Old Masters: Perfecting the Art of the Frame

Lot 42, "Portrait of a Gentleman, probably Johannes van Zell" by Abraham van Dyck, 1660, Doyle New York (January 27, 2016)

The importance of frames can be understated, but choosing the right one can be a meaningful part of integrating a new work of art into your home or collection. It can also help increase the sale value of your work.

The fundamental role of frames in experiencing a work of art emerged during the Old Masters period between the 16th and 19th centuries; in fact, frame makers often charged more than the artists themselves. And for good reason — frame makers during this time were required to be all-in-one sculptors, carvers, craftsmen, and artists.

During the Renaissance, the frame’s function moved away from simply serving as a boundary for the painting into a separate structure with its own artistic identity. In the following centuries, frames evolved to be more ornate and elaborate, keeping with the aesthetics of the Baroque and Rococo movements. These eras were arguably the highpoint of creativity for the frame industry.

Reframing a Work

When choosing a frame, you can either take the historic or aesthetic route, says Vincent Guerre, Artcurial specialist in Old Masters and frames, in collaboration with Artcurial auctioneer and specialist Matthieu Fournier. Putting an Old Master work in a period frame can help reflect the historical meaning of the work. On the other hand, different frames can also help bring out details of a painting.

“Louis XIII frames are perfect for Impressionist works and those from Louis XV’s reign do well with Renoir’s portraits,” say Guerre and Fournier.

Your frame can draw the viewer’s attention to important features in the work, such as patterns or colors, while also making the work part of its surrounding. A dramatic gilded frame can call attention to the use of light and shadow in a Baroque painting, while a simple wooden frame can help give a portrait an intimate feeling. More traditional rooms with dark walls and trim can complement an ornate frame, while modern rooms can benefit from a simpler frame.

Common Styles for Old Master Works

  • Gilded frames with ornate patterns and traditional molding are a popular choice for Old Master paintings because they reflect the art’s time period. They often come with a gold fillet for an added decorative element. These are best reserved for images that are not too busy stylistically, or for when your image calls for a dramatic flair.

Lot 241, 16th/17th-century Northern Italian gilded frame, Artcurial (January 20, 2016)

  • French frames, such as those made during the reigns of King Louis XIII and Louis XV, are especially valuable and sought after today by Old Masters collectors. For many, French frames from this period are considered to be the high point of gilding, a practice that fit perfectly with the Rococo aesthetics of the time.
    Though not all frames made during this period were gilded, most found at auction today are. Their delicately carved corners and brocade surfaces possess a beauty that has continued to charm collectors through the centuries.
  • Dark wood frames are desirable because they easily complement the furniture in the room, or they can warm up a work with cooler tones.

Lot 216, 18th-century Spanish dark wood frame, Artcurial (January 20, 2016)

  • Frames with dark wood and gilding create a striking contrast that would go well with a lush, intricate landscape. While the wood of the frame does well to accompany the outdoor scene, the gilding lends the painting an air of importance.

Lot 217, 17th-century Northern Italian gilded and dark wood frame, Artcurial (January 20, 2016)

While many collectors buy the artwork first, don’t be afraid to invest in a frame that speaks to you ahead of time. “Of course, the process is to first find the painting and then the frame that matches it. But nowadays, there are people who only collect frames,” says Guerre.

Consider Condition

Frame condition should also be taken into consideration before buying – “good condition,” he adds, means that its size and its gilding or polychromy is original. Condition is also classified depending on the percentage of restoration or intervention on the piece. Many frames created before the 19th century are hand-carved, making them rare and excellent finds when they are still in suitable condition.

Old Master frames are generally quite heavy due to the use of solid wood rails, while low quality reproduction frames are usually made from materials such as polyresin and are much lighter. A gilded frame should have a warm luster with various tones instead of a brassy-gold finish.

A good trick for evaluating the quality of a frame is to place the tip of your nail against the frame surface. If the nail is reflected, the gilding is most likely of high-quality gold. Additionally, a frame with a maker’s mark or that is signed and dated on the back can help identify the exact era and maker of the frame, and is valued more highly.

Keep in mind the story you would like to tell, whether you opt for a period piece or focus on the aesthetics of the surrounding room. And if you’re lucky, you don’t have to choose. “Sometimes,” says Guerre, “you can find the perfect match that includes both.”