The oval frame in 18th century France

by The Frame Blog

This article by Christian Michel was first published as ‘Les cadres ovales en France au XVIIIe siècle’ in Revue de l’Art in 1987 (no 76, pp. 51-52), and is republished here in an English translation by The Frame Blog, with extra illustrations

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-80), Vue du Salon de 1765, pencil, ink & watercolour, 9.84 x 18.11 ins (25 x 46 cm.), details, Musée du Louvre, département des Arts graphiques

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s view of the Salon of 1765 highlights the relative abundance of oval paintings on display, and the different types of frames used. The portraits, hung on the left wall, are mostly surrounded by what appear to be quite simple borders, with festoons, ribbons or wreaths at the crest.

Chardin: eight still life paintings in the 1765 Salon (Attributes of the Arts and Attributes of the Sciences, 2nd row; Attributes of Music, bottom centre). Image from Paris Salon Exhibitions: 1667-1880

On the other hand, the overdoors exhibited on the back wall (such as the Attributes of Sciences, Arts and Music by Chardin or the allegories by Lagrenée painted for Choisy) are held in rectangular frames with spandrels, with – it seems – more elaborate decoration. These two styles of frame correspond with the different rôles of oval paintings in interior decorative schemes.

Alexandre Serebriakoff (1907-94), Cabinet des Muses, Hôtel Lambert, watercolour; commissioned by the Baron de Redé, owner of the hôtel in the 20th century

The use of shaped paintings as elements of the decorative interior in state rooms dates back to the School of Fontainebleau in France. They  are fitted into panelling (like, for example, Le Sueur’s overdoors in the Cabinet des Muses of the Hôtel de Lambert), or into stucco decorations, as in Versailles in the Galerie des glaces.

Ceiling in the Galerie des glaces, Versailles

In the early 18th century, the oval was sparsely employed in decorative interiors, as it was considered too regular.

J.-F. Blondel, De la distribution des maisons de plaisance et de la décoration des édifices en général, vol. II, Paris, 1738, plate 67, Bibliothèque national de France

Joseph-Antoine Froelicher (1790-1866), elevation of the Grand Cabinet, Château de Barcy, 19th century record of 18th century interiors prior to demolition in 1861, Musée du Louvre, RF54259-recto

It seems to have been reserved in particular for overdoors, overmantels, or narrow panels between pilasters rising to the cornice; the latter is one of the only situations in which J.-F. Blondel uses oval-shaped canvases to fit the space [1], and it is also the solution used notably in the cabinet on the ground floor of the Château de Bercy [2].

In compensation for the simplicity and regularity of the oval shape, the frame becomes increasingly adorned with volutes, draped with garlands, surmounted by a cartouche or a mascaron, and often finished by another cartouche in the apron.

Gilles-Marie Oppenord (1672-1742), panel with oval centrepiece annotated ‘paysage’, dessin d’architecture et ornement, École nationale supéreure des Beaux-Arts, Paris; Inv. 0.762

A drawing by Oppenord at the École des Beaux-Arts reveals to what extent the painting is subordinated to the frame, and, beyond that, to the carved boiseries of the interior. The ‘paysage’ – never mind what kind of landscape it will depict – is to be given an oval moulding with an irregularly-shaped contour laden with ornaments, surrounded by arabesques and grotesques, and framed by a second gilded rectangular border.

Photo of the cabinet of the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, Place Vendôme, from Eugène Féral, Notice sur un très beau salon, décoré par N. Lancret, dont la vente aura lieu à Paris Galerie Georges Petit… 27 mai 1896, Bibliothèque national de France

Lancret (1690-1743), La balançoire, c. 1724, 95 x 88 cm., in original boiserie framing, from the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, no 6 in sale at Galerie Georges Petit, 1896; from E. Féral, sale cat., Bibliothèque national de France

Lancret (1690-1743 & Claude III Audran (1658-1734), La balançoire, c.1724, 37 ¾ x 35 ½ ins, reframed post-1896 as free-standing picture, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Similarly, Lancret painted scenes for the cabinet of the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, Place Vendôme (above) [3], which were intended to be set into the irregularly-shaped overdoors; Claude III Audran was then also commissioned to provide the painted arabesques which surround Lancret’s scenes and moderate their symmetry. The original oval frames also seem designed, with their decorative rocaille clasps, to disguise the shape of the canvas.

The emergence of irregularly-shaped frames around oval paintings in the first half of the 18th century, even in the case of easel paintings, can be linked to another branch of the decorative arts: armorial bearings and heraldic crests. It is very rarely that carvers and engravers are happy to present a coat of arms simply, as an oval shield.

Le Parmentier after Jacques de Lajoüe, frontispiece to the Oeuvres de Phps Wouwermans Hollandois, pub. Jean Moyreau, 1737, 35.7 x 47.4 cm., and detail, Rijksmuseum inv. RP-P-OB-71.548

Sometimes the shield itself is transformed into a cartouche, or more often surrounded by volutes and other motifs, creating a completely irregular outer contour [for example, in the comte de Clermont’s coat of arms as engraved by J. de Lajoue, above] [4]. It thus seems normal – or, at least, not unexpected – that portraits should also be framed similarly to the style in which these coats of arms (which are, after all, symbolic portraits) are framed.

Jean-Louis Roullet (1645-99) after Paul Mignard (1639-91), Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Lully, 17th century, engraving, 51.5 x 34.9 cm., Yale University Art Gallery

Guillaume Vallet (c.1634-1704) after Carlo Maratti (1625-1713), Portrait of Andrea Sacchi, 1662, republished 1702-52 by Jacob Frey, British Museum, inv. 1926,1030.6

Laurent Cars (1699-1771) after Hubert-François Gravelot (1699-1773), Portrait of Louis XV, 18th century, engraving, Bibliothèque national de France

Large-ish and irregularly-shaped carved frames are designed not only to contribute to the boiseries in an interior scheme, but to play their part in the conventions for the display of an oval image elsewhere. Portrait engraving in the 17th century favoured a depiction of the sitter, drawn with great refinement and accuracy, in an oval form; the rest of the plate – which could include a trompe l’oeil frame and pedestal, a plain hatched ground or the suggestion of a wall – was filled with regular, shallow strokes which revealed the detailed work of the burin [5]. By these means the portrait gained greater relief, and the difference in the spatial planes was emphasized. A deep border with overlapping mouldings and a Baroque profile also promoted the idea of the illusory ‘window-frame’ in a medium perhaps less well adjusted to suggest it.

Through a general evolution towards greater simplicity in frame design in the NeoClassical period – with flatter, classicizing profiles, fewer Baroque ornaments and parallel, linear mouldings – it became necessary, from the 1760s onwards, for woodcarvers to budget for many more oval paintings [6]. From that point, painters were no longer restricted to an oval format solely for portraits and decorative elements; and, as the oval painting became independent and ubiquitous, it also acquired frames which were designed to show off its shape.

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon de 1765, detail, Musée du Louvre

An oval frame without any auxiliary ornament is relatively rare, as demonstrated by Saint-Aubin’s view of the 1765 Salon.

Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The artist presenting a portrait to Madame Geoffrin, and detail, Veil-Picard Collection, see National Archives Catalog, note 7 (with thanks to Óli Þorvaldsson)

A view by Hubert Robert of Madame Geoffrin’s bedroom  [7], in which a number of small oval paintings are displayed on narrow panels, gives a different impression with its collection of very plain mouldings; however, the oval frame is most frequently capped by a crest composed of a wreath of leaves or flowers and a garland, whilst at other times loops of ribbon connect its form with that of a cameo.

François Boucher (1703-70), Maurice Jacques (c.1712-84), Vénus sur les eaux, sketch for a Gobelins tapestry cartoon, 18th century, painting on pink damask, 88 x 48 cm., Mobilier national. Photo: © Muriel Cinqpeyres

It may be displayed on a panel hung with fabric; a sketch for a Gobelins tapestry painted by Jacques and Boucher, above, shows this innovative decorative practice. The profile and mouldings are still Baroque, but the outer contour is simplified; the garlands and the trophies which surround the two oval paintings are elements in the general decoration of the panel, but they enhance the shape of these paintings rather than trying to disguise it. The decorative scheme with oval paintings shown in this sketch by Boucher is reversed in the hang of works by Chardin in the 1765 Salon, visible on the back wall in Saint-Aubin’s drawing.

Chardin: eight still life paintings in the 1765 Salon (Attributes of the Arts and Attributes of the Sciences, 2nd row; Attributes of Music, bottom centre). Image from Paris Salon Exhibitions: 1667-1880

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Le canard mort, 1764, o/c, 152.5 x 96.5 cm., now reframed in rectilinear frame with spandrels, Springfield Art Museum

Here, hanging between two rectangular paintings, is the oval of Le canard mort [8]; in the original frame what appears to be a simple moulding, following the shape of the canvas, is finished with a small carved crest – perhaps a knot of ribbons.

These ornamental flourishes, whether painted – as in the tapestry cartoon – or carved, form part of the overall decorative scheme of a room; they also operate through the frame to enhance the picture. Even the frames of overdoors, simplified to geometrical ovals, give the painting a primary rôle within the interior.

Louis Binet (1744-1800), after Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen (1720-78), engraved frontispiece of Baculard d’Arnaud, Sidney et Volsan: histoire anglaise, Paris, 1770, Bibliothèque national de France

There is a good example of this in a vignette after Charles Eisen. The overdoor on the right has an oval moulding within a simple rectangular moulding, and the spandrels are decorated with vine leaf motifs. The point here is to highlight the landscape and no longer, as in Oppenord’s drawing, to use it as a fortuitous element in the carved decoration. This same concern for enhancing the image appears in the oval frame decorated with pendant festoons of flowers, visible on the left-hand wall.

Thus the increasing popularity of oval paintings, encouraged by a similarly growing taste from the 1750s for regular geometrical forms and lines, led to the use of frames which might certainly be ornate, but which remained subordinate to the canvas. These framed works of art took their place within interior decorative schemes, and the oval form, frequently adorned with floral motifs and festoons, remained a constant element of the Louis XVI style.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Jeune fille en rosière, 1777, Christie’s, 2009; see ‘Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Part II: her pastel frames, 1772-1789’, by Neil Jeffares


[1] J-F Blondel, De la distribution des maisons de plaisance et de la décoration des édifices en général, vol. II, Paris, 1738, plate 67; Blondel explains on p.74 that the use of pilasters saves money by reducing the size of the pier-glasses

[2] These frames contained paintings by Bertin: see Bruno Pons, De Paris à Versailles, 1699-1736, Les sculpteurs ornemanistes parisiens et l’art décoré des Bâtiments du roi, Strasbourg, 1986 , plates 183-85

[3] Ibid., plates 224-25 & 244 [the interior of this cabinet was sold, as the illustration captions indicate, in 1896]

[4] For an oval shield inserted in an irregular cartouche, also drawn by J. de Lajoüe, see the Cartouche Maillebois, reproduced by Marianne Roland-Michel, Lajoüe et l’art rocaille, Neuilly, 1984, plate 233

[5] Rectangular paintings were engraved in this format: see W. McAllister Johnson, French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture: Engraved Reception Pieces: 1672-1789, Kingston, 1982

[6] On this point, see the preface by J. Cailleux to the catalogue of the exhibition Éloge de l’ovale, Galerie Cailleux, Paris, 1975

[7] Veil-Picard collection, Paris; reproduced in the catalogue of the La Bedoyère Sale, Paris 8 June 1921; now see under ‘Confiscated collection’, National Archives Catalog, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) Photograph Album Number Eight; Robert, Hubert, WP 21 

[8] Catalogue of the Chardin exhibition, Paris, 1979, no 122 and p. 343