In the beginning, prehistoric man drew pictures on cave walls and other rock faces. After a few centuries, he must have decided that the one thing his glyphs lacked were borders.
Almost since the beginning, people have wanted to define their creations with borders or frames to make them complete, a whole— much the same as you would build a fence around a house or property, even when you have nothing to keep in or let out. It’s not a surprise, then, that actual picture frames have been found in ancient Egyptian remains.
While frames may not have well-defined styles and periods the way architecture or furniture does, they do reflect their origins. “Most frames mimic an architectural or decorative style of a period,” says Stephen Emche, who with his wife, Sarah, owns Phoenix Antique Frames in Phoenix, Md., one of the country’s largest buyers and sellers of antique frames. “There are certainly specific style elements associated with periods like Federal, Empire, Victorian or Mission—and they’re reflected in the frames of those periods.”
And there’s renewed interest among both private art collectors and everyday home decorators in purchasing frames that match the time, and even the place, of their older paintings. In fact, a classic frame can enhance just about any painting from any period—even the 21st century. After all, why spend several thousand dollars on a work of art at a gallery or auction and then showcase it in a mass-produced commercial frame?
Cultural writer Emma Crichton Miller puts it well: “Frames are the Cinderellas of the art world; they do a tremendous amount of work. They protect the artworks they support; they show off the qualities of a picture, drawing attention to its formal structure, its patterns and colors, enabling them to resonate fully with a viewer; they mold the response of the viewer to the work by suggesting the value we should attach to it; they accommodate a painting to its setting, acting as a liaison between the dream world of art and the decorative scheme of the museum, gallery or private home the work inhabits.”
Friedrich G. Conzen is the fifth-generation director of Conzen auction house in Dusseldorf, Germany, instructing potential bidders on the company’s website. Conzen’s auction house recently had up for bid 220 antique frames ranging from the 16th through the 20th centuries. “Antique frames continue to be timelessly desirable,” he says. “They frame your most treasured works of art in a spectacular way, or can be used around a looking-glass to decorate your home. They can also be especially effective in displaying contemporary works of art.”
Part of the attraction of getting the right frame on the right painting: One can go about it in many ways. Often, an old painting—whether purchased at a gallery or auction—comes with exactly the frame it deserves, the previous owner did his homework. But often, it’s a matter of the opposite: You fall in love with a frame that’s stuck with a lousy painting, so you keep the frame and junk the oil.
That calls on you to go looking for a frame-worthy piece of art, either something already on your walls or a painting you never knew you needed. Alternatively, you may end up purchasing a vintage work with a bad frame.
In case you don’t trust your own judgment in matching frame to canvas, you can turn to whoever advises you on interior decorating or consult the experts at one of the area’s art galleries—like Somerville Manning, Carspecken Scott, Station or Hardcastle—for advice and for help in tracking down a replacement. You can also do some self-training by taking notes on the frames next time you visit a museum or attend a reception at a gallery.
“Frequently, our customers will send a picture of something they’re looking to frame,” Emche says. “And we can send them a crude mockup of the piece in a frame they’re considering. When matching frame to art, frequently there’s an immediate ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so the decision-making can be instant—but not always.”
While many people start out their search for an antique frame by looking for an exact physical fit, such precision isn’t always necessary. Using a mat, especially for a watercolor, may not only be an answer, but it’s often the best answer. For oils and acrylics, often the desired frame is merely re-purposed.
“Matting a piece or resizing the frame represents most of the requests we get,” Emche says. “For example, if a customer is looking for a 12-by-19-inch rabbet [a step-shaped recess in the frame] size in a 19th-century grain-painted frame for a folk art piece, they could wait a lifetime for such an exact match. As long as the frame construction is amen-able to re-sizing, the frame can be redone by a good framer or conservator.”
The prices of antique frames are still attractive, and their dimensions can be easily adapted with slips, inlays or mounts. Of course, many old frames may need repair work—perhaps even some now hanging on your walls. Frames often take more abuse than the painting during moves or while hanging around flea markets, so it’s often difficult to find an old one in perfect condition. If you have one that’s valuable or has great sentimental value, you can get advice from one of our regional museum’s curatorial staff about craftsmen who specialize in repair—including work on gilding with gold overlay. Just don’t expect the job to be cheap.
Emche says that it’s not always the auction value of the frame that makes it worthy of consideration. Often folk art or hand-made frames from an earlier era will have a charm that makes them just right for certain paintings.
“There are many more paintings and portraits that have survived than did their period frames,” Emche reminds us.
But those that have survived are often worth searching out.