Aliens & Architecture: a History of European Picture Frames

In my opinion unframed oil paintings should only be seen on an artist’s easel or in a conservator’s studio. I would personally 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 frames a canvas whilst still a work-in-progress on the easel, so why did Turner include such an unlikely sight? I believe it was because he simply couldn’t bear to let the public see an image of an unframed oil painting.

The importance of the frame in the presentation of oil paintings (predating 1950) should never be underestimated. Picture frames date back to Renaissance Italy 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 frame (reborn 350 years later as the frame-of-choice for many Pre-Raphaelite paintings) came into being as an accompaniment to the interiors of the time and picture frame design, like that of European furniture, is closely linked to architecture.

Gradually, simpler frames began to be used to support secular portraits, epic history paintings, and still lifes. These are known as ‘cassetta’ frames and most commonly feature a variety of simple mouldings and decoration. By the late 16th century ever-more-elaborate frames were becoming increasingly popular.

Auricular frames

Although its earliest roots can be found in designs of the Medici, Florentine, and Sansovino frames of the 16th century Italian Mannerist style, the Auricular frame really came into its own in the Netherlands during the 17th century, principally thanks to the work of three silversmiths based in Amsterdam; Paulus and Adam van Vianen, and their German pupil, Johannes Lutma. Inspired by their avant garde arabesque designs, the carvers of Amsterdam began to produce frames decorated with curvilinear swirls reminiscent of those seen in the human ear. Even today, almost 500 years later, these intertwined cartilaginous designs look strangely futuristic and not unlike the biomechanical creature designs of H.R. Giger for the film ‘Alien’.  These are the frames that originally accompanied the paintings of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Jan Lievens.

The Sunderland frame

Although (again) influenced by the Italian Mannerist style, the scroll-work on early English frames is softer and shallower in relief. Sunderland frames are characterised by their auricular carving and typically feature a cartouche and a mask to the top and bottom.

Bolection 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. Dutch frames of the period often have raised convex mouldings, are ebonized (black in colour), and enhanced by silver and ivory inlays and tortoiseshell veneers. These Dutch frames are known as ‘Bolection’ frames, a bolection being a decorative moulding which projects beyond the surface of a frame (and in architecture on raised panel walls, doors, and fireplaces). Dutch frames are typically seen in two varieties; the very austere ebonized ‘protestant’ designs featuring stepped flats and ripple mouldings – and the more elaborate auricular style with gilding and festoons of flowers and fruits.

The Maratta frame

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

The Palladian or Kent frame

Popular in the Georgian era, examples of Palladian frames can be seen today supporting many fine 17th and 18th century British oil paintings. Palladian frames became widely known as ‘Kent’ frames after the country’s foremost architect of the time William Kent whose neoclassical interiors they reflected. Like Kent’s own designs, these frames were directly influenced by the 16th century Vitruvian architecture of Andrea Palladio and his 17th century British follower Inigo Jones. Palladian frames typically feature a flat architrave profile with a wide frieze (flat central panel), sometimes carved and sanded, characteristically with outset angular corners. Kent frames occasionally feature scrolling side ornaments similar to those found on Sansovino frames.

The Louis frames

A broad grouping of ornate hand-carved and (originally) water 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: named after the Sun King, Louis XIV frames are profusely decorated with foliate c-scrolls, strapwork, acanthus corners, shell cartouches, and of course sunflowers.

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

Louis XV frame: from the Rococo period and heavily influenced by the fête galante paintings and designs of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Francois Boucher (1703-1770). Typical of early 18th century continental fashion, the Louis XV frame is flamboyant and romantic and complimented the interiors of the day. The styles are asymmetrical and feature pierced motifs, shells, animals, birds, and floral and foliate decoration.

Louis XVI frame: a far more sober and orderly neoclassical style. Louis XVI frames mark the late 18th century revival of interest in antiquity and discard 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: a furthering of the formal Greco-Roman style, inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum and popularised by Napoleon’s fondness for order and rejection of Bourgeoise excesse. Empire frame are characterised by anthemion designs featuring honeysuckle, 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. Victorian swept frames are typically made in wood, plaster, and ‘compo’ – a mix of whiting, glue size, linseed oil and resin – rather than being hand-carved.

Artist’s frames

Painters have always been fond of designing frames that they believed 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.

All of the above may be the styles of the past but that doesn’t mean these same frames don’t have a present and future. Today, the skilled craftspeople at Paul Mitchell , Rollo Whately, and Arnold Wiggins create superb replicas 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.