We look at the superb selection of 18th century French frames in the exhibition
When the Impressionists set off on their diverse roads to La nouvelle peinture, they were young, poor and disinclined to follow the conventions kept by the Salon – including those of framing and hanging. Their first exhibition together in 1874 displayed the paintings spaced well apart, instead of edge to edge like the jigsaw-puzzle walls of the Salon; by 1877 Pissarro and Degas were showing their work in white rather than gilded frames; and in 1879 and 1880 coloured frames appeared, in shades which complemented the overall colours of the paintings. Their construction was equally avante garde and simple: flat architrave profiles, or convex cushion mouldings.
Two corners of Degas’s frames with their respective profiles, taken from drawings in his sketchbooks, Bibliothèque Nationale, Département des Estampes, Paris; the fluted architrave frame, upper right, was originally painted white.
Hardly any of these original frames now survive, unfortunately, for reasons which are straightforwardly commercial. The main clients for Impressionist paintings in the late 19th – early 20th century were usually rich and frequently American. They were the entrepreneurs of industrialization: the Hearsts, Vanderbilts, Palmers, Carnegies, Morgans; they had built palaces of opulence from Detroit to Boston, and wanted to fill them with beautiful furniture and art… and their taste was often for the architecture and interior decoration of 18th century France.
They bought Italian, French and Dutch Old Masters in the origianl antique frames (where these remained), but 18th century British works in their severer NeoClassical frames, and 19th French Impressionists with their bizarre colours and simplicity, would never have fitted comfortably into interiors full of curvaceous Louis XIV tables and Rococo armchairs. The dealers of the time – Durand-Ruel, then Duveen and later Knoedler – either at the request of their clients or, more probably, under their own initiative, began stripping the paintings of their original frames and setting them in something with greater presence.
18th century grand-luxe French frames were ideally suited to the ‘Neo Louis’ mansions of late 19th and early 20th century America; and they were of standard sizes which often fitted later works, even in a metric age. Perhaps they had become divorced from their own paintings as Europe moved towards a plainer aesthetic, or perhaps they were themselves 18th century collectors’ frames, lovingly applied to Rembrandts or Ruisdaels only to be dislodged later in favour of replica ebonized patterns. And, if there were no antique frames available of the right style and period, there were still carvers and gilders in France who could produce beautifully crafted and highly finished frames in the style of Louis XIV and Louis XV (hence the number of early 20th century ‘Duveen’ frames in American collections).
Sterling and Francine Clark’s collection of Impressionist paintings is particularly rich in superbly crafted antique French frames (with the odd early 20th century dealer’s frame, Salon pattern, etc). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best of these antique models now frame works by Renoir: his Girl with a fan and Thérèse Bérard are framed respectively in a Louis XIII/Louis XIV acanthus-&-flower frame, and a Louis XIV ogee corner-&-centre frame. These are very happy marriages: Renoir, who began his career painting scenes on porcelain and falling in love with the art of Boucher and Fragonard, had never rejected gilded frames himself, and would probably have approved the exquisite workmanship of these patterns, which enhance the Boucher-like elements in his own work.
Renoir, Girl with a fan, c.1879
The frame on Girl with a fan is carved in high relief with a variety of flowers between scroll-tipped acanthus leaves – narcissi, roses and peonies – echoing the great plume of asters in the painting, and the girl’s flower-trimmed bonnet. The background of the convex moulding where the flowers sit has been cross-hatched into the layer of gesso between the wood of the frame and the gilded surface, in the technique known as quadrillage, and the same technique has been used to incise the veins of the leaves and the detail of the petals. This is the product of a labour-intensive craft: a work of luxury, designed for an aristocrat’s portrait, but equally well-suited to a 19th century coquette.
Renoir, Girl with a fan, detail of frame
Thérèse Bérard has found a similarly happy partnership. The wide shallow ogee of this frame, with its finely carved scrolls and strapwork ornament, forms a shimmering halo around the portrait; the light catches the calligraphic detail of the decoration as the spectator moves before the painting, creating an illusion of movement, and helping to throw light onto the picture surface. Although this is at the furthest extreme from the frame designs imagined by Degas and Pissarro, again it suits the 18th cast to Renoir’s work.
Renoir, Thérèse Bérard, 1879
Different types of quadrillage – hatching, cross-hatching, diapering and punching – have been used to lend texture and pattern to selected areas of the background, so that the surface vibrates like a rich brocade, and is echoed by the lace in the portrait.
Renoir, Onions, 1881
The slightly later Louis XIV frame on Renoir’s Onions may seem rather more of a mismatch for its subject. Reportedly Sterling Clark’s favourite amongst his Renoirs, this is the humble subject heroized and aggrandized by the precious garment it now wears.
Renoir, Onions, detail of frame
A close-up of one of the centre cartouches shows the fine detail of the ornament, from the veined foliate scrolls to the tiny leaf buds at the sight edge, now paired in all its gilded opulence with the bronzes and greens of a peasant still life. It would be nice to think that this was a joke by the collector against himself and the richness (in all senses) of his collection…
Also to be noted in this exhibition, the antique frames on Daumier’s The print collectors, Fantin-Latour’s Roses in a bowl and dish, Gauguin’s Young Christian girl, Renoir’s Blonde bather, and Stevens’s Memories and regrets; also the very effective geometric frame of Carolus-Duran, The artist’s gardener – possibly American rather than European.
Candidates for reframing include the chocolate box reproduction pattern on Bouguereau’s Seated nude, which would be far better suited by a Salon frame, and an unpleasantly orange fluted frame on Mary Cassatt’s Offering the panal to the bullfighter.
All images courtesy of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.