new york times

Letting the Frame Speak for the Artist and the Era



An employee at Eli Wilner’s restoration business working on a frame.

“My antique frames are so rare I tend to want to sell my copies,” Mr. Wilner said. “And many people prefer this option because my prices are so very dear,” he added with a laugh.

The new appreciation of frames — which celebrates the best as artworks in their own right, as evocative of the period of their creation as the paintings they embrace — represents a change in the relationship between artworks and their owners. Traditionally, paintings have been seen as possessions. Just as the wealthy clad their footmen in livery, collectors dressed their paintings in “livery frames.”

The painting itself has been inviolable, but frames have offered dealers, collectors and curators the opportunity to put their stamp on work. It has been common for each generation to select new frames to express its sensibilities. Napoleon famously dictated that the Louvre’s collection be reframed.

Sometimes the impulse is high-minded: New frames allow museum curators to present old paintings in a fresh light. Sometimes it is more prosaic: As the segue from an artwork to its surroundings, frames help collectors coordinate their décor — or express their dissatisfaction with the previous owner’s taste. (Sorry, Mom.)

And, quite often, frames are a marketing tool that allows dealers to bolster the value of paintings; nothing says expensive like an elaborately carved and decorated gold-covered frame.

Until the late 19th century, artists were not usually involved in framing. Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York, noted that this changed with the Impressionists, many of whom “rejected traditional styles of framing” and embraced anti-bourgeois attitudes, favoring simple white frames. Nevertheless, dealers in America who championed their work placed it in heavy gilded frames.

“When Degas saw that one of his friends had put one of his paintings in a gilded frame, he took it off the wall,” she said.

His effort, however, was ultimately in vain; almost all of the original Impressionist frames have been lost.

Today, honoring the artist’s intentions is often the gold standard for framing older works. Instead of reflecting changing tastes, the approach is to match paintings with historically accurate frames, to come as close to seeing them as the artist did, said Rebecca Lawton, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.

“As museum curators, we must present a work of art authentically,” Ms. Lawton said. “Frames are a crucial part of this, because most artists cared very deeply about them.”

Some artists make this task relatively easy. Thomas Eakins and Childe Hassam, for example, designed many of their own frames. Camille Pissarro filled a notebook with his drawings of frames. John Singer Sargent and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were among the artists who commissioned frame designs from the architect Stanford White. No one took the notion that a frame was part of the artist’s vision further than James Whistler, who signed his frames — rather than his paintings — with a signature butterfly, so the two would not be separated.

Such figures are the exception. Although old masters like Dürer, Filippo Lippi and others are known to have occasionally designed frames, in most cases the artist’s intentions are unknown, and the painting has long been separated from its original frame, said George Bisacca, a conservator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“We go out of our way for historical accuracy, because paintings and frame styles are related,” Mr. Bisacca said, “in the sense that there are certain things, certain types of profile or ornament or finish that can only be conceived of in a certain period, certain elements and ideas about composition, correlations that influenced the creation of the artwork and he frame.”

To achieve this, curators must become archival detectives, using modern technology to divine clues about the past. They search databases of antique frames and use the Internet to consult curators and frame dealers from around the world. They scour writings by and about artists for hints about their thoughts, and they study the framing choices of the artist’s circle of friends and contemporary collectors.

“Eureka” moments can prove to be false leads. Do the grainy black-and-white photos from artists’ studios showing known work in a specific frame reflect the style they preferred or the one they could afford? Do the earliest images showcase the taste of the artist, the gallery owner, the curator or the collector?

Curators sift and juggle these factors to make their best judgment. Then they work with dealers to search for an existing “period frame” — or a high-quality replica — that allows viewers to come as close as they can to seeing the work in an accurate context.

Still, Mr. Bisacca added, many Picassos look splendid in 17th-century carved Spanish frames, which were often favored by the artist himself.

While frames have received spotty, sporadic attention from scholars through the centuries, modern interest in them is generally traced to the pioneering work of the German art historian Claus Grimm in the 1970s, especially his study “The Book of Picture Frames.”

The frame-appreciation movement gained further traction in the United States when the Metropolitan Museum mounted its 1990 show “Italian Renaissance Frames,” organized by Mr. Bisacca and Laurence Kanter, now chief curator for the Yale University Art Gallery. Seeing the exquisite beauty of these frames was a revelation for many, especially after decades during which many contemporary artists viewed frames as a distraction, minimizing them or avoiding them altogether.

It was also exciting, opening a fresh, if sometimes frustrating, field of inquiry for curators and other scholars. It can be hard enough establishing the provenance of paintings, much less that of frames, whose history is intimately connected to landfills.

Nevertheless, this growing appreciation and knowledge have led to efforts to keep paintings in their original frames and to find suitable period designs for orphaned paintings, or to commission appropriate replicas or models reflecting the spirit of the old.

This has also put new financial pressures on museums. “Funding for frames can be a little tricky, because a lot of institutions are cash-strapped,” said Mr. Cole of the Cleveland Museum. “Also, some museums might prefer to acquire a new object than reframe a painting already in their collection.”

On the other hand, Mr. Wilner, the framer, said his restoration work had increased fivefold during the last year, as museums with tight budgets for new acquisitions concluded that this was “an economical way to dress up their collections.”

Twilight in the Wilderness” (1860), by Frederic Edwin Church, with a replacement mid-19th-century frame. Frederic Edwin Church/The Cleveland Museum of Art

Mr. Wilner is also sponsoring a competition in which he will frame five works of 18th-to-mid-20th-century American art free. He expects to receive about 50 entries from museums by the June 15 deadline.

Finally, the new emphasis on historically accurate frames raises fascinating, if unsettling, questions. As frames shape the viewing experience, have the millions who have stood awe

struck in front of Impressionist paintings and other masterworks through the years never, in fact, seen them properly? Has their appreciation of these beloved paintings been askew, tainted or incomplete?

Ms. Easton of the Center for Curatorial Leadership said that those provocative puzzles go with the territory. “In some ways, a painting never looks more beautiful than when it is on its easel, and the artist takes his brush away for the last time. And the frame is part of leaving that moment.”

For a van Gogh, a $48,000 Frame

Vincent van Gogh completed his work on “Landscape Under a Stormy Sky” in the late 1880s. , Recently Felix Terran has been carving a frame for the painting, expected to fetch $50 million to $70 million at Sotheby’s this year.

Bent over a rod of bass wood, he used one and then another of the scores of chisels laid out before him to create a teardrop-shaped curve. Over the next few days, he would carve several hundred of these delicate gadroons to replicate the Museum of Modern Art frame in which nestles van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

As Mr. Terran sculpted the wood, four other craftsmen at Eli Wilner & Company’s workshop in Long Island City, Queens, were preparing to do their part to build this single frame. They would create molds for the ornaments that adorn the frame; painstakingly apply gesso, an easily sanded paint mixture; and then add various types of gold, finish and inks. The frame would require about 200 hours of labor and cost about $48,000.

The craftsmanship required to build the van Gogh frame embodies the synergistic relationship between classic art and modern science that informs the growing movement to replicate and restore historic frames.

The handful of experts in the United States and Europe who perform this rarefied work have spent decades mastering the craft. “We’ve learned how to be the best frame fakers in the world,” Eli Wilner said.

“Those fakes, however, often require more work than the originals, because while they must be historically accurately, they cannot in most cases gleam with newborn luster,” he said.

To achieve effects satisfying to the modern eye, frame makers must not only master antiquated materials and techniques used during specific periods, but they must also account for the ravages of time. If they succeed, museumgoers and collectors will barely notice their work.