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A Brief Look at the Historical Development of Picture Frames

Aug 17, 2007
The picture frame, as it exists today, is derived from the doorway or entrance to temples, palaces and cathedrals. The earliest examples of frame-like decorations or borders bear a great resemblance to door frames. They were composed of two columns surmounted by a connecting entablature and this form persisted into the 15th century. Even the decorations painted by the artists around the edges of pictures before the introduction of movable frames were similar in form.

As a matter of fact, frames without pictures eventually came into existence because the desire to embellish with Moldings was so strong. Rooms in palaces were arbitrarily paneled with Moldings and their vestigial remains are to be seen today in the senselessly paneled walls of apartments in modern cities.

Movable picture frames for "easel" paintings gained quickly in popularity once they were introduced. Be sides the elaborate and intricate wood-carving, ebony, ivory, tortoise shell and mother of pearl were used for inlaid decoration. Gold, silver and every other metal have also been used for frames.

With the perfection of the technique of making large sheets of glass which were in turn used to cover and protect pictures, frame-making received a big impetus in the 17th century. In the 18th century, when cheaper mirrors were introduced, frames were in greater demand than ever.

This century also saw an invention that was to revolutionize the art of frame decoration - that of the development of molded composition ornaments. The use of this easily handled material, which did away with the need for laborious and expensive hand-carving, drove artisans to other fields. Since then, there has been no large group of wood-carvers devoted solely to frame decoration.

It is interesting to note that during the Renaissance period, when movable frames were first introduced, book decoration reached its highest form. Undoubtedly, the early carvers and framers, besides using architectural designs, took many of their ideas from early illuminated manuscripts. The frames of the Louis' periods certainly got their inspiration from typographical decorative motifs. Before then, architects and sculptors designed much of the scroll-work, but later goldsmiths were employed for decoration. Overelaboration became the order of the day until all forms were lost beneath the gingerbread.

With the French revolution, people turned away from all evidences of bourgeois wealth and returned to a refreshing simplicity. Until 1850 all Moldings were cut from rough boards by hand, but with the invention of laborsaving machinery, frames could be put on the market for what the raw material had cost previously. This country was fortunately spared from the use of molded ornaments until the advent of the Victorian era. American frames up to that time were relatively simple and dignified, very often using only natural, stained wood and a gilded insert. The carving, when used, was restricted to the classical forms of ornamentation for specific molding shapes.

The frame-makers who constructed the monstrosities of the Victorian era were not content to put one heavily embellished gold frame around a picture of "The Stag at Bay" or something similar, but three or four. This birthday cake was then enclosed in a glass-covered, plush-lined, mahogany shadow-box. This was presumably for protection, but its need is a mystery since the interiors of that time were heavily shaded and hermetically sealed anyway.

Around 1900 there was a fashion for "Oxford", plush and cork-decorated frames. Hours and hours were spent carving these horrors and fitting them intricately together or in decorating frames with segments of cork. They can be found only rarely today, even in the higher priced second-hand stores, euphemistically called "antique shops". But perhaps it is too early to drag out another "antique" vogue. Mass production, to some degree at least, has forced a healthy simplification.

At the same time that heavy gilt frames were the vogue for oil paintings, a demand for polished, veneered oak and white enamel frames developed. In order to cheapen the cost of production, a fashion was instituted for bronze frames, i.e., frames finished with gold or silver paint. It did not last long, however, and simple, wide frames in black or dark brown wood of the Flemish type came into favor.
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