A Quick History of European Picture Frames

Unframed oil paintings should only be seen on an artist’s easel or in a conservator’s studio. As an art dealer I would never show a client a painting unframed, not least because I believe the artist would not have wanted me to. In 1833, when J.M.W. Turner painted a view of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice he included the figure of Canaletto working at his easel, seen bottom left, painting the same vista.

If you look closely you will see that Canaletto’s unfinished canvas sits on his easel in a frame!

No artist ever framed a canvas before starting the painting itself so why did Turner include such a unlikely sight? I believe it was because he simply couldn’t bear to let the public see an image of an unframed oil painting, especially a ‘Canaletto’.

The importance of the frame in the correct presentation of 18th or 19th century oil paintings should never be underestimated.  In fact in my opinion antique and vintage picture frames are works of art in their own right. I often buy pictures not for the painting but for the frame in which it hangs. Once restored, I will wait to marry it to a suitable unframed painting, or simply enjoy looking at it from time to time.

The genesis of what we know today as the picture frame dates back to Italy during the Renaissance when ornate removable mouldings (as opposed to the earlier ‘engaged frames’) were first used to surround religious images. These late 15th and 16th century Tabernacle frames (reborn 350 years later as the frame-of-choice for many Pre Raphaelite paintings) were designed as parts of an architectural interior and the development of picture frame design, like that of European furniture, is closely linked to that of architecture and in particularly entablature.

Gradually simpler frames began to be used to support secular portraits and none-religious epic history paintings and still lives. These are known as ‘cassetta’ (little box) frames and feature a variety of simple mouldings and decoration. But by the late 16th century ever more elaborate frames were becoming increasingly popular.

Italian Auricular frames

The first of the ‘auricular’ (resembling the shape of the ear) frames were the Medici, Florentine and Sansovino frames of the 17th century Italian Mannerist style. Sansovino frames are typified by overlapping and intertwining scrolls and volutes, parcel-gilding (partial gilding), and sgraffito decoration. Medici and Florentine frames meanwhile are always fully gilded and of an openwork design.

The Sunderland frame

Though influenced by the Italian Mannerist style, the scroll-work on early English frames is softer and shallower in relief. These early English Auricular designs produced the Sunderland frame.

Dutch frames

Trade with the New World in the 17th century saw the introduction of numerous unfamiliar materials to Northern Europe such as tortoiseshell and exotic woods like ebony. Netherlandish frames of the period are often of ‘bolection’ style (raised convex moulding), ebonized, and enhanced by silver and ivory inlays and tortoiseshell veneers. Basically seen in two varieties; the more austere ‘Protestant’ designs featuring stepped flats and ripple mouldings, and often ebonized – and the more elaborate Dutch Auricular style with gilding and festoons of flowers and fruits.

The Carlo Maratta or Salvator Rosa frame

Named after the Italian artist Carlo Maratta 1625-1713 (also known as the Salvator Rosa frame) these neoclassical frames became popular throughout 18th century Europe thanks to the Grand Tour. Basically a water-gilded wide centre hollow (scotia) frame with a raised convex outer and inner sight edge, and ogee moulding.

 

The Palladian or Kent frame

The Palladian frame became popular in Britain in the Georgian period and examples can be seen today supporting many fine 17th and 18th century British oil paintings. These Palladian frames became widely known as ‘Kent’ frames after the country’s foremost architect of the time, William Kent. Like all of Kent’s designs it was directly influenced by the 16th century Vitruvian architecture of Andrea Palladio and his 17th century British follower Inigo Jones. Kent frames typically feature a flat architrave profile with a wide frieze, sometimes carved and sanded, characteristically with outset angular corners and architectural mouldings.

The Louis frames

Exquisitely carved and gilded French Baroque and Rococo picture frames from five periods; Louis XIII (1630–1643), Louis XIV (1643–1715), Régence (1715–1723), Louis XV (1723–1774), and Louis XVI (1774–1792).

Louis XIII frame: a Baroque style with convex profile and/or cylindrical ‘torus’ section. Intricately carved with running leaf patterns and water gilding.

Louis XIV frame: as you would expect from frames named after the Sun King, Louis XIV frames are profusely decorated with foliate c-scrolls, strapwork, acanthus corners, shell cartouches, and naturally, sunflowers.

Régence frame: very similar in style to both the Louis XIV and Louis XV frames and often referred to as ‘Transitional’ frames. The Régence frame is characterised by hand-carved cutting, sand texturing, cross-hatching and punch-work to the gesso surface.

 

Louis XV frame: From the French Rococo period and heavily influenced by the fête galante paintings and designs of Antoine Watteau 1684-1721 and Francois Boucher 1703-1770. The Louis XV frame is often described as ‘wall furniture’; asymmetrical and flamboyant it echoed flamboyant 18th century fashions and interior design. Frames feature pierced motifs, shells, animals, birds, and floral and foliate decoration.

Louis XVI frame: a neoclassical style which followed the Rococo. Louis XVI frames mark the 18th century revival of interest in antiquity and shed the ornamentation of previous French frame designs. Louis XVI frames typically had a square entablature, often with architrave, and decoration that included classical symbols such as acanthus leaves, lamb’s tongues, and ribbon twist ornaments.

The Empire frame: fuelled by the architectural discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, Napoleon’s rule saw further interest in neoclassicism. Features of the Empire frame include anthemion (or palmette) shapes, honeysuckle, and lotus and acanthus leaf decoration.

The Victorian Rococo Revival frame

A 19th century British Victorian style inspired by the earlier Louis frames but with even larger ornamentation. Most commonly made in plaster and composition – a mix of whiting, glue size, linseed oil and resin –  antique Rococo revival frames perfectly compliment a great many 19th century British oil paintings.

Artist’s frames

Painters have always been fond of designing frames that they believed would best compliment their own artwork. Many important artists of the 19th century in particular made famous various frame styles that now bear their names; Sir Thomas Lawrence, D.G. Rossetti, G.F. Watts, and James Whistler being perhaps the most familiar.

 

Here I have been recounting the past history of picture frames but that of course does not mean they do not have a present. Today, the highly skilled craftsmen of paulmitchell.co.uk and rollowhately.com and arnoldwiggins.com create wonderful copies of original period frames using the same techniques and materials as the artisans of the past. But before you place an order do remember that throughout history the best frame-makers have always been able to charge more for their frames than many artists could for their paintings!

 

Recommended reading:

‘Framing the Nineteenth Century’ by John Payne.

‘The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry’ by Deborah Davis.

‘A Closer Look: Frames’ by Nicholas Penny.

‘Looking at European Frames: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques’ by Gene Karraker.

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