Framing Beaux, An Essay By Mark Bockrath

Adapted from the Book by Sylvia Yount, Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter
Published by University of California Press (August 1, 2007)
An Essay By Mark Bockrath Pages 84-102

Picture frames have always had a profound aesthetic effect upon the works of art they house. While many artists throughout history have expressed a preference for certain types of frames, it was not until the nineteenth century that they commonly regarded them as an intrinsic part of their aesthetic statement. Frames that were previously intended to fit a painting into an architectural scheme, or to lend uniformity to a gallery of paintings of diverse styles, gave way to frames chosen, and sometimes designed, by the artists themselves. By the mid-nineteenth century, English Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) were designing their own highly individual and idiosyncratic frames; in subsequent decades, artists like James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Edgar Degas (1845–1917) followed suit. Whistler’s later frames, with their austere stepped and reeded profiles, were widely emulated by his contemporaries. In 1868 the English art critic and designer Charles Locke Eastlake (1836–1906) wrote: “It is a practice with many artists of the rising English school to design their own frames for the pictures which they exhibit.”

The latter part of the nineteenth century also witnessed a wide variety of revival styles in cast composition ornament that included interpretations of French Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, and XVI frames, Italian Renaissance and Baroque frames, and Dutch and Spanish Baroque frames. The American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) used a variety of revival styles for his paintings; especially notable were frames inspired by seventeenth-century Spanish models. Sargent and many of his contemporaries, including Cecilia Beaux, also sometimes used antique Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo frames for their works. These artists realized that the weight of the frame molding, the tone of the gilding, and the careful selection of carved and cast motifs from the prevailing revival styles were important considerations, given their ability to either complement or overwhelm paintings.

Frames of high quality and distinctive design appear on works throughout Cecilia Beaux’s career, reflecting shifting tastes and trends in style. But how can we be sure that any of Beaux’s works retain their original frames, or that any of these frames were chosen by the artist herself? No account of Beaux’s taste in frames appears in her autobiography, Background with Figures, and comments pertinent to this subject have not appeared in the Beaux literature to date. One might conjecture, however, that Beaux’s early training in design predisposed her to a taste for quality frames. Photographs showing Beaux’s paintings on view at the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts reveal frames that must have been of concern to her, given the importance of the venue for publicizing her work and garnering accolades and commissions. If the works displayed in these exhibitions were newly painted and not yet sold, one can safely assume that they were framed by Beaux. Restricting our survey to period frames, however, does not guarantee that we are seeing frames chosen by Beaux, as many paintings—portraits, in particular—are framed by their owners. In addition, paintings lose their original frames and are reframed with great frequency, sometimes early in their lives. Mother and Daughter of 1898 (cat. 57), now in a cast composition Louis XV–style Rococo Revival frame with center and corner cartouches and swept (curved) edges (fig. 67), appeared in the Sixty-ninth Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1900 in a gilded, straight-edged reverse molding (sloping away from the painting) that was probably its original frame (fig. 68). Both frames are of virtually the same vintage.

Fig. 67. Mother and Daughter (cat. 57) in its current Rococo Revival frame.

Fig. 68. Detail, installation photograph of the Sixty-ninth Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1900. Beaux's Mother and Daughter, in its original frame, is in the center. Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Finding similar frames on paintings of the same date, especially in different collections, can be helpful in finding trends in an artist’s framing. The appearance of a distinctive Arts and Crafts frame, such as the one on Clement B. Newbold (fig. 69), which also appears in replicate on several contemporary portraits, strongly suggests that Beaux had a preference for such frames. Old exhibition labels and inscriptions on the back of a frame may help us to determine its age.