The evolution of frames and their relationship to architecture, PART 2
Posted: 25 Jun 2020 by PML
The first part of this essay considered the relationship of the picture frame to its architectural context from the earliest borders painted around archaic frescos to the flowering of the Baroque style in Europe. This second part takes up the story with the subsequent versions and evolutions of the style.
For example, the British version of the Baroque interior was the Palladian style, an enriched form of classicism brought from the Veneto by Inigo Jones, and popularized by William Kent’s publication of Jones’s work, and then by his own related designs. Kent’s interiors are some of the first for which a single architect designed everything, from the fixed architectural elements of chimneypieces, doors, windows, and ceilings, through all the movable furnishings to the silverware and locks – and the frames.
In the elevations of the Saloon he designed for Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the unity of form and ornament is clear; the paintings become playing counters, to be moved about in the search for the optimum balance for the whole wall. Frames are part of the family of architectural features – variations on the theme of Palladian structure and decoration – in a complex choreographical arrangement. The focus of the design for the north wall was to be Van Dyck’s group portrait of a family, painted a century before, but set into a frame which both subordinated it to the overall concept and celebrated it in an opulently dramatic and putti-laden architectural structure.
The diffusion of the ‘Kent’ frame, which could mix happily with other styles (such as the ‘Salvator Rosa’/ ‘Carlo Maratta’, and other Italian and French Baroque frames) in almost any British interior, was extremely wide and long-lasting. One of its highest points, as far as frames go, is this beautifully embellished version on Ramsay’s portrait of Thomas Mansel and his siblings, with its architectural ornament: egg-&-dart, floral guilloche chain and enriched spiral ribbon on the contours and frieze; classical leaf paterae in the lower corners; a scrolling cartouche at the bottom and tête espagnolette at the top, together with pendant drops of oak leaves and acanthus, scrolling foliage and swags of bay leaves. The flat architrave profile, which was so different from the concave/convex complexities of Continental Baroque, is given equal opulence by this accretion of meticulously-considered decoration.
<>The Palladian style thus stood in for the Baroque in Britain, where there are very few fully Baroque buildings, and continued in popularity until the classicism of the Adam brothers took over in the later 18th century. Rococo architecture never took root here, either externally or for all but a very few complete interiors; although curvaceously comfortable Rococo furniture, looking-glasses and picture frames were popular.
Rococo was an asymmetrical, lighter version of the Baroque, emerging from the interaction of Parisian carvers, sculptors, framemakers and ornemanistes at the Académie de Saint-Luc; and it was whole-heartedly expressed through the completely integrated interior – not like the Kentian interior, with movable pieces slotted into the spaces between architectural features, but as a panelled room adorned with carved boiseries, paintings in integral frames and overdoors, and looking-glasses which were equally absorbed into the wall space. Now the frame had several facets – a border organically integrated with other boiserie borders, holding a piece of panelling, a looking-glass or a painting; a wall, edged with ornamental carving and with various decorative openings; or the entire interior itself.
Therefore, although it is most often composed of free-flowing organic ornament, the Rococo is paradoxically one of the most architectural of styles, even transferring its expressive form as a wall of boiseries to the functional, symmetrical structure of a coach – in this case the work of Nicolas Pineau, one of the great Parisian ornemanistes, who originated the asymmetrical cast of Rococo, and refined his shaped borders of airy rocailles to a serpentine slenderness. Rocaille is what gives its name to the Rococo, and it consists of motifs like shells, water and marine organisms, sometimes morphing into leaves or wings or flames; however, these are not the ordered bands of tidy leaf garlands and identical acanthus corners, or the use of objects for their symbolic significance; it is not even the theatrical exaggeration of the Baroque, where a whole frame can be lost beneath a curling forest of scrolling leaves. Rococo is essentially and joyously decorative: and, like the Auricular style, it is also the joy of producing in carved wood the impossible effect of other materials – where an Auricular frame can mimic molten metal, a Rococo frame can simulate water and air.
At least nine of these frames were carved for the Swiss pastellist Liotard, probably in Geneva, where he painted the portraits they contain. They are plastic and 3-dimensional in the vein of French Baroque, but the opulent stasis of a Louis XIV, Régence or early Louis XV frame is completely subsumed in the strong sense of movement generated by opposed swirls of acanthus leaves at centres and corners.
As the style diffused through Europe, it became, particularly in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, even more wildly asymmetrical, light and flyaway – and yet integral, non-movable frames such as overdoors were still fused with the architecture of the whole interior.
Danish movable frames, like this one, are notable for their exaggeratedly slender rails and large, pierced, asymmetric centres and corners which break through the sight edge, encroaching on the surface of the painting. The canvas was still a rectangular shape, but by use of these optical devices, the frame could soften and animate the whole work, binding it to the integral elements of architectural features, stucco and panelling.
However, by the mid-18th century there was a reaction against the Rococo, catalyzed partly by the flamboyance of high Rococo ornament (although the fashion lingered into the 1760s and 1770s), and partly by a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome. Further excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, particularly from 1750, and the consequent foundation of the Italian Royal Academy in Naples in 1755, drew the attention of artists such as Anton Mengs, and of archaeologists and writers like Johann Wickelmann, whose History of ancient art and essays on the discoveries at Herculaneum were profoundly influential.