Framing the Question: The Art Beyond the Paintings

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional


To experience creative genius, sometimes you need to think outside the canvas – literally. We’re talking about all those fabulous frames that add even more magic to artistic masterpieces.

French artist Henri Matisse once said that the four sides of a frame are ‘the most important parts of a picture.’ They come in as many varieties are there are paintings – from ornately-carved wooden behemoths to elegant Art Nouveau creations. Yet frames are often the unsung heroes of the museum world, even though they can be impressive pieces of art in their own right.

Frames have been around almost as long as painting itself. Egyptian tomb paintings from 4000 years ago have decorative borders that not only frame specific scenes, but also include explanatory hieroglyphics – just like a modern comic book.

In fact, some of the coolest frames aren’t physical objects at all. Just check out these clever trompe-l’oeil frames that are actually part of the painting:

Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874.
Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1880.
The Altar of Our Lady by Rogier van der Weyden c. 1440,

Frames not only look impressive on their own, but also enhance, interpret and protect the art they contain. They are an awesome combination of furniture, architecture, and sculpture. Even French architect Hector Guimard (the brains behind Paris’s iconic Metro station entrances) tried his hand at designing Art Nouveau-style frames like these ones:

Hector Guimard frame, 1907, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Hector Guimard frame, 1909, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Frames can also be an important part of the artist’s overall vision. This unusual painting and frame combo by Joan Miró ties both objects into a single composition:

Portrait of a Man in a Late-Nineteenth-Century Frame by Joan Miró, 1950, MoMA. Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr.

And the gold frame for this work by Arthur Hughes includes a Keats poem, giving greater context to the story behind the three scenes:

The Eve of St Agnes by Arthur Hughes, 1856, Tate.

Frames can add to a painting’s financial and artistic value. One elaborately-carved frame from the 1700s sold for £52,500 at auction in 2013 – without any art inside it. In fact, there are plenty of empty frames that could steal the show from most paintings:

17th-century frame made from wood, mother of pearl and marble. Robert Lehman Collection, the Met.
16th-century carved wood frame. Robert Lehman Collection, the Met.

And some frames were never meant to share the spotlight with anything but a reflection, like this blinged-out German mirror from the early 1700s:

Wooden mirror frame with tortoiseshell, silver, gilt, and ivory by Johan Valentin Gevers, c. 1710, the Met.

There’s a whole other world of amazing art out there, protecting and enhancing your favorite paintings and photographs. On your next museum or gallery visit, reframe your view to give some kudos to the awesome creations just beyond the canvas edges.

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