifetime.

From 1800 in France, there was a move to find mechanisms for the mass-production of frames rather than carving frames one at a time. By the end of the 19th century, frames were being mass-produced and the artisan frame was a thing of the past.

Changes in approaches to conservation

In the past, many galleries have preferred to give a painting a new frame rather than try and conserve an older frame already attached to it.

Today reputable art galleries and museums will typically try to match any frame to the period of the painting - and if that means trying to conserve a frame which fits the period of the painting then this is what they will do

In addition, frames are also considered works of art in their own right and some now change hands for very large sums of money.

Change in ownership - the most frequent reason for a change of frame

Most art galleries and museums know that the paintings they exhibit are probably not in their original frames. It was traditional for a long time for the owners to put their stamp on their acquisitions by reframing them in the style of the present day.

The frames that we see on older paintings today in exhibitions in museums and art galleries have probably been chosen by an owner rather than the artist.
It's a tradition that still exists and one which pervades every part of the art market from investment art to wall art which is strictly decorative.

One of my framers told me a long time ago that the bulk of his business came from replacing frames on artwork. The collectors liked the artwork but the frame simply didn't fit in their home - and it had to go.
TIP: An artist should ask him or herself very serious questions about what sort of budget he or she should allocate to frames. Especially if the frame played no part in achieving the sale and is likely to be removed as soon as the purchaser gets the painting home. Think about it....

Changes in Fashion

The importance of changes in fashion should not be under-estimated. The design of frames has changed many times over the years.
Pictures have always been required to live unobtrusively among furnishings of a period not their own, and frames have always been the vehicle enabling them to do so.Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
What changes design is FASHION!

What changes frames is fashion coupled with the changes in technology and the movement from artisanal frame-making to mass production e.g.
  • Black frames are associated with Dutch art and interiors of the 17th century
  • Gilding became very fashionable in the era of the Baroque and the Rococo. 
  • Frames became a lot flatter and simpler during the neo-classical era dating from the 1780s
  • Post French revolution, mass-manufacturing approaches heavily influenced the production of frames. Hence cut lengths of lengths of moldings joined together replaced frames which were hand-carved.
  • The use of the painted white frame became very popular in the late 19th century - particularly among the Impressionists.
  • Contemporary frames today tend towards being very flat and unobtrusive
  • Many contemporary works of art have no frames at all.
Fashion is one of the main reasons why artists of today need to pay attention to the nature of the changing environment and decorative fashion relating to the homes in which their artwork is likely to hang.
EXAMPLE: Once upon a time - not too long ago - we used to have huge ugly black boxes sitting in the corner of a sitting room - next to the huge black boxes which contained the stereo system. Today these have been banished from very many homes. People fell over themselves to buy very slim, very large televisions with a minimal frame - to hang on their wall. Plus music is now played by any number of other slimline devices. Hence - if you haven't changed the style of your frames in the last ten years now might be a very good time to take a long hard look at how decoration has changed.

The Artist's approach to framing 

We're told that the frame is really important to how a painting is displayed and yet.....
  • most of the images of paintings that we see in books and online are the artwork alone - minus the frame. 
The market in images has no room for frames. Magazines, newspapers, exhibition catalogues and art books act as if they don't exist, cropping them out of reproductions even when the painters saw them as integral parts of their work.
Edge trimming | The Guardian
  • I'm often really surprised when I see a painting in person - complete with frame - and it turns out to be something I wasn't expecting. It doesn't seem to fit the artwork - and this might well be because.....
  • very many, if not most, of the paintings we see on display in art museums and galleries are not in their original frame (see 'changes in ownership' below)
For example - see the picture below (from the National Gallery's exhibition about Inventing Impressionism) of Monet's paintings of Poplars on the River Epte.

All the paintings are of the same subject by the same artist - but every single frame is different. Some suited the paintings better than others - with the overly ornate appearing to be very much out of sync with the subject and style of the painting.

To my mind some of these are examples of what can happen when paying a lot of money for a painting seems to equate to a vicarious need to put the fanciest gilt frame on it to signify its value.

Five of the series of paintings of Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet
By way of contrast, in 1895, Monet chose to exhibit another series of paintings - of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day - in a series of frames which had been made two hundred years earlier

Many of them are displayed today in their original frames - as chosen by Monet - in the Musee d'Orsay. You can see my photo of them from my visit in 2009 below.

Three views of Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet

Painters design their own frames

I'm guessing that a lot of us are not aware of the artists who did take an interest in how their work was framed.

The article "'Pictures properly framed:' Degas and innovation in Impressionist frames" by Elizabeth Easton and Jared Bark in The Burlington Magazine. September 2008) tells us that
(Degas) was the most inventive and energetic frame designer; over forty profiles exist in his notebooks, spanning several decades, from the 1850s until the 1880s, with a concentration from the late 1870s until the mid-1880s
Looking at European Frames: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques By D. Gene Karraker - which you can read on Google Books - tells a story of how artists took control of how their paintings were framed.

EXAMPLE: Impressionist and post-impressionist

The Impressionists made radical changes in both the style and the colour of their frames Looking at European Frames By D. Gene Karraker
  • in the 3rd Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Degas and Pissaro both exhibited their work in simple white frames 
  • Whistler advocated the use of white frames to enable works to stand out better
  • Paul Gauguin carved his own frames
  • Van Gogh once painted a frame to match the dominant colour of the painting
The Bark Frameworks blog has a number of fascinating blog posts about how Degas framed his pastels
First, we look to the artist’s own preferences; then, to those of his contemporaries and peers. Finally - especially if examples of these are few - we look to those of dealers and collectors at the time.
    • it also shows you the sketches made by Degas for the profile of a simple frame
By way of contrast, Cezanne was not in the least bit interested in how his paintings were framed and seemed very happy to leave decisions about framing up to his dealer Vollard.

More information:


  1. Fascinating article, thank you for researching and writing it!

  2. Found this post and last post very helpful and informative. I have always favored simple contemporary limed wood frames for my work. I have a question about large gallery wrapped canvases (1.5 x 30 x40" and larger) and small 5 x 7" panels. In your research have you found framing gallery wrapped canvases is advised if painting is continued around edges? For the 5 x 7" panels I have looked for simple contemporary wood frames and have only found black with gold "plein aire" frames with rabbit that extends 1/4" over painting. My local framer told me he could construct a shadow box frame in the wood I liked, but for a small panel with beginning price range of $99 this is not sustainable. Thank you again for all the research and information you gather and pass on!
    Maud Guilfoyle


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