“The frame is the painting’s pimp”.
. . . or so says 17th century art theorist André Félibien. Now he was the same guy who felt the need to categorize different types of paintings with his very strict hierarchy, claiming that the painter of for instance an Arcadian landscape is a more elevated soul than the painter who paints a bowl of fruit. So I will take his remark with a grain of salt. But, Félibien’s BS aside, there’s no denying that the frame has a huge influence on the image. It leads your eye to the picture, it shields it from outside influences, it supports it, it enhances it. And sometimes it becomes an integral part of it.
Frames often are pieces of art themselves. With or without a work inside – apparently a famous icon of the Madonna went on tour in Communist Poland, traveling from one rural village to the next. Then rumor spread that the police had ‘arrested’ the Madonna, which prompted the people to start praying to empty frames.
In the 13th century frescoes were adorned with painted edges, and many articles about the history of frames start there, but they are probably just echoing each other (hey, that’s ok – all knowledge of history is second-hand, after all). It so happens the frescoes of ancient Greece had those edges, too. This is Hades with Persephone, storming towards us on their chariot. Fourth century BC.
Aawwww, look at this dog. A guilty looking cutie, His Masters Voice avant la lettre. This is a second century mosaic from Alexandria, Egypt, with its own round frame mosaicked in. Flanked by a couple of strikingly human lions.
This is an illustration by the ‘Master of James IV of Scotland’ – a so called emergency name because nobody knows for sure who the artist was. He definitely was a Flemish miniaturist, a maker of illuminations in books. This incredibly beautiful image comes from a Book of Hours, a prayer book, that he made for the Scottish king and queen. Look how he painted that frame around St. Dominic – who has, by the way, a few very weird pets: a dog chewing on some sort of rocket, and a mutant ninja crocodile. It was made around 1515, executed in tempera (pigments in an egg yolk base), ink and gold leaf. The latter is probably where the term ‘illuminations’ comes from – the images reflected so much light that they literally illuminated things.
Madonna and Child between Two Angels. Yes, titles can be very accurate descriptions of the work. This amazing glazed terracotta relief was made by Luca Della Robbia in Florence, ca 1450. Terracotta, literally cooked earth, is a pretty heavy and vulnerable material, but still this ‘tondo’ – round image – has a diameter of a 100 cm. He obviously made the frame out of six identical pieces, using a mould. Every time I look at this, it strikes me how modern their faces are.
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Lady with a jonquil, ca 1755. A typical Rococo frame, with much less symmetry than you’d think at first glance – if you closely compare the left and the right, you see tiny differences on either side. Nifty! And very 18th century, when the most influential decorative motif was the sea shell, and of course there is no such thing as symmetry in nature.
Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, ca 1850. A quintessential Pre-Raphaelite painting, although Allston Collins was never formally a member of the group. Look, she is holding a book of hours – with a framed illumination! And also a passion flower, apparently to symbolize her union with Christ. Lots of lilies, the symbol of the Madonna, in- and outside of the painting. It is a botanical Bonanza. The famous critic and Pre-Raphaelite patron John Ruskin wrote in a review of this: “I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant Alisma Plantago … and I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn […] For as a mere botanical study of the Water Lily and Alisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me.” Unfortunately for Ruskin, experts have figured out there is no Alisma Plantago in this picture.
Here, too, the frame is closely related to what’s inside it. This time more subtle, echoing the architectural forms. This is Fernand Khnopff’s painting of his sister Marguerite, from 1887. It has been rumored that there was something incestuous going on between them. Whatever the case, in this painting she is decidedly unapproachable. And to underline that, he has also stuck her in a box-like frame. Wow. His motto, written over the entrance of his house in Brussels was: ‘On n’a que soi’, ‘you only have yourself’.
Gustav Klimt, Love. 1895. Even though he might very well have been a bit of a weirdo, I. LOVE. KLIMT. His father was an engraver, so he had pretty much unlimited access to gold leaf. And boy! Did he know how to make use of it. The difference between a reproduction and the real thing is bigger with Klimt than anywhere else. And if you want to see how paintings and frames become one, look no further. This is a fairly early work, but very Klimt-esque: with a couple of spooky figures, notably Death, Youth and Old Age, looking down on the lovers. Are they doomed? Is all love doomed? What’s with those pretty but thorny roses on the frame?
Largo, 1898. Ludwig von Hofmann was a German painter, son of a Prussian statesman. He went to study in Paris, where he met Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – whose influence is highly visible in his paintings, balancing between symbolism and Art Nouveau. Much of his work was deemed ‘entarted’ – degenerate – by the Nazis. And yes, folks, that is pretty much all I can tell you about him. But just look at this painting! Or rather: look at this frame! It’s mad, 1.20 m wide splendor.
Franz Stuck, 1900. Portrait of Frau Feez. Ohhh, ahhh, the turn of the century really is the golden age of framing, isn’t it? Stuck was incredibly famous in his day. In 1892 he was one of the founders of the Münchener Sezession, the inspiration for the more famous Wiener Sezession. And a whole load of more Secessions globally. This was after all the era of the ‘brotherhoods’, of artists getting together in rebellion against stuffy conventions. His name always sends a shiver down my spine, even though I love his work – he was Hitlers favorite painter, you see. But don’t hold that against him – he died in 1928.
Pablo Picasso often used elaborate Renaissance-style frames around his shockingly modern cubist paintings – more than likely in a rebellious move, almost like an obnoxious son standing up against his father. Although in this case he applied a piece of rope, which, together with the word Jou, adds to the playful, outdoorsy feel of this ‘Still life with chair’, from 1912.
Howard Hodgkin felt that “the more tenuous or fleeting the emotion you want to present the more it’s got to be protected from the world.” One of his trademarks is the way his paintings ‘overflow’ onto the frames. This is Red Bermudas, 1980. An intriguing title, especially if you know that his titles always had to do with the moment, or the occasion, that inspired the painting. There’s something really moving about his work, I can’t pinpoint exactly what. Maybe it is because when I see his paintings, in my mind I also see his face. He had the most gentle gaze.
Frederic Brenner, Installation, Ellis Island 1996. This ah-ma-zing French photographer published an equally amazing book with (group) portraits of American Jews: Jews/America/A Representation. In it, there is a series of portraits he did of famous Jews who contributed to American society and culture. They all posed with the same frame. Also in the book is an essay by Simon Schama, who is not exactly gushing with praise for the portraits. But then he describes what happens when they are put together in Brenner’s installation on Ellis Island, the place where the sitters, or their parents and grandparents, entered the country. It all comes together. It becomes symbolic. Profound. Even more so now, because the original World Trade Center looms in the background. Little did we know.
And, finally, a recent image, from 2020. Hassan Hajjaj’s portrait of DJ Jamie Jones. The word ‘recent’ might be slightly misleading here, because Hajjaj has been doing this for years – framing his portraits with cans, ketchup dispensers, etc. It has gained him the nickname ‘The Andy Warhol of Marrakesh’. Hajjaj divides his time between Morocco and the UK, and is a sought-after chronicler of pop culture.
16th, 17th and 18th century frames are everywhere. I’m leaving most of those out since we are all pretty familiar with them. It is a vast subject, boundless (!) in fact, and I would much rather show some stuff that might be less well-known. If you want to know, see and read more, I can wholeheartedly recommend https://theframeblog.com.