Review: ‘John Singer Sargent & the framing of his pictures’

by The Frame Blog

The ninth and final volume of the great catalogue raisonné of Sargent’s works, which was begun in 1947 by David McKibbin, passed to Richard Ormond in 1978, and has been issued in successive installments by Yale UP since 1998 [1], was published in 2016.

Jacob Simon, ‘John Singer Sargent & the framing of his pictures’, in Richard Ormond & Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and landscapes, 1914-1925: The complete paintings, Vol. IX, published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre, 2016, ISBN
9780300177374; £60.00

It includes a splendidly wide-ranging essay on Sargent’s frames by Jacob Simon, which continues the openness of the Paul Mellon Centre to an aspect of artists’ work which has not otherwise been often recognized in the generality of catalogues raisonnés [2]. This essay is a much longer and even more fully researched version of a piece first published in 1998 on the website of the National Portrait Gallery, and updated several times since; and it has the advantage, not only of room for a greatly expanded text, but also of many more illustrations of frame corners and some whole framed works from various collections worldwide. Both essays follow Sargent’s work and his frames through chronological sections, the present article categorizing them most clearly by the country in which he was currently based; this allows the reader to appreciate how much of an international painter he really was, and how this expressed itself equally in the frame styles and mixture of antique, new and replica patterns which he chose. Framemakers, their work, addresses and labels (where they survive) nestle within these sections, so that his changing choices of craftsmen to alter old frames and provide new ones is equally clear.

The survey of Sargent’s framing styles begins with his training in Paris under Carolus-Duran from 1874, when he was eighteen and his master only thirty-six. Carolus-Duran had something of a similar international slant to Sargent, having studied in Spain and Italy; he also attracted numerous foreign students to his studio. His portraits combine acute realism with flair, an informal and fluid technique, and the influence (and use of luscious blacks) of Velázquez; all of which profoundly affected Sargent.

Carolus-Duran (1837-1917), Les rieuses (Merrymakers), 1870, o/c, 35 ½ x 55 ins (90.2 x 139.7 cm.),  Detroit Institute of Arts

Carolus-Duran was conventionally academic in his choice of frames, however, and the original ‘Salon’ or ‘Barbizon’ frame on the painting above typifies the generally accepted style for exhibition works in the third quarter of the 19th century.  The Paris Salons were still settings where a wide golden margin was necessary, to project the painting out of the solid walls of pictures, hung edge to edge from the dado rail to the ceiling.

Edouard Dantan (1848-97), Un coin du Salon en 1880, 1880, o/c, 38.2 x 51.2 ins (97.2 x 130.2 cm.), Private collection

French moulded frames of this period were made from plaster rather than the composition used for applied decoration in Britain, and the finish it gave was usually crisp and beautifully defined. The wooden moulds from which the ornament was cast were expertly carved and almost indestructible, so, once made, they could be used again and again, bringing down the cost of a frame with multiple orders of enrichment to very affordable levels, and filling the exhibition halls with paintings which were noticeably aggrandized by their presentation.

Sargent (1856-1925), In the Luxembourg Gardens, 1879, o/c, 25 7/8 x 36 3/8 ins (65.7 x 92.4 cm.), & detail, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jacob Simon notes a number of early works by Sargent which are framed in variations on the ‘Salon’ frame; one is the revival Louis XIV-style, above, with undulating acanthus leaves, florets and leaf-buds on a bird’s beak profile (convex at the front, concave at the back). This was a popular academic French frame, and can be found from the mid-19th century on paintings as diverse as Millet’s Gleaners and Manet’s Olympia, where in both cases it brings the dignity of its Old Master associations to – in the first example –  unpastoral Realism, and – in the second – to the under-cutting of those Renaissance associations. Sargent, however, presumably uses it in an entirely uncomplicated way, as the fashionable exhibition frame it had become.

Sargent (1856-1925), Mme Edouard Pailleron, 1879, National Gallery of Art, Washington; & a detail of the latter (right) with Carolus-Duran’s Mme Edgar Stern (left), 1889, Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris

Another type of ‘Salon’ frame contains the portrait of Mme Edouard Pailleron, above: a 19th century updating of a garland frame with a reverse profile. There are strong echoes of Italian Renaissance fruit and foliate tondo frames in this pattern, as well as of French Louis XIII garland frames; but here the motifs which would originally have had a religious or emblematic significance – pomegranates, pears, figs, etc. – are employed solely for their aesthetic effect, or at most for an impression of abundance and richness. This frame is stamped with the maker’s mark of A. Hubert, very helpfully resurrected here.

Paris in 1864: rue de Notre Dame des Champs at bottom left; the Ile de la Cité outlined in the centre; the Quai des Gesvres just above it. From Old Maps of Paris (detail)

In Paris in the 18th century there had been some notable carvers and gilders clustered on and around the Ile de la Cité, and on the nearby Quai des Gesvres on the north bank. Albert Hubert turns out to be the 19th century version, a framemaker whose business lay slightly to the south of these addresses and just below the Jardin de Luxembourg, in rue Notre Dame des Champs, where both Sargent’s and Carolus-Duran’s studios were located. This was a district which was also conveniently  near to the Louvre, where the Salon took place on alternate years.

Carolus-Duran (1837-1917),  Mademoiselle de Lancey, 1876, o/c, 157 x 211 cm., & reverse with stamp of ‘A. Hubert’, Salon of 1877, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris

As the essay notes, Hubert framed works by Carolus-Duran, including Mme Edgar Stern (a detail above with Sargent’s Mme Pailleron). The exceedingly flirtatious Portrait of  Mademoiselle de Lancey also retains its original frame with Hubert’s stamp – still, after 150 years, appearing fresh and clear on the reverse. This latter pattern is distinctive; a step away from the usual style of ‘Salon’ frame, it is reminiscent of the 19th century ‘Prado’ gallery frame with its raking leaf (although placing the leaf in a concave, rather than on a convex moulding). Since Carolus-Duran had studied in Spain, this might even be a conscious nod to the Spanish cast of the sitter’s dress and hair.

Sargent (1856-1925), El Jaleo, c.1880-82, o/c, 91 5/16 x 137 ins (232 x 348 cm.), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Sargent’s own famously Spanish subject is his El Jaleo, now set within a dramatic Moorish arched niche in the ‘Spanish Cloister’ of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  This double ‘framing’ by the museum includes an arrangement of antique Spanish ceramics and furnishings on the floor of the niche, extending, in some sense, the interior space of the painting, and (also in some sense) thus over-riding the boundary of the frame. Jacob Simon remarks of the latter that,

‘…there was no patron to satisfy, giving the artist full control. It is very likely that this exceptional frame is the one in which the picture was shown at the Salon in 1882, and in any case it can be seen in a photo of 1901. The frame, a very wide, plain inward-sloping flat, with twisting foliage on the outer top edge, was clearly designed with the picture in mind, almost like a proscenium in a theatre…’ [3]

It is an idiosyncratic design, in that – like the inversion of a mediaeval rainsill frame – the mouldings are identical on three sides of the painting, but at the bottom the canted frieze is replaced by a flat frieze, parallel with the picture plane, and the corner junctions with the bottom of the lateral rails are disguised by pedestal-like bases to what might (in an earlier, altarpiece frame) be the pilaster panels. It is a remarkable ‘staging’ of a painted scene, relying on a very modern use of flat gilded surfaces for its effect, rather than on a revival Baroque frame to enhance its Spanishness [4].

Sargent in his studio in Paris, c.1884, photo, Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art; with the portrait superimposed of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883-84, o/c, 82 1/8 x 43 ¼ ins (243.2 x 143.8 cm.), in current frame, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sargent, details of Madame X in original frame, above, and current frame, below

Shortly after El Jaleo came the scandalous Madame X [5]. The studio photograph of Sargent, above, shows the original frame in great detail; compared with the current frame, it was nearly a third as wide again, with five orders of ornament and a wide cushion frieze decorated with a centred, ribbon-bound garland of imbricated bay leaves and berries. When gilded, it must have presented the portrait in an astonishing halo of opulence – and possibly this added to the Parisian conniptions over the sitter’s provocatively dropped shoulder strap, disdainful pose, courtesan-like pale make-up and flauntingly hour-glass shape. Perhaps the fact that she was surrounded by a great golden wreath of bay leaves, garlanding her as the victor on the field of beauty, caused an attack of what is now known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in the respectably bourgeoise bosoms of visitors to the Salon? A footnote to the paragraph on this painting in the article records that Sargent reframed it sometime before 1907 [6], possibly feeling that by doing this and repainting the strap he had toned it down sufficiently, this portrait which ‘I suppose…is the best thing I have done’ [7].

Sargent (1856-1925),  Mrs Albert Vickers, 1884, o/c, 82 ¾ x 39 13/16 ins (210.19 x 101.12 cm.), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

Sargent (1856-1925),  The Misses Vickers, 1884, o/c, 54 ¼ x 72 ins, Sheffield City Art Galleries

Sargent was to leave Paris for England a couple of years after the affair of Madame X, borne on the fortuitous wings of British commissions, initially from Thomas Vickers (whom Dickens might have called a steelmaster) and his brother, Albert, whose foundry and satellite businesses dominated Sheffield. The group portrait of three of Thomas’s daughters and the full-length painting of Albert’s wife were both given ‘Watts’ frames, which were different in practically every respect from the richly ornamented ‘Salon’ frames and copies of Baroque patterns used by Sargent whilst in Paris. The ‘Watts’ frame was a thoroughly British, and thoroughly fashionable design; it used compo decoration, which was less defined and detailed than French plaster ornament, and a frieze of oak veneer, gilded directly onto the wood – a world away from the use of matte and burnished water-gilding on plaster that Sargent was used to [8]. These frames were probably chosen by the clients [9].

Label of W.A. Smith, reverse of the frame of Mrs Albert Vickers

They were made (on the evidence of the label on the back of Mrs Vickers) by W.A. Smith, who seems to have worked for, before taking it over at the beginning of the 1870s, the business of Joseph Green, principal framemaker to the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. Some of the latter (Rossetti, Frederic Sandys, Leighton, Lear and Burne-Jones) moved to Green’s other great rival, Foord & Dickinson, but others, like Watts (and to some extent Holman Hunt) continued to patronize W.A. Smith. Jacob Simon records a number of Sargent’s portraits which were framed by Smith [10].

Sargent’s studio at 33 Tite Street, London (no 31 continues at the left)

Two years after the furore over Madame X, Sargent had moved into Whistler’s old studio at 33 Tite Street, Chelsea, where he was live for almost forty years, eventually knocking through from no 33 (the studio) into no 31, which became his residence.

Sargent (1856-1925),  Carnation, lily, lily, rose, 1885-86, o/c, 174 x 153.7 cm., Tate Britain; recreation of original frame; details of latter (top right) with detail of Carolus Duran, Mme Edgar Stern, 1889, Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris (left)

His first exhibition work, begun after the move, was Carnation, lily, lily, rose, painted extremely slowly and in short bursts for the few minutes each day when l’heure bleue provided the lighting he wanted. It was framed in a style analogous to some of the earlier ‘Salon’ frames, the garland pattern which he and Carolus-Duran had used for exhibitions and commissions from important patrons, but, the essay points out, it ‘is somewhat less refined than Sargent’s Paris Salon frames. It was presumably made in London, perhaps by Smith’ [11]. The technique and style of the French versions is different in several respects from those used in the British frame; however, the latter, with its spiralling leaf-&-stave and three further varied foliate ornaments around the main torus of fruits and leaves, supports the painted plants and flowers in a strikingly appropriate halo of rippling gold. The present frame is a recreation of the original, as the latter

‘…was badly damaged when the basement of the Tate Gallery was flooded by the Thames between the wars.  Three original members remain in the store, and a completely new replica was made for display.  The original was made with composition ornament.  The replica was a pine moulding like the original, but with plaster ornament cast from the surviving elements, in order to retain the character of the better preserved fragments of the original compo, and it was oil and water gilded with quite a lot of burnished areas.’[12]

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The triumph of the innocents, 1883-84, o/c, 156.2 x 254 cm., Tate Britain 

However, in terms of British frames, whilst this style might be one choice for reframing an Old Master, it was perhaps less so for academic art, where the favoured types had been different (but also less finely-made) revival Baroque patterns. The mood – and the mode – had moved on in Britain, and artists such as Holman Hunt, a generation older than Sargent, were helping to recast the fashionable exhibition frame. The nearest contemporary use of a garland frame is possibly Hunt’s own design of pomegranates and proto-Art Nouveau leaves, hand-carved in giltwood  two years before Carnation, lily… for both versions of The triumph of the innocents.

Sargent (1856-1925),  Mrs Henry Marquand, 1887, o/c,  66 9/16 x 42 1/8 ins (169 x 107 cm.), Princeton University Art Museum

Sargent travelled to the US for nine months from 1887 to 1888, where he was extraordinarily prolific in his execution of society portraits; and the essay follows him, remarking on the frames of  various paintings. The design used for his first portrait, of Mrs Marquand – the reason for his trip – is a floridly Baroque torus of sculptural, curvetting acanthus leaves. Very much of its time and place, it is in a style as distant from French ‘Salon’ frames as the British ‘Watts’ frame. Its size, plasticity and animation contrast with the stasis and restraint of Mrs Marquand’s portrait, whilst its tone harmonizes with the painted background. Jacob Simon links its execution with the frame- and looking-glass- maker Thomas Wilmurt, whose shop was relatively near to Sargent’s studio, and whose label is found on other portraits by him.

Sargent (1856-1925),  Mrs Benjamin Kissam, 1888, Biltmore House, Asheville

One of these is the portrait of Mrs Kissam in the Vanderbilt mansion, Biltmore House; this has a reverse ogee frame covered with chunkily carved cross-cut acanthus leaves in a style reminiscent of Baroque Bolognese frames. Like the previous frame it provides an historically-flavoured foil to the swirling lilac silk and pink complexion of Mrs Kissam, and harmonizes with the patterned lace of her undergown. Sargent appeared to have found in Wilmurt another Albert Hubert, whose work would complement his, and who was patronized by a great many of Sargent’s American peers. Wilmurt’s premises also operated in a small way as an exhibition space, or dealership: he appeared as one of the ‘Permanent exhibitions and sales galleries’, listed in ‘Art attractions of New York’ in 1889:

‘T. A. Wilmurt, at his picture-framing establishment, 54 East 13th st., usually has pictures on hand for sale.’ [13]

Entry on Thos A. Wilmurt in Richard Edwards, New York’s great industries, 1884, p. 174

Frame label of Thos A. Wilmurt, New York

Wilmurt framed the work of a great many contemporary American artists; for example, Albert Pinkham Ryder patronized him, writing to Marian Bloodgood, who had commissioned his Landscape in the Metropolitan Museum,

‘I was in Wilmarts [sic] yesterday and saw a French frame that he will reproduce for twenty dollars, which I think very reasonable for a frame of that pattern. I would suggest for your consideration that the leaf in the four corners be a little larger or have more spread.

Of course your own choice or selection would be in every way agreeable to me…’ [14]

Ryder’s Death on a pale horse in the Cleveland Museum of Art has a frame which almost certainly also came from Wilmurt; it is a very much simplified version of the lusher and more fluidly-carved frame on Sargent’s Mrs Benjamin Kissam.

Sargent (1856-1925), Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, o/c, 221 x 114.3 cm., Tate Britain

The only design remarked upon in Sargent’s brief return to London from 1888 to 1889 is the outstanding attributive frame of his portrait of Ellen Terry in the rôle of Lady Macbeth, in which she wore a gown covered with hundreds of glittering green beetles’ carapaces. This frame uses a frieze decorated with Celtic interlacing, cassettes with Celtic knots, and a panel at the top centre with an elaboration of the interlacing. The link to Owen Jones’s 1856 Grammar of Ornament as a source for this braided ornament is credited to Stephen Huxley of the Tate [15].

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), Proserpine, 1874, o/c, 125.1 x 61 m., Tate Britain

Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth; Rossetti, Proserpine; details of frames

Interestingly, the cassettes on Sargent’s frame, set parallel with the picture plane on a frieze which is canted back to the wall, echo in this juxtaposition of flat and slanted surfaces Rossetti’s medallion frames, which he had continued to use up to his death in 1882. The frame of Proserpine in the Tate, for example (the painting of another muse with long ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ hair, in another dramatic dress of deep blue-green) shows a clear source for this geometric opposition, which does not appear to have occurred elsewhere. Since Sargent still apparently thought Rossetti ‘the greatest modern artist’ twenty years after his death [16], perhaps the fact that for a unique and idiosyncratic frame design he might turn to Pre-Raphaelite examples, and to the book of ornament which had provided so much source material for their decoration, is not so surprising.

Sargent (1856-1925), Henry Cabot Lodge, 1890, o/c, 50 x 33 ¼ ins (127 x 84.5 cm.), & detail, National Portrait Gallery, Washington 

In America again from late 1889 to late 1890, Sargent had his own individual frame pattern designed for him by Stanford White, the multifarious designer, architect, and dealer in objets d’art, paintings and antique frames. White created frames mainly for his friends, and for love rather than money; they fall into groups, concentrated on the work of the specific painter (such as Abbott Thayer), but might – with adaptations – be used for other artists, although only under White’s control. He broke with the son of his long-time framemaker, Joseph Cabus, when this son, Alexander, poached White’s designs without permission [17].

In the case of Sargent’s frame, the essay notes that it was a variation on a design produced for Thomas Dewing [18]. Like most of White’s frames, it is eclectic, drawing on 17th century Netherlandish and German designs, from which it takes the tiered structure with internal outset corners and centres, and the defining back edge, with two runs of ripple moulding.  The frieze is embossed with a collage of broken strigillated patterns, found on 17th century Italian Mannerist frames, from which White has also derived the gadrooned sight moulding. Like his interiors, which included assorted architectural elements and objects with no chronological or topological relationship, these various components – having been chivvied together – provide a surprisingly happy and settled whole, surrounding the portrait in a broad shallow border of rich gold, which shunts the picture plane almost imperceptibly nearer to the viewer. The gadroons direct the attention inwards, and the eight outset tablets highlight focal points in the portrait. The unusual broken strigillation on the frieze sets up a subtle shimmer of light and movement.  Jacob Simon suggests that this frame was made for White by Joseph Cabus, before the débâcle with his son [19].

Sargent (1856-1925), Edwin Booth, 1890,  The Players Club, New York; now reframed & in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

He also records other frames made on this visit of Sargent’s to America, which seem, with two notable exceptions, to be either the kind of Baroque revival styles previously used, or Stanford White’s outset corner design. One of the exceptions is another Stanford White creation, but in this case it is an integral architectural frame, produced for the Players’ Club, the equivalent of the Garrick in London. This private club was founded by the actor Edwin Booth, and presented with his own house as its location; the frame was for his portrait by Sargent, and was designed as the overmantel in a Stanford White interior. Sadly, the portrait has since been parted from its frame and sold to a museum, but when it was still a complete work of art, it was in the tradition of images of David Garrick himself, with trophies on the entablature of theatrical masks.

Sargent (1856-1925), La Carmencita, 1890, o/c, 229 x 140 cm., & detail, Musée d’Orsay

The other exceptional frame from 1890 is the enriched torus frame on the stunning portrait of La Carmencita’s golden frock, the main ornament of which is the spiral acanthus leaf-&-stave moulding found on ‘Salon’ frames used by Carolus-Duran and Sargent, and on the British version for Carnation, lily, lily, rose.

Spiral leaf mouldings (top left to bottom right) on Carolus-Duran, Mme Edgar Stern; Veronese, Christ & the centurion, Prado; Sargent, Carnation, lily…; Sargent, La Carmencita; details

It is also reminiscent of the Prado gallery frame with which both men would have been familiar – the same leaf appearing to wind around a convex moulding – and which Carolus-Duran seems to have converted to decorate a concave moulding on the Spanishified Mlle de Lancey [20]. Since La Carmencita carries the influence of Manet’s Spanish Lola de Valence, which Sargent would have seen in Manet’s posthumous retrospective of 1884, or at the 1889 Expo Universelle, it is interesting to speculate how the latter painting might originally have been framed.

La Carmencita’s particular spiral leaf-&-stave, strongly raked from the centre of each rail, gives the effect of a powerful optical recession into the portrait, kidnapping the attention of any nearby spectator; the emphatic contrast of light and shade produced by the undercut spiral also creating a starburst of glittering movement around the picture.  Like the frame of El Jaleo, it is a showman’s frame.

Sargent (1856-1925), Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, o/c, 127 x 101 cm., & detail, National Galleries of Scotland

Except for a brief period in 1895, when he returned to America, Sargent spent the 1890s in London, and seems to have exchanged his general preference for revival patterns for the real thing. Jacob Simon quotes his exchange with Lady Agnew’s husband, the year after her portrait was completed and when bound for The Royal Academy:

‘Today I saw an old frame which I think might suit the picture.’ [21]

The ‘old frame’ is a very beautiful Louis XV pattern, tipping minimally into Rococo with its rocaille centres; it gives Lady Agnew the presence of a Fragonard beauty, and must have played some part in the painting’s enthusiastic reception on exhibition. Sargent was not alone in this recycling of antique frames; Delacroix had been doing exactly the same sixty-odd years earlier:

‘I have finished an ‘animal’ picture for the General and I have found for it a Rococo frame which I’m going to regild and which will be marvellous…’[22]

…and Philip de László, similarly, forty years later:

‘…I always prefer to paint in the frame, and if possible choose a genuine old one.’ [23]

Map of London (Supplement to The Illustrated London News, May 24, 1862), showing the locations of Sargent’s framemakers: F.C. Buck, 59 Wigmore St (top left); W.A. Smith/Smith & Uppard, Mortimer St (top right); C.M. May, St Anne’s Ct, Wardour St (lower right)

The essay quotes critical comment on the number of antique frames appearing in the Royal Academy a few years after Lady Agnew was hung there, and on Sargent’s habit of buying old frames at auction; it similarly notes other references by Sargent himself on the subject, made to friends and clients. Sargent referred as well to Fredrick Charles Buck, the same carver, gilder, framemaker and art dealer who procured and altered antique frames for De László and others (although the frame for Lady Agnew seems to have been cut to fit by Smith & Uppard, the second incarnation of W.A. Smith) [24].

Sargent (1856-1925), Mrs Hugh Hammersley, 1892, o/c, 81 x 45 ½ ins (205.7 x 115.6 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Another example of this trend is the very different German or Austrian Rococo frame on Mrs Hugh Hammersley, which complements the verticality and general slenderness of sitter, frock and furniture, the crest and corners seeming to echo Mrs Hammersley’s coiffure and ruff. Jacob Simon mentions the possible relationship of French and French-style frames to the houses of Sargent’s clients, although,

‘perhaps the broader sense that he was providing frames of a grand style for splendid interiors is closer to the mark.’

Sargent (1856-1925), Richard Morris Hunt (left) and Frederick Law Olmsted (right, 1895, Biltmore House, Asheville

Buck also provided antique frames to be shipped to America for Sargent’s expedition there in 1895, when he went back to the Vanderbilt mansion in Carolina to paint the architect and the garden designer of Biltmore House. These cost £25 each, with additional expenses for restoring and/or altering [25].

Sargent, Richard Morris Hunt (top) and Frederick Law Olmsted (bottom); details

Both are Italian – a cassetta with stopped-channel fluting on the top edge, and marbled panels with gilded rosettes at corners & centres and polychrome carved rosettes on the frieze, for Hunt; and a Baroque interrupted leaf pattern bolection frame for Olmsted. The cassetta in particular gives Hunt the élan of a Moroni, and the acanthus leaves on Olmsted’s portrait reflect the rhododendron plantation where he stands, and bind the painting to the furnishings of the Biltmore interior.

Sargent (1856-1925), An interior in Venice, o/c, 66 x 83.5 cm., Royal Academy

Buck may also have framed Sargent’s Diploma picture for the Royal Academy, An interior in Venice of 1899 (accepted 1900). This is housed in an 18th century British Louis XIV-style frame, altered to fit  and regilded. Although the subject has an Italian Baroque setting, it fits remarkably well into this British take on a French Baroque style, since the small size of the picture means that the delicate carved curlicues and strapwork echo the painted details of looking-glasses, tables and chandelier. Diploma paintings have an ambivalent relationship with their frames, since their authors are at once wanting to present the best of their work to the institution, and reluctant to give away an expensive frame. Sargent was not, of course, at this point (if ever) in a needy situation, but the use of an antique frame in this case may have been because it was intended as a gift for Mrs Curtis (in the foreground), who, however, did not approve his treatment either of her or her son (in the background) [26].

Sargent (1856-1925), Sir Frank Swettenham, 1904, o/c, 76 ¼ x 43 ½ ins (170.8 x 110.5 cm.), National Portrait Gallery

For other than these antique frames, Sargent patronized C. M. May, a Soho framemaker from the early 1870s to the turn of the century, who also worked for Whistler, Byam Shaw and Luke Fildes, amongst others (see map, further above) [27]. He, or his son, produced the frame above, for Sir Frank Swettenham, in full Baroque Spanish style – a type which continued in popularity during the 20th century, being produced by various framemakers for Philip de László for his portrait of Jerome K. Jerome, 1921; Gerald Brockhurst in for his Ophelia, c.1937; Frank Salisbury for his Montgomery of Alamein, 1945; and Sir William Orpen for several works.

Sargent (1856-1925), Elizabeth Chanler (Mrs Chapman), 1893, o/c, 49 3/8 x 40 ½ ins (125.4 x 102.9 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum

Jacob Simon remarks on the use by May of French plaster, rather than British compo; a use which made these frames less brittle and longer-lasting, and would have helped the sharpness and focus of their detail [28]. He has also grouped Sargent’s later British frames into ‘six patterns [used] in London in the course of fifteen years, three of which were definitely made by May.’ [29] One of the latter was used for the portrait above; it is a Baroque reverse frame, developed from a 16th century compound moulding and using motifs from a Venetian model, but larger, weightier, and more emphatic than its source. It was also used for Sargent’s portrait of Baron Russell of Killowen  (illustrated in the essay with a corner), another painting where the sitter is dressed in black: the complex interplay of profile and ornament is the perfect foil to a restrained, principally monochromatic colour scheme.

Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait of the Acheson sisters, 1902, o/c, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Other groups of frames for Sargent, probably made by C.M. May, include the revival French Baroque design on The Acheson sisters and on some other group portraits; and a version of a ‘Maratta’ which seems mainly to have been used for male portraits.

Map of London (Supplement to The Illustrated London News, May 24, 1862), showing Tite Street (bottom right) with Sargent’s studio & house; and a stretch of the King’s Road (left) with the business of Chapman Bros (Carlyle Square not yet in place in 1862)

Frame label of Chapman Bros, King’s Road, Chelsea

Sargent (1856-1925), Earl Haig, c.1922, o/c, 56 x 41 cm. (study for General Officers of WWI, National Portrait Gallery), Scottish National Portrait Gallery

At the other end of the scale of grandeur, Chapman Bros, one learns, was the source of Sargent’s less aristocratic, more run-of-the-mill frames from the turn of the century: for drawings, landscapes and sketches (for example, the study of Earl Haig, above), as well as the firm employed to alter the frames obtained for his personal pictures.

This business was relatively close to Sargent’s studio, and the diverting towards it of the lower end of his vast output must have relieved some pressure from May. The essay notes this varied scale in the status of paintings and frames, and comments,

‘Quite how decisions were reached on framing portraits is documented only when Sargent needed to correspond with a patron. But there will usually have been a discussion in the studio on the choice of an antique or a modern frame and the particular pattern, a conversation in which Sargent will have played a leading part.’ [30]

Sargent (1856-1925), Mrs Charles Pelham Curtis, 1903, o/c, 59 7/8 x 35 ¼ ins, & detail, Portland Museum of Art

Whilst on a further trip to America in 1903, Sargent began to use Charles Prendergast, an independent Boston framemaker who carved to his own designs, but seems to have developed a revival vocabulary, possibly specifically for Sargent’s commissions. The reverse profile frame of Mrs Curtis has a sketchy version of Sargent’s frequently-used spiral leaf moulding, and a large-scale alternating American bellflower. It is quite an emphatic frame for the gauzily-clad Mrs Curtis, but presumably she or her husband wanted a less European style than those Sargent usually chose. Prendergast made at least two other versions of this frame for Sargent’s clients, but was also able to copy the Italian Baroque frame used in 1901 on a portrait of Mrs William Endicott, for the 1907 portrait of her husband [31].

Sargent (1856-1925), The Rialto, Venice, 1911, o/c, 22 x 36 ¼ ins (55.9 x 92.1 cm.), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sargent (1856-1925), Dolce far Niente, c.1907, o/c, 16 ¼ x 28 ¼ ins (41.3 x 71.7 cm.), Brooklyn Museum, New York

The essay also takes account of the frames used by Sargent for his later landscape paintings; i.e. those of the 20th century, which he exhibited – for example, ‘Salvator Rosa’ frames, such as the Baroque Italian example on The Rialto, top, and the replica, ‘purpose made, generally in compo, probably by May or Chapman’, of which an example is that on Dolce far Niente, lower image [32].

Sargent (1856-1925), The mountains of Moab, 1905, o/c, 65.4 x 111.1 cm., Tate

He also used 18th century Rococo panel frames ‘for a few works, most being exhibition landscapes on a larger scale’, such as this one on The mountains of Moab (apparently his first exhibited landscape painting), where the small-scale ornament and rich gilding beautifully echo the brushwork and colouring of the painting.

Sargent (1856-1925), John D. Rockefeller, 1917, Kykuit, New York, National Trust for Historic Preservation

A latish commission from John D. Rockefeller, the world’s richest person after Croesus, resulted in two three-quarter seated portraits. One was framed in a replica Louis XVI frame, and the other in the carved giltwood copy of an antique NeoClassical frame (above), decorated on the frieze with a guilloche rather splendidly enriched with a small piastre ornament. It would be so nice to think that this was Rockefeller’s conscious choice, rather than that he had been seduced by the description of the original frame as an ‘ “Empire carved wood frame”, supposedly from a portrait of Napoleon.’  ’[33] The frieze is supported by three more orders of ornament, and the whole frame flickers with animation, like a border of opulent braid. Both frames were executed by Lebrun, the Parisian  firm founded in 1847, which had opened a New York branch at the beginning of the 20th century [34].  With this link from his clients to Paris, Sargent was in some sense completing a circle, back to the ‘Salon’ frames of his youth, created by Albert Hubert to designs based on antique French Baroque frames.

This must be altogether the most detailed study of a single artist and his eclectic and international choices of frame; it covers every decade of his life, and his movements, country by country and patron by patron. It details his framemakers, their patterns and charges; and it uses invoices and correspondence to build an intricate picture of the very wide range of Sargent’s taste in frames, and the influence he exerted in the majority of cases on that of his clients. It’s an important addition to the literature on artists’ frames, and it’s also fascinating to read. If Bernard Partridge had been able to refer to it in 1906, there would have been no excuse for the faux pas in his cartoon ‘Desirable aliens’, which shows a very recognizable Sargent carrying his Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in a quite unrecognizable Rococo revival frame.

Bernard Partidge, ‘Desirable aliens: The “Venus and Cupid” of Velasquez, and Mr Sargent’s “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” were both last week secured for the National Collection’, Punch, 13 January 1906


Jacob Simon is a Research Fellow at the National Portrait Gallery in London.


[1] Richard Ormond & Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and landscapes, preface, p. 9

[2] Other Yale publications which consider the frame include two dealing with National Trust houses: David Adshead & David A.H.B. Taylor, eds, Hardwick Hall...,  and Christopher Rowell, ed., Ham House; an exhibition catalogue/accompanying book,  Susan Weber, ed., William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain; and three cats. raisonnés: Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown,  and Christiana Payne & Charles Brett, John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter

[3] Jacob Simon, ‘John Singer Sargent & the framing of his pictures’, in Ormond & Kilmurray, op.cit., p. 58

[4] Ibid. notes 20 & 21; pp. 74-75. The article notes three critical responses to the frame, in 1882 and 1883, after it was seen at the Paris Salon and on exhibition in New York, two of which remarked the ‘effect of light’ on the painting which it created

[5] The details of why this portrait created the fuss that it did, remained in Sargent’s studio for twenty years and moved him from Paris to London can be read on the Met’s website

[6] Simon, op. cit., note 25, p. 75

[7] Sargent to Ned Robinson, Director of the Met, 8 January 1916

[8] For more about the ‘Watts’ frame, see ‘G.F. Watts: framing myths and portraits

[9] Jacob Simon notes further paintings executed for the Vickers family, and the album of photos in the National Portrait Gallery Archive which record their various frames; Simon, op. cit., note 36, p. 75

[10] Ibid., p. 60

[11] Ibid., and note 45, p. 75

[12] Description by Gerry Alabone, previously head of the framing department at the Tate, who reconstructed the frame

[13] National Academy Notes including the Complete Catalogue of the Spring Exhibition, National Academy of Design, no 9, 1889, p. 156

[14] John Caldwell, Doreen Bolger, et al., American paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 3, 1980, p.111

[15] Simon, op. cit., note 59, p. 75. Owen Jones, The grammar of ornament, 1856, plates LXIII ‘Celtic No 1’; LXIV, ‘Celtic No 2’

[16] T. Sturge & Cecil Lewis, eds, Self-portrait taken from the letters & journals of Charles Ricketts, 1939, p. 74. Sargent also made a small bronze group (V & A) based on Rossetti’s drawing, How they met themselves

[17]Beyond Architecture: The Frame Designs of Stanford White, Part 2’

[18] Simon, op. cit., p.62

[19] Ibid. The conservation of a White frame, probably made by Joseph Cabus, is described in by Tatiana Shannon, in ‘Conserving a Stanford White frame

[20] The Symbolist painter Albert Besnard, who also travelled in Spain, used a related ornament – the same acanthus leaf spiralling around a fasces moulding – for a group of works; eg André Wormser, 1877

[21] Simon, op. cit.; note 85, p. 76, which points to vol. II, p. 66 of the catalogue raisonné, Portraits of the 1890s

[22] Eugene Delacroix: selected letters 1813-63, 1827

[23] National Portrait Gallery, De László Archive, 052-0052, A1933, 19.., 24/12/34

[24] For Buck, see the NPG website, ‘A note on Philip de László and picture framing’, and his entry in the Directory of British Framemakers

For Smith & Uppard also see the Directory. Lady Agnew’s frame has been cut at the top and bottom demi-centres, where the diapering in the gesso has not been particularly well restored.

[25] Simon, op. cit., p.66

[26] See the Royal Academy catalogue entry

[27] Directory, ibid. 

[28] Simon, op. cit., p.65

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 67

[31] Ibid., p. 69

[32] Ibid., p. 71

[33] Ibid., pp. 72-73

[34] Ibid.