Often, when beholding a piece of art, the mind is trained to pay no attention to the frame around it—this is no accident. A good frame seamlessly blends in with the art, ceding all of the limelight to the work that it holds. It’s not a frame’s job to become art but to enhance the experience of viewing it. Despite these humble purposes, frames still require incredibly skilled craftsmanship and deep knowledge of art and art history to be executed appropriately.
A museum or gallery pairs a frame with a piece of art in two ways. The artist, having originally framed the work, might have managed to keep the initial pairing. Alternatively, museum curators will outfit a new frame to upgrade a piece in need. Artisans may custom-build frames to the exact specifications of their corresponding composition, or curators can choose from a selection of options of frames assembled in the same period as the artwork itself.
Art that remains paired with its original frame has become increasingly rare, and in such cases, its value only stands to increase. For example, American impressionist painter Childe Hassam was very particular about the framing of his work. During his career, he collaborated with numerous craftsmen to ensure the whole aesthetic of his work was perfect. For Hassam, frames weren’t just about protecting his art but enhancing his work. Hassam designed his frames intentionally so each piece could influence individual perceptions.
Most creators, however, do not endow their art with such deliberate framing intentions. Therefore, the pressure on curators to choose the perfect frame can become immense. One of the most expensive frames of all time is that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The once-lost Salvatori Mundi was recovered in 2011, but sadly lacked an original frame. One of the many challenges of restoring and handling such a masterpiece was selecting the frame. Eventually, curators selected a 16th-century Italian black matte frame with delicate gold stenciling.
The Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company hand-cut the frame to fit the painting. The rare 16th-century frame had 90% of its original finishings when selected from the Lowy archive. The frame alone, valued at $45,000, is a small price compared to the painting it holds, but it is costly nonetheless.
The modern idea of a picture frame being its removable object first came in the 15th century, but the origins of framing date to ancient Egypt, where frames were painted around art pieces. In some instances, wood was used to frame creations as part of the structure of larger buildings. Over centuries, framing eventually evolved to reflect the art itself.
Before a frame’s first piece of wood is cut, and its painting is measured to be fitted, careful consideration must be given to the art’s composition. Understandably, elements such as dominant color pairings and artistic style are taken into account—but curators do not stop there. Paintings are often paired with frames from the same regions of origin. For example, Italian frames are commonly fashioned from walnut—the works of Da Vinci and his compatriots are thus often encased in this wood. This attention to detail often goes unnoticed but demonstrates the level of dedication that curators pour into their work. Other considerations for selecting or making a frame include the artists’ own preferences as well. Van Gogh, for example, was keen to have his paintings in black frames, as he believed it made his work stand out more.
Frames also account for interior design trends of the period. When California Landscape by William Wendt was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a frame of the arts and crafts style was chosen to hold it to honor the painting's original role as a mantel decoration.
Every so often, frames transcend their usual role of blending in to become one with the art. For abstract artist Hilla Rebay, frames became an integral part of carrying out her artistic goals. Hilla believed that her art should evoke a spiritual experience for viewers. The frames of her work were designed to bring that experience forward. Rebay opted for large silver frames that featured no carvings or additional details. These frames were sloped to face the wall as if each piece of art rested on a silver mound. The framing would seemingly push the art towards the viewer, bringing them into the piece.
When frames are preserved and remain paired with certain art pieces, they offer glimpses into the past. In the case of Rembrandt's Head of a Bearded Man, its frame resurrected the art’s reputation. Head of a Bearded Man was confirmed as an authentic Rembrandt in 2020, after previously being denounced as a fake. Its wooden frame proved to be the critical piece of evidence in this determination. A sample of the frame’s wood matched that of other paintings by Rembrandt and was remarkably traced back to a tree that had fallen in Italy around the time the painting was made.
Modern appreciation for the craft of framing has recently grown. The Guggenheim Museum launched the Thannhauser Frame Project in 2006. This project serves to connect historical paintings with period-accurate frames, with the belief that art should be viewed the way it was originally intended. The National Gallery of London dedicated an entire special exhibition to the history and craft of framing with the intent to bring more awareness to the seemingly invisible art of frames.
Frames, though often overlooked, are crafted with as much intentionality as the art that they hold. Understanding the level of detail inherent in the deliberate pairing of a piece to its frame only enhances viewers’ appreciation for the visual appeal and beauty of gallery art. In this way, frames can be described as the unsung heroes of the art museum.
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