Bouguereau Frame Process

This is the story of the transformation of a beautiful Bouguereau painting recently sold at auction at Sotheby’s.

The painting required a frame as special as the artwork. Sotheby’s specifically requested a tabernacle style frame, having seen a tabernacle style frame on another large-scale Bouguereau painting.

The tabernacle style frame originated during the Renaissance. Derived from ecclesiastical architecture, it was especially popular in Italy. Indeed, the architecturally based style emerged as frame devices were created to house paintings that were all part of a larger decorative scheme created to inhabit church interiors and altars. Architectural in purpose and design, the style is characterized by columns or pilasters at each side and very distinct bottom and top (pediment).

The style evolved over the centuries, never disappearing entirely, and became especially popular again in the 19th century. The British Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti utilized the style.

Other British painters such as Frederic Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema often chose, and even designed, tabernacle style frames for their paintings. Leighton, especially, designed several variations of the tabernacle style and it was one of Leighton’s designs that was the inspiration for the frame created for the Bouguereau.

The bottom of the frame employs a simple fluted base topped with the classical egg-and-dart motif; next a pair of fluted pilasters extends up each side and they are in turn crowned by capitals of the Ionic order. The Ionic capitals are volutes, a swirling rounded form, and are embellished with a smaller scale of the same egg-and-dart motif found at the base. The entire structure is surmounted by a pediment that is decorated with classical ornament of both bead-and-reel and acanthus leaf patterns.

Creating the frame for the Bouguereau required that the basic architectural structure of the frame be crafted in wood, including the carving of the pilasters and capitals. Next, the decorative motifs of egg-and-dart, bead and reel, and acanthus leaf were molded and applied. Once the entire structure of the frame was complete the frame was prepared for water gilding.

Water gilding is a labor intensive process. In order to form a smooth, porous surface several preliminary coats of gesso (a thin plaster-like material) are applied; each coat must dry and be sanded before the next coat can be applied; usually there are 6 to 8 coats of gesso. Next, special liquid clay called ‘bole’ is brushed on; this, too, must dry before the application of the gold leaf. Bole comes in a variety of colors; in this case both ochre and terra cotta red bole were used.

The gilder brushes on a mixture of alcohol, water, and hide glue (hence the term ‘water gilding’) that creates a very wet surface and the leaf is laid onto the frame. The gold leaf is applied using a special squirrel-hair brush called a gilders tip. The brush is used to lift the delicate gold leaf from the book and onto the frame surface. Gold leaf comes in books of 3 ¼” squares of the leaf. The gilder works carefully to apply hundreds if not thousands of leaves onto the surface to cover the entire frame.

Once the entire frame has been gilded the frame is lightly rubbed with cotton to remove any loose pieces of leaf and to give a lustrous matte appearance. Selected areas are burnished with a special agate tool to bring the burnished passages to a shiny, reflective gold. Finally, the entire frame is patinated to achieve a sense of age. This patination process is accomplished with special inks, dyes and stains that are carefully applied so that the hand of the gilder is not evident. The desired effect is that the frame will appear to be from the 19th century just as the painting it surrounds.