A Brief History of The Frame
Frames evolved from the borders which appeared 3-4,000 years ago on vase and tomb paintings, and later on mosaics, enclosing narrative scenes and decorative panels. Early Christian art adapted these to the carved edgings of ivory book covers and diptychs, and finally of altarpieces. By this time the function of the frame had changed: not merely a decorative boundary, it protected and emphasized the work it held, and might have a strongly symbolic aspect. The gold and gems of early altar frames suggested the glories of Heaven; and the elaborate altarpieces developed in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy imitated a mediaeval cathedral in cross-section, the 'nave', 'aisles', 'crypt' and so on each holding a painted fraction of the whole work.

These ecclesiastical settings were the first real picture frames; they were followed in the early Renaissance by court frames, commissioned by monarchs and the nobility for purposes of status and propaganda. Such frames indicated power and wealth by the magnificence of their workmanship and often too, by symbolic motifs. Secular frames followed: everyday versions of court frames ,produced in increasing quantities from the 14th century to the present, and in all degrees of cost or elaboration.

These types and their evolution may be classified by their nationality: each country developing characteristic forms, of which the most successful might influence those of other countries - the Italian Renaissance cassetta frame, the 18th century French Rococo frame (see A History of the European fame, a study by nationality). They may also be divided across national boundaries, by style: renaissance, Mannerist, the polished wooden cabinetmaker's frame, Baroque, Palladian and Rococo, the Roman 'Salvator Rosa', Neoclassical frames, and the academic or artists' frames of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries (see FRAMEWORKS. These two books interlock with and complement each other, creating a panorama of European framing history).

The Renaissance Cassetta
Various decorative techniques

This diagram is reproduced as Fig 9 in "A History Of European Picture Frames" by Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts.

Mannerist Frames

The characteristic organic motifs which appear on many Mannerist frames (such as the one illustrated above) seem to have been generated by craftsmen - especially silversmiths - working in the courts of Bohemia. The melting cartilaginous shapes mimic the fluidity of metalwork, and caused this style to be known as 'Auricular' (like ear lobes). Examples were produced in Britain - the 'Sunderland', in the Netherlands - the 'Lutma', and in Italy - the 'Medici' frame.

The Cabinetmaker's Frame
'... an Ebony frame can enrich a poor canvas, And make it look or sell as well as a good one.'
Constantijn Huygens, patron of Rembrandt.

The cabinetmaker's frame, of stained or polished wood, was related both to the simplest cassetta frame and to architectural panelling and furniture. In Britain, the simpler forms of black and gilt 'entablature' frame were used, effective against backgrounds of tapestry, tooled leather or panelling, and when hung in groups. In seventeenth-century Holland the same frame type evolved luxury forms through the use of tortoiseshell, ebony and other costly woods from the Dutch colonies; ebony was particularly popular, complementing portraits of the mercantile classes in their severe black and white costumes, and highlighting landscapes against the pale, well-lit interiors of the Netherlands. In Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain these wooden frames took more ornate forms, the veneer being worked into complex patterns of ripple, wave and basketwork mouldings. Such patterns took the place of gold leaf, refracting light from their faceted, polished black surfaces onto the painting. Frames like these are related to contemporary cabinets: Flemish examples of ebony and tortoiseshell, painted and inlaid, or German cabinets decorated with ivory and silver-gilt.

Baroque Frames

Baroque and Rococo frames reverted to gilding, except in Spain which used polchromy. Their dynamic came from the 'cartouches' of curling leaves, shells and volutes carved in the corners and often the centres of each rail. The imaginary lines drawn between these points were utilized by contemporary artists to emphasize their paintings, as shown here. The drama and opulence achieved by Baroque frames reflected the grandeur of 17th century princely life, and the theatrical spirituality of the Church: they were also features of practical importance, since contemporary paintings needed strong settings with powerful sculptural forms to project and emphasize them against the splendors of the Baroque interior.

Rococo Frames

The Palladian Frame

Palladian and Roman frames provided a masculine, architectural alternative to Baroque and Rococo curves - particularly in Britain, where there were few, if any, complete Rococo interiors, and the taste for classical forms had never been entirely superseded. The British Palladian or 'Kent' frame, with its distinctive outset corners, is called after the architect and designer William Kent; he derived it from the late Mannerist work of Michelangelo, interpreted by Palladio and Inigo Jones. Kent, however, used it as part of a coherent interior, where for the first time architecture, fittings and furniture were designed as a single whole. The painting and its frame were completely integrated with the overall setting. The 'Kent' frame was decorated with strong classical mouldings, such as egg-&-dart, ribbon-&-stave and Greek fret, which suited its bold silhouette; it might be softened, however, by festoons or pendant drops of leaves and flowers, and elaborate trophy versions were also produced.

The Salvator Rosa Frame

This diagram is reproduced as Fig 19 in "A History Of European Picture Frames" by Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts.

Neoclassical and Empire Frames

Both the Palladian and 'Salvator Rosa' styles fed the Neoclassical designs of the late eighteenth- century. These were also stimulated by reaction against the excesses of the Rococo, and by an upsurge of interest in classical excavations and the study of the antique. The earliest Neoclassical furniture designs were French; they appeared in the 1750s, in the weighty, sober style known as 'goût grec', and were followed by frames which used Classical ornament in the same bold idiom.

The style diffused outwards from France as Napoleon's Empire spread over Europe, and led to the first truly international styles of the nineteenth-century, with their plain ogee, rounded or hollow profiles, and simple ornaments of moulded composition. These were also the first mass-produced frames, composition allowing labour-intensive carving to be replaced by moulded ornament. The frame - an object of art in its own right until the early nineteenth-century - became degraded into a badly made, banal setting for popular art, arbitrarily decorated and finished in cheap metallic leaf or gold paint.

Where collectors and patrons in the past had put their mark on their own collections by reframing them in the best taste of their own day, the newly rich art buyers of the nineteenth- century now used revivals of historical styles, reproduced in composition and schlagmetall ('Dutch leaf'), because they fitted in better with the revival 'Louis' styles of nineteenth-century furnishing. Both past patrons, who reframed for reasons of status and possession, and nineteenth-century collectors, whose wobbly aesthetics could not accommodate the drama of, for example, authentic Baroque frames, are responsible for the loss of so many original settings from Old Masters and for the need of new knowledge in this important area.


Paul Mitchell
Antique & Reproduction Frames
Conservation of Paintings
Paintings & Drawings
Site Meter