Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art on the Edge

"Is the frame original?"

Whether carved, molded, gilded or painted, picture frames can rise to the level of  works of art in their own right, and can tell us a lot about the context in which a painting was displayed, but it's rare that we know much about how a frame came to be associated with a painting it houses. Frames are not often described or included in catalogs of paintings, and it is common for collectors to change framing when they purchase a work of art or change their decor.

Not long ago, we found ourselves asking, "Is the frame original?" when Rembrant Peale's Woman with the Tuscan Hat, c. 1847 came into the lab for conservation treatment. Both the painting and frame were in dire need of cleaning and repair, so this was an excellent opportunity to look into both of them a little more deeply.

Before Conservation Treatment

After Conservation Treatment
The painting is described in inventories of the artists' studio following his death as "Tuscan Hat, from a composition after André" but there's no indication as to whether or not the painting was framed. The painting came into Shelburne Museum's collection in 1985, and to the best of our knowledge, had only been published once before in John Mahey's 1969 article in American Art Journal in which the painting is depicted, but not the frame. 

The frame itself was made in two parts: the outer rectangular decorative moldings and the inner spandrel with  an oval opening. They're held together with nails on the reverse side of the frame. Oddly, the inner spandrel is a bit small for the outer frame; it just barely fills it so that you can see its outer edge peeking out from the opening of the outer frame. It also looks like an ornamental border had been removed from the outer edge of the spandrel. While there were a few empty nail holes that didn't match up between the spandrel and outer frame, there weren't enough for me to say that either piece had been used in some other context.

The pink arrow points to  the edge of the spandrel. The green arrow shows marks made by an ornamented border that was once on the frame and the blue arrow is pointing to cotton tulle applied to the surface of the frame before it was gilded. This image was taken before conservation treatment.
The pink arrow shows a wood splint added to the outer frame's rabbet to hold the  inner spandrel in place.
There's another splint under the spandrel too. Its just a little harder to see in this picture.
The Rococo-style ornament was made using compo, rather than plaster or carved wood. Cotton tulle netting applied to the ornament prior to gilding was a popular technique in the second quarter of the 19th century. And while the spandrel doesn't fit the outer frame perfectly, the compo ornament applied at the corners compliments the decoration on the outer frame. And so the style and materials used to make the frame suggest that it may have been produced sometime between 1825 and 1850, the same period as the Peale's Woman in the Tuscan Hat.

We will probably never be certain when this frame was associated with the painting or whether the outer frame has been reused. If it isn't the first frame this painting ever had, the match is in keeping with the time that they both were made.

If I've whetted your appetite to learn more, you might be interested in these summaries of three thought-provoking talks from this year's American Institute for Conservation annual meeting which considered picture frames and framing and the challenges posed in researching them.

Thanks to conservation department volunteer intern Linzy Vos who performed the conservation treatment of this frame and contributed to the research. Thanks also to paintings conservator Pamela Betts who researched and performed the conservation treatment on the painting as part of an Institute for Museum and Library Services Conservation Project Support grant.

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