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From ancient Egypt to 17th century France.

Picture frames can be beautiful, functional, and historically interesting objects, but have you ever wondered about their origins? Rooted in two-dimensional art, picture frames began as flat borders on walls, urns, or any decorative item requiring a margin to separate one space from another. More than 4,000 years ago, Egyptian wall paintings were using lines and, later, geometric ornaments to articulate scenes, but frames as we now know them came much later.

The forebears of modern carved wooden frames appeared around the 11th century. Painted altars like decorated boxes with raised, ornamental protective edges later gave way to framed paintings on top of the altar, and these eventually became more vertical, like a church in silhouette. Duccio di Buoninsegna's Rucellai Madonna, painted in 1285, is a good example.

During the 14th and early 15th centuries, patrons, artists, and woodcarvers exploited this likeness to a church, making the frames into the cross-sections of great Gothic cathedrals. These frames symbolized the Celestial Church, and showed scenes of Christ and the saints as if they were visions appearing in the naves, aisles, crypts, and towers of the cathedral. These paintings with multiple panels (polyptychs) were so large and complex that, like buildings, they required buttresses to support them. The craftsmen who produced them were deemed equal in status to the painters.

During the Italian Renaissance, classical influences diffused through architecture, and Greco-Roman temples replaced Gothic altarpieces with their pointed arches, finials, and gilding. Single rectangles also replaced the polyptychs. The rectangle, or quadro, was a painted scene in which the saints and divine figures seemed to be interacting in a realistic space (the sacra conversazione or sacred conversation). The temple-like, or aedicular, frame functioned as a classical door or window opening onto these scenes, giving worshippers the sensation of looking through it to a sacred event that was occurring before their eyes. The frames were also removable, and no longer part of one integrated structure. They were decorated with various embellishments: carved ornament; parcel-gilding and painting; sgraffito, patterns scratched through gilding to the paint layer beneath; engraved or punched designs; raised motifs painted with liquid gesso; and moulded decoration. Again, the craftsmen were highly regarded, and some, including Giuliano da Maiano, Antonio Manetti, and Giuliano and Antonio Giamberti San Gallo, were well-known architects.

Some altarpieces had inner borders of carved ornaments, and these, along with the frames of small sacred paintings, influenced the appearance of symmetrical frames for secular works. Portraits and history paintings acquired movable frames such as those that we recognize today. One of the earliest and most enduring frame styles was the cassetta, or little box. It comprises an outer or top moulding, which over the years became increasingly complex; a flat or convex frieze, which could have many kinds of decoration; and another moulding at the inner, or sight, edge. Just as every country produced variants of the Gothic and Renaissance altarpiece, every country also developed versions of the cassetta frame.

During the 16th century, artists and architects such as Michelangelo began to play with the proportions of objects and the balance and harmony of compositions. This trend, which became known as Mannerism, originated as a reaction to the harmonious classicism and the idealized naturalism of High Renaissance art in the late 15th century. Mannerist architects, designers, and carvers produced distinctive patterns of picture frames. In Italy, for example, such frames distorted classical motifs, piling them together and elongating structural lines; they used exaggerated 3D ornaments and contrasting colors, such as those displayed in the flamboyantly scrolling "Sansovino" frame.

In contrast, British Mannerism developed flattened, curvaceous, and gilded "leatherwork" frames, with curling foliage and highly stylized marine ornaments, such as the "Sunderland" style. The pattern takes its name from the second earl of Sunderland, of Althorp House in Northamptonshire, where the collection of 17th century portraits is framed mainly in this style, though the term itself is probably a 19th century one.

Netherlandish Mannerism is another variation. Frames in this style are known as "Auricular," after the earlike cartilaginous motifs, which may relate to British leatherwork frames and to contemporary Dutch interests in anatomical studies and marine symbolism. Auricular ornament seems to have been developed primarily in the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Emperor, to which artists and craftsmen were drawn to work and exchange ideas. Among them was Paulus Van Vianen, a Dutch silversmith. His work in silver influenced both his brother Adam and his nephew Christiaen. The melting and fluid qualities of these auricular ornaments, which were perhaps easier to achieve in metal than in wood, have a strikingly illusionistic effect when imitated on picture frames, reflecting the great skill of the master carvers who made them.

Along with these elaborate and idiosyncratic patterns, carvers also produced much plainer frames, including simple cassetta styles, which might be painted in one color, gilded without other ornament, or made of a decorative wood that could be polished. Italian framemakers usually used native walnut, a wood that darkens to a warm brown and complements paintings. In the 17th century, however, trade with New World colonies introduced to Europe a variety of more exotic woods, including ebony, amboyna, and rosewood, and materials such as tortoiseshell and ivory. Amsterdam in 1606 had only one sawmill; by the mid-17th century, however, there were more than 50, and the offcuts supplied the picture-frame trade.

Cabinetmakers rather than carvers produced these frames, along with furniture, and made them with plain mouldings like those on cupboard doors or decorated them with the first machine-carved ripple and wave mouldings.

The organic, natural motifs which had begun to appear in some Mannerist frames gradually took precedence over classical and architectural ornaments, and the mouldings of frames became increasingly theatrical and sculptural, characteristic of the Baroque style. Baroque architecture uses light and shadow to sculpt the facades of buildings, using bays, columns, and niches that are stepped outward or recede. Baroque frames work in the same way, using combinations of boldly projecting convex mouldings beside deep concave mouldings, or scotias. The popular bolection profile raises the picture surface out from the wall, with the frame sloping backward from it, focusing on the painting within by pushing it toward the spectator, and highlighting it against the opulent interiors of the Baroque age.

The designers of Baroque frames tended to concentrate the decorative emphasis of the frame on the corners, and often the centers, drawing an imaginary web of optical lines in the minds of spectators and thus reinforcing mass and line in the composition of the painting. This trend is evident in 17th century Spanish frames, which feature panels of fluidly carved, large curling leaves, along with polychrome finishes with gilded patterns like brocaded fabrics.

Contemporary French frames also mimic the dramatic profiles of Baroque architecture, with leaf ornaments following the contour of the frame, and frequently highlighting its corners and centers as well. During the 17th century, Paris increased in power and influence as an artistic center, and the work of French craftsmen increased correspondingly in sophistication and skill. Frames produced during the reign of Louis XIII combine bold convex, concave, and ogee mouldings with garlands of bunched bay leaves and oak leaves, undulating vines, or acanthus leaves lapping across the width of the rail, all carved in exquisite and detailed naturalism. This produced an effect of contained richness which complemented the art of the period--now the art of kings, rather than the art of the Church.

Lynn Roberts is a picture frame historian who has worked as archivist, researcher, and author at Paul Mitchell Ltd. and for the frame section of the National Portrait Gallery website. She is now an occasional archivist at the National Gallery, London. She also founded, runs, and edits the online magazine The Frame Blog.
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Comment:From ancient Egypt to 17th century France.(HISTORY OF PICTURE FRAMES SERIES: PART I)
Author:Roberts, Lynn
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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