Part I, Highlights From the Collection
“A picture without a frame is like a soul without a body” – Vincent Van Gogh
On March 7th, I attended a lecture at the MFA on the history of picture framing featuring pieces from the museum collection. This lecture inspired me to look into the historical development of frame design. Learning about the roots of design language, patronage, and frame commissions, I discovered the Boston School of Framers.
Through this and subsequent blogs I will discuss Boston’s long picture frame heritage and the shops that set the industry standards for innovative frame designs. I will cover the development of frame design from Antiquity, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo Classical, Victorian, to both 19th and 20th century Boston, bringing us to the current 21st century Boston frame shop, A Street Frames. A Street Frames’ framers had many different backgrounds before entering the frame industry, but they all speak the same language of design and produce frames of the highest quality. This blog looks at the frame shops and craftsman of Boston that made art museums grand.
A picture frame performs both aesthetic and practical roles. It is the boundary of the composition; defining, complementing and separating the artwork from its more surroundings. The roots of the development of the modern picture frame can be traced back to Ancient Cultures of Antiquity. What we do know is that in the ancient classical architecture motifs are the foundation of frame design. A 2000-year-old language of reinterpreted friezes, architectural design and wall frescos of varying size and complexity or “framed borders” integral to the image and surroundings. Decorative borders appeared as early as 2000BC in Egyptian tomb paintings.
In classical Rome and Greece, fresco-painted or mosaic-tiled borders echoed the shapes of the walls or layout of a room’s interior, allowing the room itself to frame the image. These stylized motifs, such as the egg and dart and the Cauliculus leaf pattern are derivative from the ancient world. The French Empire Frame and Italian Cassetta. are most recognized for the new interpretation of classical ornaments.
In the European medieval period, artists began painting onto wooden panels and their decorated edges developed into a formal, movable picture frame. Art was very much an extension of religious worship, and the first separate frames imitated the architectural surroundings of the cathedrals and larger churches. The illusion of space through architectural designed frames. As these became more elaborate so did the frames of the art within.
At the MFA new commissioned Italian Renaissance frames were needed. The Tabernacle frame was researched and decidedly aged to hang with other original frames in the Italian gallery. Tabernacle frames are based in architectural “shrine-like” design. Theses frames are often elaborate and come in a verity of regional styles. Poplar, common to Italy was the wood of choice for many of these frames.
As the role of the artists began to change into a more secular trade, the art of frame-making likewise evolved. The painters began to see themselves as individualists and creators of art for its own sake. The 15th and 16th centuries, artists and their patrons needed frames to set their work apart from its surroundings, not least because a rich patron would want his investment in art to be obvious to his visitors. It would not have been unusual for a painter to create his own elaborately gilded or painted frames. We will see this later in the Boston School of Framers in the Late 19th and early 20th Century. Most notably with Whistler and his contemporaries in Boston.
Do not miss our next blog post, “Highlights from the Collection Part II: ‘Framing the Past’/ Rembrandt, Queen Victoria, and the French Empire” by our A Street Frames’ picture frame history researcher.