At Large  July 15, 2021  Marissa Lupkas

Framing History: A Study of the Craftsmanship of Picture Frames

Courtesy of the Met. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926. 26.70.3(214).

Battista Angolo del Moro, Bust of a woman in profile facing right, set within an elaborate frame with putti, ca. 1540–80. Etching. 5 in. × 7 1/16 in. (12.7 × 18 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

On a museum visit, one usually hones in on the quest to take in as much art as possible. As one walks between galleries, absorbing centuries of art, an expected but often overlooked constant emerges—the picture frame.

Whether painted, drawn, carved, or molded, frames contain a rich history often underrepresented or neglected in the art historical canon. As such, it is long past due for these conduits of our history to have their moment in the spotlight. With insights from Frame Historian and Consultant Suzanne Smeaton and Research Fellow and retired Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London Jacob Simon, this article touches on the vast history, craftsmanship, and purpose of picture frames in the Western tradition.

Courtesy of the Met. Fletcher Fund, 1936. 36.11.1.

Unknown, Marble grave stele of a young woman and servant, ca. 400–390 B.C. Marble, Pentelic. H. 70 1/16 in. (178 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.



Deriving out of necessity to differentiate tableaus featured on walls and pottery, the sole purpose of frames was to behave as strict borders between reality and the imagined. Either painted or carved reliefs, these frames were the genesis of encasing history. As craftsmanship and carpentry evolved, frames shifted into the three-dimensional space with four main types of construction.

Akin to carved reliefs, integral frames were an all-in-one object that the artist would paint directly on. The practice can be spotted in Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child by a follower of Quinten Masseys.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Follower of Quinten Massys, Detail of Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, 1518-1522. Oil on oak wood. National Gallery, London.

Other frame types include applied and engaged, defined, respectively, as a decorative border being attached to a finished work and the work being slotted and locked into place. Lastly, Rabbet frames—the most popular and most often used in contemporary framing—contain, as Smeaton describes, a “channel at the reverse of the frame in which an artwork rests.” This element gave the artist or patron the ability to freely pair and remove art to their liking. The Frame-maker’s Shop, attributed to Salomon de Bray, highlights the commercial benefits of this freedom.

As function progressed, frames became a protective tool of portability and regulated viewing, notably in triptychs or any other hinged altarpiece. However, frames did not solely exist to separate the viewer from the art.

Throughout varying artistic periods, the trompe l'oeil—which literally means to fool the eye—acted as a gesture for the observer to enter the painted scene. Thus, the frame no longer contained the art but blurred the lines of reality. Functioning as architectural elements, the frames are essential in offering the physical and tangible nuances of the work.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Memling, The Last Judgement, c.1466-1473. Oil on Panel. National Museum Gdańsk. 

When comparing Giovanni Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece, which remains in its original location to his San Giobbe Altarpiece, which was relocated to the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia, the crucial role of the frame becomes apparent. While still a stunning presentation of intricate design and perspective, the latter is stripped of essential dimensionality, which made the original cloister look larger and served as a subtle, emotional, and spiritual invitation for the viewer to fully embrace the community and teachings of the Catholic Church.

However, this is not the case for all relationships between the art and the frame. As Jacob Simon suggests, frames should not compete for attention, for “if [it] does not intrude on the experience of the viewer, that is positive.”

Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505. Oil on Panel. Church of San Zaccaria in Venice.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505. Oil on Panel. Church of San Zaccaria in Venice.

Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe Altarpiece, 1487. Oil on Panel. Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe Altarpiece, 1487. Oil on Panel. Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

While not the focal point, frames are an annex of the viewing experience. Smeaton explains that “design elements echo and reinforce composition.” Take the relationship between the eighteenth-century painting attributed to Francois Boucher, The Music Lesson, and its frame. Gleaning inspiration from the motifs of the Rococo period, the ornamentation of the frame situates its organic curvature and undulating swirls to effortlessly direct the viewer's attention to the sitters. Here, the pairing of the art and the frame allow for an all-encompassing and visually stimulating viewing experience.

In most instances today, people view art that has been taken out of the original, interior context to be placed on museum walls. Nevertheless, conservation and reframing efforts—a collaborative process between curators, frame shops, and researchers—seek to find the proper fit for the piece in question.

Courtesy of Musée Cognacq-Jay. CC0 1.0.

Attributed to François Boucher, The Music Lesson, c. 1749. Oil on Canvas. Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, France.

According to both Simon and Smeaton, a suitable frame choice should err on the side of historically accurate to the period of the painting. However, unless it's the original, the preference can be subjective to the owner's particular taste. While there are many instances of original pairings of frames and painting, such as Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of an Old Man—reframing has been practiced within public and private collections for centuries.

Smeaton proposes, “one of the things I think that prompts someone to reframe an artwork is to make it theirs… it's an act of ownership.” Because of this—in addition to fugacious identifying marks, records of provenance, and other substantial information regarding original picture frames can be difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, passionate researchers dedicate their scholarship to understanding more about these vessels of art history.

With styles and preferences ebbing and flowing with popular motifs, the history of frames is undoubtedly extensive. Most of the names of these craftspeople are lost to history, yet their legacy lives on with their work through arduous conservation and research efforts.

Despite the increased availability of scholarship over the past few decades, Smeaton muses that the lack of interest in frames from the public puts their due recognition at risk. Though frames are considered ancillary to some because “they don’t cry out to be acknowledged,” she urges those to indulge in curiosity and find steadfast appreciation. However, Simon proposes that frames should not be studied as solitary objects. Asserting, “I don’t see frame history as an independent subject but as an integral part of art history and that is the way the subject should be heading.”

About the Author

Subscribe to our free e-letter!


Latest News

10 Must-See Works at the Dallas Museum of Art
Working with curators at the DMA, we have selected 10 works from their…
Exploring 30 Years of Nicole Eisenman’s Rich Figurative Work
Nicole Eisenman: What Happened, an exhibition at the MCA Chicago, offers a…
Jane Fonda, Larry Gagosian and Christie's Bring Artists Together Against Big Oil
In efforts to hold fast against oil magnates, actress Jane Fonda has partnered…
Experience the Weightlessness of Richard Hunt's Early Works at White Cube
Richard Hunt: Early Masterworks at White Cube New York presents sculpture…
A Brief Look at Sun Symbolism Through Art History
With the solar eclipse expected on April 8, we're feeling the importance of the…