An introduction to frames with covers, shutters and curtains. Part 3: Curtains and covers on secular paintings and looking-glasses
by The Frame Blog
This is the third part of a triptych of articles; the first, on shutters and covers of sacred works, is available here, and the second, on curtains of sacred works, is here. This present piece looks at sliding covers, curtains and the odd shutter on a variety of secular paintings and looking-glasses; it doesn’t include miniatures, which have a very specific and wide range of covers, lidded boxes and layered cases, and can be explored here and here.
Covers for looking-glasses
These are the earliest form of cover for protecting a fragile surface or concealing an image – or, in this case, the place where one’s own image might (almost magically) live.
Egyptian case for a speculum in the form of an Ankh, c. 1323 BC, 18th dynasty, giltwood inlaid with coloured glass and semi-precious stones including carnelian, 27 cm., from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Grand Egyptian Museum
The case found in Tutankhamun’s grave is an early and practically complete example, although its contents have vanished (the reflective surface used could have been made of ‘polished gold, silver, copper, or bronze’ ). Although this particular case was part of the funerary equipment for the after-life, such objects were also for daily use; this one, being royal, is gilded and lined with silver. The centre of the Ankh is decorated with a winged scarab, which protected the living from evil and defended the dead on their journey to the gods, and a lotos flower, which symbolizes both birth and the rebirth of the dead.
Base of the Ankh case with Tutankhamun’s name cartouches
The form of the Ankh itself is the glyph meaning ‘life’ and the ‘breath of life’, although the same sounds which make it can also apparently be found, rather nicely, in the word for ‘reflection’ or ‘image’, making the shape of the case a pun on its function. The case is engraved with the name of the king and his father, and his royal title, on two cartouches at the base of the stem: the Ankh which is, as it were, the second syllable of his name can be seen in the lower cartouche, so the whole case can be seen as attributive and specifically connected both with Tutankhamun and with his reflection.
Greek statuette of a woman looking into an open speculum in a case, 3rd -2nd century BC, terracotta, 11 ¼ ins (28.6 cm.); Greek bronze case for a polished speculum with relief scene of the head of Pan, late 4th century BC, 6 ¾ ins diam. (17.1 cm.), both Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Greek speculum cases, which began to be manufactured from around 500 BC , take the much more convenient shape of a modern compact, although are obviously rather heavier, larger, and, being made of bronze, their contents are also less sharply reflective. The specula needed the lids which covered them, too, because their polished surfaces were prone to tarnish, as were the later silver versions preferred by the Romans . The case shown here is decorated with a head of Pan, based on the features of Alexander the Great and thus much less animal than representations of Pan can generally be. Here he is depicted as a beautiful youth with small deer’s ears pricking forward from his hair, and two discreet little horns emerging from behind his luxuriant forelocks: a romanticized version of the satyr-like nature-god, and much more desirable in reference to the intended use of the speculum inside.
The terracotta statuette is of a woman with a very similar case open on her knee, so that she can use the polished bronze inside to arrange her hair. It underlines the fact that this was a luxe item which really needed an obliging maidservant or slave to hold it up for the user.
Powder compact with photographic image of HM Queen Elizabeth II, 1953, Worthopedia
With its overt reference to the face of Alexander the Great, the case with the head of Pan might be compared with a 20th century powder compact decorated with the image of HM the Queen, sold as a coronation souvenir in 1953 – also box-shaped, and containing a looking-glass, but rather more convenient for individual use.
Etruscan bronze case for a polished speculum, with relief scene of Ganymede, his mother and brothers, and Zeus in the form of an eagle, 3rd to 2nd century BC, 15 cm. diam., © The Trustees of the British Museum
These compact-shaped speculum cases were common in Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Chinese cultures, proving the functionalism as well as the charm of an object which has lasted a remarkably long time. The Etruscan case above has a crowded scene in relief on its cover, in which Ganymede is reft from his terrified family by Zeus in the form of an enormous eagle. It has quite a large hanging loop at the top, presumably to fasten it to a belt, since the cover – which is hinged from the loop – would prevent its opening if hung on a wall. It might, however, have been hung in an interior as a decorative object when not in use.
Roman/Egyptian stand for a polished speculum, supported by erotes, c. 2nd century AD, terracotta, 6 15/16 ins (17.6 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Another method of display for a reflective surface (although a tiny one) is this stand with two trophy-like or attributive erotes, making it the perfect ornament for a dressing-table, although this would have been a more permanently fixed object; it has no cover but might possibly have been protected by a piece of cloth when not in use. It looks forward to Baroque extravagances such as Filippo Parodi’s 17th century looking-glass frame carved with the Judgement of Paris (now unfortunately holding a disappointing portrait of Maria Mancini). Note also the Romano-Egyptian alabaster looking-glass with shutters in the Art Institute of Chicago; this dates from the 4th to the end of the 6th century BC, and the glass inside must measure less than 3 inches high.
Personal, portable compact cases achieved another spurt of fashionability in mediaeval and early Renaissance Europe. At first the specula were made of white metal – iron, steel, silver and tin, or small tinned round glasses:
‘Le livre des métiers (1268) listed makers of tin mirrors’ .
French case for a hand-glass, with a love scene in a garden, late 14th century, and reverse, carved ivory, 10 cm. diam., © The Trustees of the British Museum
These would still have been quite small and luxurious objects, as witnessed by their carved ivory cases decorated with chivalric scenes of courtly love, like the one above (there are also religiously-themed cases, rather surprisingly carved with, for example, the Annunciation, in a frame of undulating vines with roses for the Virgin and daisies for humility ). The particular courtly scene above takes place (beneath what looks like a giant artichoke) in the garden of a castle, with a salute to that 14th and 15th century bestseller, Le roman de la Rose. It is framed as the view from a Gothic quatrefoil window, where each foil is cusped and trefoiled, and the spandrels are ornamented with leaves. Four acanthus leaves project diagonally, like echoes of the spandrels, providing a way of propping the case on a dressing-table – and, if the bottom of the case also had projecting leaves, of propping up the open glass.
French School, Marcia /Iaia painting her portrait, from translation by Laurent de Premierfait, 1401, of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), De claris mulieribus, f.101 verso, Bibliothèque nationale française, Gallica
One of the versions of Marcia painting her self-portrait which illustrate the manuscript copies of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (The book of noble and renowned women) shows Marcia (or Iaia) working on a framed panel, with one of these small encased glasses in her left-hand. Perhaps the cover is bent right back, or perhaps she has removed the lid; the glass itself is still framed by the bottom of the case, which appears to be gilded.
French case for a hand-glass (in two halves), one half with Pyramus & Thisbe, one view of inner case, and the other half with Lucretia stabbing herself, early 16th century, carved ivory, 11.3 cm., © The Trustees of the British Museum
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the ivory looking-glass case reached a degree of the complexity and sophistication which would later be invested in other bibelots, such as snuff boxes. The case above has equally-developed framed scenes carved on both portions of the case, one showing Thisbe killing herself beside the corpse of Pyramus, and the other with Lucretia stabbing herself before her family. Presumably, as with the case carved with the Annunciation mentioned above, the intention of this ivory mayhem was to emphasize the importance of chastity, humility, and obeying one’s parents rather than running after forbidden young men. The ground overall is engraved with cross-hatching, throwing into further relief the plasticity of the carved figures. The ‘frame’ in both cases is ornamented with an undulating grape vine, which must be purely decorative, rather than symbolic.
Theophilus Presbyter (fl. c.1070-1125), On divers arts, c.1100-20, transl. John Hawthorne and Cyril Smith, 1963, ch. 6, pp. 54-55, Internet Archive
Meanwhile, glass production was improving, as makers sought for ways to increase the size of the pieces they could produce. In the early 12th century, Theophilus – probably a German Benedictine monk – had put together a sort of collected manual of instruction on how to produce contemporary artefacts, which included a relatively detailed chapter on glassmaking. It is directed primarily towards the maker of stained glass windows, but it also describes how to produce flat panes of glass – although the clear, technically uncoloured pieces would have been wavy, tinted with minerals in the ingredients, and probably full of tiny bubbles. They were made by blowing glass balls which were then pulled out and shaped into cylinders, cut longitudinally and opened out on a flat stone.
Mirrored glass also moved on, until by the 13th century looking-glasses coated with molten lead were being used (a re-invention of a Roman process, which had only achieved tiny glasses), and ‘by 1373 there was a guild of glass-mirror makers in Nuremberg’ .
‘By the late fourteenth century, you could find such mirrors in northern Europe. The future Henry IV of England paid 6d to have the glass of a broken mirror replaced in 1387. Four years later, while traveling in Prussia, he paid £1 3s 8d in sterling for ‘two mirrors of Paris’ for his own use’ .
Looking-glassmakers managed to produce, by the mid-15th century, pieces which were larger, flatter, rectilinear, and rather clearer. The availability of mirrored panes of glass (still much smaller than modern glasses) meant that wall-hung pieces were now possible, although these were still rare and expensive, and therefore needed to be protected from accident and indiscriminate use.
Florentine looking-glass frame, c.1530, walnut & poplar, 29 ¾ x 14 ½ ins, (75.6 x 36.8 cm.), and details of crest & apron, Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum, New York
This classicizing, parcel-gilt walnut frame with a proto-Mannerist pediment dates from around 1530, and has been given to members of the Del Tasso family and their workshop, the carved and textured gryphons having especial flair. It possesses a slot in the side (now filled in) through which the cover was slid in and out over the glass. Both cover, glass and backing have vanished, but a injunction against the temptations of vanity remains in the inscription on the cartouche at the base, ‘Non forma sed veritas miranda est’ (not the outward form but the truth is to be admired).
Robinet Testard, Personification of Pride from a Book of Hours, c.1475, 14.8 x 10.8 cm., MS M.1001, fols. 83v–84r, The Morgan Library & Museum
The lost wooden cover may have been painted, perhaps with a figure of Pride or Superbia, who is usually shown regarding him- or her- self in a hand-glass; this would have fitted in admirably with the inscription, and would have converted the whole piece when ‘closed’ into an allegorical warning against the sins of vanity and pride.
Vasari (design attrib.; 1511-74), Mannerist looking-glass, parcel-gilt walnut, with a cover showing Prudence painted by Alessandro Allori (attrib., 1535-1607), 1550-70, Casa Vasari, Arezzo
Vasari’s looking-glass, made two to four decades later than the Florentine frame in the Met., retains its painted cover, which is on similar exhortatory lines. In this case the subtle nudge towards moral uprightness – and away from the vanity and puffed-up-ness which use of a looking-glass might encourage – is given by the virtue of Prudence rather than the vice of Pride. Contrarily, Prudence, like Pride, is also shown with a hand-glass – the rise and rise in the use of which also coincided with the rise of depictions of Prudence with a looking-glass .
Giotto (1267-1337), Prudentia, 1306, fresco, 120 x 60 cm., Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
‘Like the emblem of the book, the mirror in association with Prudence can be divided into several streams of symbolic meaning: the mirror of self-knowledge, the mirror of reason, and the mirror of propriety’ .
Vasari’s – or, rather, Allori’s – Prudence is without two of the four traditional attributes which Giotto gives her, the book and the Janus-face; she does, however, have the serpent of wisdom wound round her arm, which, along with self-knowledge, reason and propriety, gives her justification for being seen as the mother of all the virtues. Thus Vasari manages to advertize his subjection to virtue and awareness of the dangers lying within a looking-glass, whilst also decorating his house with a beautiful naked woman in an ornamental frame. The latter is a particularly decorative Mannerist tabernacle, carved in walnut and parcel-gilt, with a monstrous mascaron on the scrolled and fluted pediment; caryatides supporting the outset corners, and a draped and swagged apron with nailhead fastenings and tassels, a heart-shaped cartouche, and two putti’s heads.
Mannerist looking-glass frame with sliding cover, with glass mounted on second sliding panel designed to hide a (lost) painting at the back, 1540-60, described as Ferrarese, parcel-gilt walnut, 16 ¼ x 15 1/8 ins overall, Metropolitan Museum, New York
Unlike the previous looking-glass frames with their exhortations to prefer truth to a beautiful appearance, and prudence to everything, this example may lean towards the Vices rather than the Virtues. The carved scrolls supporting scallop shells outside the pilasters are the handles of two symmetrical sliding panels: one at the front (now so abraded by scraping across the back of the façade that its decoration cannot be seen) which conceals and protects an oval looking-glass; the latter is mounted on the other sliding panel which could be pulled out in its turn, probably revealing a secret painting at the back. The catalogue entry suggests that this would have shown
‘a portrait of a mistress or lover or an erotic scene that only the mirror’s owner was privileged to behold. Painted mistress portraits were frequently concealed behind shutters or curtains in the 16th century…’ 
Many of the ornaments of the frame – the interlocking and S- scrolls, the tapered pilasters, gemstones and fluted mouldings – are the normal vocabulary of Mannerism, but perhaps two of the less common motifs have been chosen to hint at the secret contents, intensifying the enjoyment of those in the know. The prominent scallop shells are the attributes of Aphrodite, and the Vitruvian wave along the cornice represents the sea from which she was born: both of these might innocently point to the looking-glass as an instrument of the goddess of beauty, but could just as well suggest that a hidden portrait was of a devotee of the goddess of love. Mannerist frame, c.1550, described as Milanese, iron damascened with gold & silver, 117 cm. high, with polished speculum, and detail, V & A Museum
Although the glass above is free-standing and appears to be very much larger than its hand-held or wall-hung cousins, it is not nearly so tall as might appear. It is only 117 cm. or 46 inches high to the top of the crowning figure, and the polished metal speculum it holds is therefore about 23.25 cm. or just over 9 inches tall, and not positioned at a standing adult’s height. Unless it was designed for a child (and it is said to have been commissioned by a member of the House of Savoy ) it would have had to be displayed on a dais or plinth of some sort to make it a convenient height to use.
If it were not for the lack of an actual glass panel inside it, the scrolling forms and overall small decoration with floral motifs would point to Venetian manufacture, rather than Milanese; the technique of damascening in gold and silver on steel was as celebrated there, having been introduced directly from Damascus in the 15th century . The scrolls, which curl in three dimensions, forming clasps which grip the tier containing the speculum and sliding cover, and top and tail the niches with classical figures, are reminiscent of the scrolls of Venetian Sansovino frames, and the whole piece – both in its flat scrolls and overall decoration – echoes the structural motifs and ornament of, for instance, a carved, lacquered, mother-o’-pearl and gilded Venetian looking-glass and stand, also in the V & A . The cover slides in by means of a scrolled handle, very similar to that on the previous carved wooden looking glass, and forms the middle section of the pierced S-scrolls and scrolled clasp on the lateral border of the speculum tier. It contains a scenes with a townscape and figures, bordered by panels of vertebrate ornament with morphing grotesques. When closed, the relationship to damascened armour must have been even clearer: this is the looking-glass militant.
Venetian frame, c.1570-1600, probably ebony, frieze with painted mother-o’-pearl, the front cover lacquered over gilding, 24.7 x 21.5 x 4.6 cm., with polished speculum, V & A Museum
The 16th century Venetian frame above is complex, with two slots at the top for sliding panels and one at the side, as can be seen, above. Top right is a view looking down on the top of the frame, and the central image is a view of the side of the frame. The wooden panel gilded and painted in Islamic style with arabesques in nested medallions slid in at the side, where it covered the inner decorated sight mouldings. Behind it, the shaped and polished speculum sat; this can be slotted in or withdrawn through one of the slots at the top. Behind this again was a fixed panel (now missing) – either another speculum or a painting. Finally, the backing panel of polished rosewood could be slid up and down through the second slot on the top, possibly to see the (painted?) reverse of the fixed panel.
The catalogue entry for this frame suggests, first, that the missing fixed panel could have been a painting on copper, and the back panel was removable in order to clean the copper; or, second, that it could have been another speculum, since several references have been found to Venetian frames holding two mirrored panels. It could, of course, have been another hidden portrait of a mistress; also the back panel might have been removable to display yet another image – possibly erotic – painted on the reverse of this missing part. It is a frame which held several secrets, and might have held even more.
German or Netherlandish gilt copper filigree looking-glass case, shown closed and open, 17th century, 4 ¼ x 3 3/8 ins (10.8 x 8.6 cm.), Metropolitan Museum, New York
Finally – from the 17th century, one more compact portable glass, in a case of airy gilded copper filigree, which could be hung from a belt or perhaps attached to a reticule; a looking-glass case which has become a jewel.
Italian paintings and their covers
Sliding or hinged covers for non-religious paintings probably derived as much from all the covers, lids and protective panels over looking-glasses as they did from sacred paintings with shutters. Covers for secular paintings were in fashion mainly during the Renaissance, and only for a century or so – most obviously, by the evidence, in and around Venice and in Germany – after which, save for scattered examples, they fell out of favour or were superseded by curtains. Hardly any paired elements survive of these double-decker works of art, and some of the widowed pieces are only known to have been either the cover or the picture it hid from clues in the original frame, or by descriptions in historic inventories.
Giorgione (1478-1510), La vecchia, after restoration (transferred from original canvas), 68 x 59 cm., framed, 96 x 87.5 cm., Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
For example, one lone survivor of such a partnership is Giorgione’s striking portrait of an elderly woman holding a scroll on which is written ‘col tempo’ (with time). It appears in several inventories of the Vendramin collection, being described in the 1601 edition as
‘a painting of an Old Woman with a frame of painted walnut, around five-&-a-half quarte high [c. 94 cm.] and five quarte wide [c. 85.5 cm.], with the Vendramin coat of arms on the frame, the cover of said picture painted with a man wearing a garment of black leather’ .
The chap in black leather has long ago disappeared, possibly still to pop up at some future auction, and leaving behind slight historiographical uncertainty as to whether it was actually his which was the primary picture, and La vecchia the cover . There is further uncertainty about the present frame; some art historians seem convinced that it is ‘original’ (and made of oak) , while the catalogue entry containing the quotation above from the 1601 Vendramin inventory also quotes from that of 1567-69, where the painting is described as
‘…by the hand of Giorgione, with the frame painted with the crest of the house of Vendramin’ .
The author of the entry follows this by stating that
‘…the frame [i.e. the present frame] was never decorated with a coat of arms, as confirmed by radiographic, reflectographic and stratigraphic examinations, nor was it ever abraded from the frame as has often been suggested’,
and further on notes that
‘According to the 1567-69 inventory our painting was equipped with a frame, which means that it had already been separated from the “man wearing a garment of black leather” ’ .
This is meant to imply that when the two pieces of the work were divided – with a date in the first half of the 16th century understood – the actual ‘original’ frame which contained and articulated them would have been destroyed, possibly because that first frame either had an opening or a groove for sliding the cover in and out, or fixings for a hinge and catch. However, this is not a necessary assumption, since Lotto’s Portrait of Thomas Nigris (see below) remains in its first and only frame, with the slot for the cover visible but by no means intrusive or disfiguring.
Giorgione, La vecchia, detail of current frame
The frame documented on La vecchia at that point, whether the original or not, cannot however be the one which holds it today, since that 16th century frame was reported in two inventories as having the Vendramin arms upon it, and this is not a mistake which would be countenanced in such important documents. The present setting must therefore be at least the second and perhaps the third frame, given to it post-1601 – but also possibly in or after 1881, when the painting was transferred to a new canvas support . This last suggestion would explain the immaculate state of the top and sight mouldings, which are otherwise baffling in a frame supposed to date from the mid-16th or even the 17th century. If La vecchia were in such a state as to demand a new support, the condition of the frame was presumably beyond even the antiquary enthusiasms of the 19th century, particularly when there were a number of dealers in frames who could either produce complete items out of antique and new elements , or could arrange for appropriate reproductions (often made in Florence ). The current frame may have been made out of old wood (thus satisfying 21st century examinations), and decorated à la Raphael with the shield on the bottom rail left enigmatically blank – the framemaker not having read the Vendramin inventories.
The catalogue of the exhibition of Lotto’s portraits, held at the National Gallery, London, in 2018-19, revealed an exciting amount as to the painted covers of portraits in general, and those of Lotto in particular. The authors of the article on the conception and execution of his portraits, Miguel Falomir and Ana Gonzélez Mozo, warn that the survival of his book of accounts ‘distorts any comparison with other artists’, whilst it also provides unique information:
‘No other painter is documented as having produced more… portraits with covers’ .
Through forty-six years of his career, portraits with covers were recorded as produced in his studio; at first for panel paintings, with the likelihood that these would be partnered either with hinged or sliding wooden covers, and later for paintings on canvas, which were similarly more likely to have canvas covers, similarly stretched on battens, and known as ‘timpani’.
The earliest known of all these are the portrait of Lotto’s patron, the Bishop of Treviso, Bernardo de’ Rossi, painted in 1505, with its separated cover in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the cover (also in the NGA) known as the Allegory of Chastity, c.1505, which has lost the painting for which it was made. Enrico Dal Pozzolo has suggested that the idea for the cover of the Bishop’s portrait may have been suggested by Lotto himself, the artist having already been inspired by the influence on Venetian painting of 15th – 16th century Northern artists, who decorated the reverse of framed portrait panels with
‘scenes in full colours, grisailles with stone sculptures in a niche, allegories, vanities, coats of arms, mottos, texts, marblings, monochrome paint layers…’ 
At this point, paintings in domestic settings were seldom hung on walls: they stood, were propped or lay on chests; occasionally they hung from chains and might be viewed from the back; diptychs and triptychs were folded like books, and – with single panels – were put into bags, cases or boxes, and stowed away. The Netherlandish paintings investigated by Hélène Verougstraete were discovered, if meant to be stored in this way, to have their backs always painted, and those with painted backs always had well-finished woodwork . Lotto’s Portrait of a young man of c. 1498-1500 in Bergamo is one of this type, with the reverse marbled like reddish jasper: a small portrait, meant to be held and examined from all sides.
Jacometto Veneziano (fl. 1472-97), Alvise Contarini (with A seated hart on reverse), Portrait of a woman (with a grisaille landscape on reverse), all c.1485-95, o/panel, with gold on reverse, 4 x 2 7/8 ins (10.3 x 7.3cm.), Metropolitan Museum, New York
Lotto may well have seen the work of Jacometto Veneziano, one of those Venetians who had absorbed the example of Netherlandish art. The works above are two pendant miniature portraits, each painted with an individual scene on the reverse of their panels, ‘which probably fit together in a boxlike frame’ , after the fashion of the layered looking-glass frames, above; the reverse with the seated hart has a ground of faux stone. Like La vecchia, they were owned by Gabriele Vendramin.
Lotto (c.1480-1556/57), Portrait of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi, 1505, 52 x 40 cm., Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples, in current frame; and Allegory of Virtue and Vice, 1505, 56.5 x 47.2 cm., Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Pozzolo’s suggestion is that these influences – perhaps even a knowledge of Dürer’s work – led Lotto to suggest that the cover of the Bishop’s portrait should expand upon the usual painted impresa to portray his moral likeness in a pictorial allegory . It is therefore divided vertically, with the Bishop’s arms reduced to the small shield leaning against the tree which provides the axis of the two sides. On the left the tree is blasted, as is the stormy sky above a troubled sea where a ship sinks, whilst on the grass in the foreground a drunken satyr slumps amongst spilling milk and wine. On the sunny right-hand side the tree sprouts a new branch; a putto labours over instruments of the sciences and arts, and a winged soul ascends the steep path of virtue. The back of this panel originally held an inscription detailing the Bishop’s name, title, city and exact age, along with Lotto’s name and the date of the work ; this has since worn away.
The National Gallery exhibition catalogue illustrates two possible versions of the way in which the portrait and its cover were linked – either with the latter as a sliding panel which was pulled through a slot in the frame (again, as in some of the looking-glasses with covers and pictures), or with the two panels framed and hinged in a diptych. One immediately obvious point on the side of the sliding panel theory is that it explains the loss of the inscription on the back, through the wear and tear of continual sliding through the frame.
Lotto (c.1480-1556/57), Portrait of Thomas Nigris, 1527, o/panel, 42 x 54 cm., Franciscan Convent of Poljud, Split .Photos: with thanks to Peter Schade
The Portrait of Thomas Nigris travelled in its original carved and polished walnut frame to the National Gallery as one of the items in the Lotto exhibition, and – although the loss of the painted cover is a sad divorce of the two pieces which made up the whole work – the frame, with its inner and outer sight mouldings and the slot between them to accommodate the cover, could be thoroughly studied. The Head of the Framing Department in the Gallery, Peter Schade, decided to make a copy of it in a portrait orientation to house a reproduction of the painting of Bernardo de’ Rossi and its cover, in order to see whether this version of the assembly of both panels would work.
Lotto (c.1480-1556/57), reproductions of Portrait of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi, 1505, and its cover, Allegory of Virtue and Vice, 1505, in a replica frame copied from that of the Portrait of Thomas Nigris, 1527; shown open and closed
Video of Lotto shutter being opened and closed
Lotto, Bishop Bernardo de’Rossi and cover in copy of Thomas Nigris frame, half-drawn out
It evidently works so perfectly that, as Peter Schade has pointed out, the half-drawn stage creates an echo of the Bishop’s shoulder in the slope of the green hillside, underlining the suggestion that the sunny moral uplands are a reflection of his own character – it is a sort of visual jeu d’esprit with a serious purpose.
Lotto(c.1480-1556/57), Giovanni dalla Volta with his wife and children, 1547, o/c, 104.5 x 138 cm., reframed, National Gallery, London
By 1540, as Falomir and Mozo note, Lotto was using only variously-composed canvas supports , and his covers likewise presumably changed from wood to fabric. The group portrait of Giovanni dalla Volta and his family, which is just over 44 inches across – nearly four feet – was executed in 1547, and the entry for this work in Lotto’s account book notes that, as well as the painting, he completed ‘the cover on its timpano’, which indicates that the cover was of stretched canvas. The fact that timpano is also the current word for eardrum and percussion drum must mean that these fabric covers were hollow and not adhered to panel; but since there seem to have been large canvas covers on battens which were used to cover architectural altarpieces during Lent and on other occasions, notably in and around Brescia , the size of the Dalla Volta portrait could not have been problematic. The question might be, however, whether these timpani were sliding covers on the same principle as the cover of the Thomas Nigris portrait, or whether their construction meant that they were attached as hinged shutters?
Bronwen Wilson, writing on the deliberate concealing of images for various kinds of effect, notes that,
‘Elisabetta Condulmer, a Venetian courtesan, kept her portrait in the portego of her house where it was protected by a timpano, a frame with a curtain. Drawing the fabric to one side, Condulmer could reveal her image’ .
This must, however, be a misapprehension of what the timpano was: the portrait could be revealed just as dramatically by sliding a wooden cover away or by opening a shutter.
Titian (1490-1576), Triumph of Love, c. 1543-46, o/c on panel, 88.3 cm., Ashmolean Museum
The collection of Gabriele Vendramin (1484-1552), who owned Giorgione’s La vecchia and its cover, apparently contained quite a number of covered paintings; more than one was painted for him by Titian, of which this tondo is a part – a cover, which is all that remains in this case (and it has been cut down slightly, from a rectilinear to a circular shape). Like the cover of Bernardo de’ Rossi’s portrait it bears an allegorical scene – much less complex, but equally striking. It shows Eros standing on the back of a snarling lion, demonstrating that Love can subdue even the savage king of beasts, and it is set at dawn, looking towards a distant view of Venice. Catherine Whistler, who researched this work, acquired by the Ashmolean in 2008, discovered that it was recorded in inventories of the Vendramin collection in 1567-69 and again in 1602, when it was associated with the painting for which it formed the cover:
‘…another painting: the portrait of a lady with her right hand on her breast, dressed in black, with its walnut frame outlined with gilt astragals; five-&-a-half quarte high and five across [93.9 x 85.4 cm.]…
…a painting with the god of Love on a lion with its giltwood frame [lit. ‘addition’ (=moulding?)], which painting is the cover of the above-mentioned portrait of a lady with her hand on her breast…’ 
In the earlier inventory the frame of the portrait was described even more (and unusually) fully:
‘A portrait of a gentlewoman by the hand of Titian with its walnut frame with gilded astragal-&-bead ornament [or: with gilded beading and astragals]…’ 
It was therefore a rather more luxurious version of the walnut frame on Lotto’s Thomas Nigris, and perhaps the cover, which appears to have had some sort of gilded wooden edging, slid across the painting in the manner suggested by the latter frame, through an internal groove between nested sight mouldings. This would have done the gilding no good, so possibly the timpano was indeed hinged to the painting as a shutter, or fixed on top of it in some way. The whole work, portrait and cover, was thus analogous to Elisabetta Condulmer’s portrait and its timpano – even more evidently not a curtain.
Jill Dunkerton, who restored the Titian, describes how it was cut down and what the edges of the remaining canvas reveal of its history:
‘At the left and right of the tondo old tack holes and frayed canvas edges indicate that the canvas was once stretched by nailing through the front of the fabric into a stretcher, as was common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries…. Originally the timpano must have been stretched over a rectangular wooden stretcher, the lines of tacks perhaps covered by narrow strips of frame moulding [the giltwood ‘addition’ mentioned in the inventory]’ .
Northern paintings and their covers
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), Margareta van Eyck, 1439, and the faux stone reverse, Groeningemuseum, Bruges. Photo of the reverse: Closer to Van Eyck
As mentioned above, small Netherlandish paintings by the Van Eycks and their circle often had their backs painted to resemble stone or faux marbre, and were influential, both in this and in their painting style, for similar works in northern Italy, such as Lotto’s Portrait of a young man in Bergamo. A later development of this completion of the framed work was that it might hold an image on the reverse, like the small paintings by Jacometto Veneziano, above, which could be held together in a box, but in the case of a single larger work, might be suspended from a chain or displayed on an easel in order that either side might be seen.
Rogier van der Weyden (workshop; c.1399-1464), 1430s, Portrait of a man, overall with frame 44.3 x 34.1 cm., Courtauld
An example of this fashion in a Netherlandish frame is the Portrait of a man from Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop, now in the Courtauld. The back is painted as a faux wooden frame with a trompe l’oeil architectural moulding of an astragal-&-triple bead in brown and gold, and the black ‘frieze’ has the shadowy remains of a painted or mordant-gilded pattern of lacy leaf buds and scroll; this holds the second painting, with its symbolic, beautifully painted holly branch under the motto, ‘Je he ce que mord’ (I hate that which bites). Whilst none of these painted backs is a cover in the exact sense, as a genre they hold the development within themselves of the painted cover – with decoration, symbol or crest – and the possibility of the portrait’s being hidden whilst the heraldic image or allegory is seen.
Dürer (1471-1528), Portrait of a young man, 1507, limewood, 35 x 29, framed: 40 x 36 x 8 cm., and reverse, with Avarice, Kunsthistorisches Museum
For example, Dürer’s Portrait of a young man in Vienna has on the reverse an image generally known as ‘Avarice’, and reminiscent of Giorgione’s La vecchia; save that where the latter is a dignified – almost sibylline – reflection on time and age, this is a cruel warning against a particular sin (whether for the subject of the portrait or the spectators). It was painted about the same time as La vecchia, and probably shows a German merchant living in Venice.
Dürer (1471-1528), Hieronymus Holzschuher, 1526, and cover, limewood, 51 x 37.1 cm., and details, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Photos: with thanks to Peter Schade
Dürer also moved from a single reversable panel to producing works with painted sliding covers. One of the rare – possibly unique – survivals of these is his striking portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher, mayor of Nuremberg, in its beautifully preserved pale ashwood outer and black-stained inner frame. The figuring of the ashwood is particularly pronounced and attractive. The portrait retains its cover, which is painted with the arms of Holzschuher and his wife held in a wreath of bay leaves, with the date inscribed above; and has probably spent as much time under the cover than out of it – also probably stored in a bag of fabric or leather, and locked in a cupboard – accounting for its state of preservation. The cover fitted between the inner and outer frames.
This is a straightforward coupling of an image with a protective layer which identifies the families involved; there is no sense, as with Titian’s portrait of a woman in black and cover with the Triumph of Love, that a notable beauty was being treasured up for connoisseurial eyes, and her exquisiteness pointed by the associated allegory, or, as with Lotto’s portrait of the Bishop of Treviso, that moral worth was being in some sense advertized, and a game of visual correspondences being played with the spectator.
Lucas Cranach the Elder ran what amounted to a factory of artworks in his workshop at Wittenburg, producing frames to his own designs which were moderated through time by outside fashion, function or efficiency. They developed from the earliest engaged frames, valued for their stability and because they allowed both sides of the painting to be seen, and which might use a combination of cavetto and rainsill to produce the effect of a window, or stepped mouldings to enhance pictorial perspective. Since the workshop employed both carpenters and sculptors, panels and frames could be produced relatively quickly and to individual specifications, although one fifth of the entire output falls within the six standardized panel sizes preferred by Cranach. His designs remained consistent even when produced by numbers of different workmen .
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Portrait of Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous: Two Electors of Saxony, 1509, 41.3 x 31 cm., and 42 x 31.2 cm.; and reverse of right-hand portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, with family coats of arms, National Gallery
He painted small double portraits which were presented in hinged diptych frames, like those of domestic altarpieces; these could be opened like a book, and displayed on a surface at an angle of less than 180°; an angled viewpoint which was taken into account when the composition of the painting was worked out, so that the perspective is heightened if the two portraits are seen in this way. An example of one of these diptychs in the original hinged frames is the double portrait of the two Electors of Saxony, above. They are analogous, as well as to shuttered altarpieces, to the paintings where the attachment of covers might be in a hinged door, rather than a slot around the frame. Another diptych by Cranach with portraits of Martin Luther and his wife remains in the original frames, in the collection of Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. See also the French Provençale School hinged Matheron diptych with its own velvet storage bag, made for portraits of René of Anjou and Jeanne de Laval, attributed to Nicolas Froment and shown in Part 1 of this trilogy of articles.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Martin Luther, 1525, beechwood, image: 9.9 cm. diam., with frame: 13.5 cm. diam. x 1.7 cm., Katharina of Bora, 1525, beechwood, image: 10.2 cm. diam., with frame: 14 cm. diam. x 2 cm., Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel
Some of Cranach’s designs were inventive – for example, small double tondi, the frames of which fitted together like a bowl and its lid to make a protective, portable object, rather like a large wooden locket. Both portraits of Luther and his wife have, in fact, had pieces of wood, 2.5 cm. long, inserted into their respective frames, the conclusion being drawn that these replace a lock which originally closed the two together . Cranach’s account books reveal that in 1516 he charged a client for leather to protect a finished panel whilst it was being transported; protective leather-covered cases were also manufactured to protect painting and frame .
17th century Flemish School, Cognoscenti in a room hung with pictures, c.1620, o/ panel, 95.9 x 123.5 cm., National Gallery. Photo of detail: with thanks to Peter Schade
A hundred years after Dürer’s Portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher, the sliding cover was still in operation, if as a light-hearted method of surprising one’s friends as much as it was for the protection of the image. The gallery above – presumably part of a royal or aristocratic palace – contains, as well as paintings, sculptures and statuettes, miniatures, books of engravings, scientific instruments, jewels and china; and amongst all these treasures, the man in the left foreground holds in one hand a tiny picture in an ebony frame, its sliding cover almost pulled out, revealing the contents: a life-sized watercolour drawing of snails, beetles, and other things with many legs.
Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-79), Flowers and insects, late 1650s-early 1660s, o/ copper, 22 x 28.7 cm., Ashmolean Museum
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c.1533-88), Two narcissi, a columbine, a dragonfly and a stag beetle, inscribed, watercolour & body colour on paper, 6 ½ x 7 5/8 ins (16.4 x 19.3 cm.), Christie’s, New York, 31 January 2019, Lot 24
If the whole picture had been painted twenty or thirty years later, this miniature might be the work of Jan van Kessel the Elder, but as it is, perhaps it’s by an artist such as Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, and the cover is a way of protecting a fine watercolour from fading. The cover may equally, however, be a very minor offshoot from the cover-as-enhancement of wonder, seen in Gabriele Vendramin’s use of Titian’s allegory to conceal the portrait of a great beauty, and a way of presenting visual knowledge alongside the other scientific treasures in the gallery. Unlike the other covers included here, it is plain; so as not to hint at what it hides, perhaps?
Later, miscellaneous frames of concealment
Italo-Flemish School, Portraits of a man and a woman in court dress, c. 1630, oil on copper, painted front and back of panel, 22 x 16 cm., in a pivoting frame, described as a ‘frame within a frame, revolving on its stand’, Oger-Blanchet sale at Drouot, 13 December 2017, Lot 6
Perhaps this hardly seems to qualify as a covered or concealed painting, but given its revolving tendencies, each portrait is going to be concealing the other for part of the time. It’s an ingenious solution for those rooms which have run out of hanging space, as well as a conversation piece, and – if the husband’s portrait is usually showing, and apparently fitted tightly into its frame for the most part – then it does share with Vendramin’s Titian the revelation of hidden beauty. It’s quite surprising, really, that this is either a rare or sole survivor of a rather charming idea.
John Carter (1748-1817), The Tribune at Strawberry Hill, c.1789, watercolour (top left & detail, top right), Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, New Haven; Horace Walpole, William Kent, William Hallett, et al., the Walpole Cabinet, 1743, padouk wood on a pinewood carcass inlaid with ivory relief carvings and with ivory sculptures above and below, 152.4 x 91.5 x 21.6 cm., V & A Museum (bottom left) ; John Carter, Disposition of the miniatures in the rosewood cabinet in the Tribune, c.1784, watercolour, Lewis Walpole Library, (bottom right). With thanks to Neil Jeffares for the suggestion
Here is something different again – a connoisseur’s compact treasury, in the form of the secular, 18th century, Palladian equivalent of a large shuttered altarpiece, with a collection of relief carvings on the outside opening upon a polyptych of tiny painted panels (the reverse of the arrangement in most earlier altarpieces). It was designed by the collector and author, Horace Walpole (1717-97), with the help of William Kent, to house his collection of miniature paintings and enamels, and was made by the cabinetmaker, William Hallett, in 1743. This is its summary description, from 1774:
‘A cabinet of rose-wood, designed by Mr. Walpole; on the pediment, statues in ivory of Fiamingo, Inigo Jones, and Palladio, by Verskovis, after the models of Rysbrach. In the pediment, Mr. Walpole’s arms, a cupid and lion, by the same: on the doors, bas-reliefs in ivory, Herodias with the head of the baptist, by Gibbons; a lady, half-length, by the same; Perseus and Andromeda; the Hercules Farnese; the Flora; Diomede with the Palladium; the Medusa of Strozzi; the Perseus of ditto; Caracalla and Alexander, by Pozzo; and eight other heads. On the drawer, the Barberini lion, by Pozzo; and heads of eagles, by Verskovis’ .
Unknown Roman (?) carver after Francis van Bossuit (d. 1692), Judith with the head of Holofernes, ivory, from the right-hand shutter of the Walpole cabinet (described as ‘Herodias with the head of the baptist, by Gibbons’)
Walpole had collected the ivory relief panels in Rome, whilst on the Grand Tour. Installed on the shutters of the cabinet by Hallett, each of them has been given its own gadrooned frame, centred with florets and with acanthus leaf corners. Walpole kept the cabinet at his house in central London, at 5 Arlington Street off Piccadilly, for the following twenty years or so, during which he purchased the cottages in Twickenham which became the basis for Strawberry Hill House, his NeoGothic country retreat. In the 1760s he installed the cabinet in the Tribune there, where it was displayed very much like a secular altarpiece in a small mediaeval-style apse, above a Gothic altar-like chest.
John Carter, Disposition of the miniatures in the rosewood cabinet in the Tribune, c.1784, watercolour, Lewis Walpole Library
Fifty years after Walpole’s death, the contents of Strawberry Hill were dispersed to the four winds in a major auction sale, but in 2018-19, after a meticulous search, many of them were tracked down and were exhibited in their old places in the house, in the Lost treasures of Strawberry Hill. The miniatures from the cabinet (where they have been rediscovered) can be seen on the miniatures page of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
Jacques Antoine Vallin (fl.c.1760-post-1831), The worship of Fascinus, o/c, 17 ¼ x 21 ¾ ins (43.2 x 55.4 cm.), hidden behind print, Schelte Adamsz. Bolswert, Jupiter as a child, after Jacob Jordaens, c. 1630-59, in hinged and glazed inner frame within Directoire/Empire frame of late 18th–early 19th century, Christie’s, 8 July 2016, Lot 193
A final example of a covered or shuttered – and very secular, not to say pagan – work, uses the concealing hinged cover for the reason many people perhaps suspect that covers are used: to hide behind a respectable classical print the scene of an erotic ‘pastoral’. The description of this scene, its meaning, and the whole shuttered frame affair can hardly be bettered than by quoting the straight-faced but hilarious entry from Christie’s sale, where it appeared, as it were, in 2016:
‘Lot essay: The iconography of the winged phallus has a long history. It dates back to Ancient Rome, where it symbolised the deity of fertility, Fascinus. Roman jewellery, wind chimes and household items were designed in the form of such phalli, while entire pagan festivities were dedicated to Fascinus, events recounted by Saint Augustine of Hippo. Unsurprisingly, such displays were considered obscene by the Christian clergy.
The appearance of such iconography in more modern times though is rare. It is not clear whether the winged phallus carried additional meaning in the 18th and 19th centuries, beyond its ancient purpose of warding off danger or transmitting magical powers. Clearly though the associations of fertility, orgiastic excess and religious subversion persist.
Here, the composition is hidden behind a print, revealed only by opening the latch on the frame. The concealment of the picture both protects viewers’ sensibilities and allows for a surprising and staged discovery of the hidden work.’ 
Paintings with trompe l’oeil curtains
Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650, Contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, 1630, engraving from Johann Ludwig Gottfried, Historische Chronica oder Beschreibung der fuhrnembsten Geschichten so sich von Anfang der Welt bis auff unsere zeitten zugetragen, 1630
Any consideration of painted curtains is going to have to start with the legendary competition between the 4th century BC Zeuxis and Parrhasios, reported by Pliny the Elder:
‘This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist’ .
Rembrandt may have had this story in his subconscious when in 1646 he painted, possibly as a study for a full-scale work, the Holy Family with its (now mutilated) frame and curtain in Kassel (see Part 2 of these articles on curtains and covers). He possessed a copy of the Historische Chronica in his studio , using it for mythological as well as Biblical subjects, and may have conflated the episode of Zeuxis and Parrhasios with the real curtains which periodically hid painted altarpieces in the churches all around him. The 4th century BC curtain which existed just on its own terms as a perfectly painted trompe l’oeil would gain even more if it hid behind it the sort of scene which Zeuxis had expected to see revealed.
Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Eavesdropper with a scolding woman, 1655, o/ panel, 46 x 73 cm., Guildhall Art Gallery
Rembrandt’s student Nicolaes Maes would have had access to the Historische Chronica in his master’s studio, but he also made a copy of the Holy Family in chalk and wash. In 1655, after he had left Amsterdam for his home town of Dordrecht, he borrowed the idea of a painted interior curtained by what appeared to be a real piece of stitched and creased material, hanging from rings on a rail in front of the canvas. Here is the marriage of Rembrandt’s painting, translated to a secular subject, with the realism of Parrhasios’s curtain. It makes a voyeur of every spectator, complicit with the eavesdropping servant, peering round the hyper-real curtain, part – almost – of the painted fiction behind it.
Gerrit Dou (1613-75), Painter with pipe & book, 1645-50, panel, 48 x 37 cm., Rijksmuseum
At the same time, Gerrit Dou was producing a group of niche paintings which use a highly-developed method of representational realism simultaneously to mislead the eye and to undermine that misleading:
‘Against the narrative scenes staged in perspectival spaces, trompe l’oeil images—according to Baudrillard—offer painted surrogates of things in the “unreal reversion to the whole representative space elaborated by the Renaissance”. In other words, the quality of trompe l’oeil paintings that disturbed academic authors, i.e. the collapse of the distinction between image and referent, is what intrigues modern commentators.’ 
Dou’s paintings are too small to mislead completely, but he was noted amongst his contemporaries for his skill in the lifelike depiction of people and objects: a skill which enabled him to manipulate space and internal relationships in his compositions. The curtain which hangs on a rail hung across the front of the flat black plate or plank frame painted around his Painter with pipe & book is outside the feigned space where the painter leans on his windowsill and smokes, and Angela Ho’s article on Dou’s use of trompe l’oeil suggests that it enhances the idea that the latter is part of a picture which is being revealed to the spectator by the drawing aside of the curtain (as in Maes’s Eavesdropper...), whilst also undermining this by the evident illusionism of the latter .
On the other hand, if the painted curtain is seen as within the spectator’s own space, and the black frame understood as the inside of the window-frame through which that spectator is looking, the niche and its occupant retreat to the other side of a sudden fictive street (explaining the scale of the niche), across which a wordless and quizzical exchange is taking place.
Gerard Houckgeest (c.1600-61), Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, 1654, o/ panel, 49 x 41 cm., and detail, Rijksmuseum
Houckgeest’s church interior seems to be more straightforward; its outer contour includes the inner edge of an arched wooden window, much more evidently part of an architectural opening on the spectator’s side of things than in Dou’s niche painting, so that it is possible to think that one might be looking through from the vestry to see how the church is filling up. The Rijksmuseum entry merely notes that,
‘The painted green curtain is an illusionistic joke: it refers to the 17th-century custom of protecting paintings with curtains from light and dust’ .
This is evidently a large part of the reason for real curtains in actual interiors, but a trompe l’oeil curtain complete with part of a grained wooden window-like opening around a view into a named church is obviously doing something more than referring jokily to a hanging custom. It puts the spectator into the place of priest or sacristan, and turns the figures which populate the church into more than mere staffage: it notes, perhaps, a comparison or contrast between behaviour and setting.
Frans van Mieris (1635-81) and Adrian van der Spelt (c.1630-73), Flower garland with trompe l’oeil curtain, 1658, 46.5 x 63.9 cm., and detail, Art Institute of Chicago
Frans van Mieris’s curtain, painted on Adrian van der Spelt’s flowerpiece, is if anything even more realistic than the previous examples – hemmed and edged with bobbled braid, the main fabric slightly puckered at the join; creased where the curtain has been ironed and folded; hung by matching tape to the brass rings; the rings, like the rail, tarnished and dull. It is only spoilt by the modern frame having been made too close at the sight edge, so that the bottom of the curtain is hidden, rather than free to swing in illusion out from the painting and into the real world.
Frans van Mieris, Flower garland and curtain, 1658
Originally it must have been given a simpler, less heavy and more retiring frame with a fractionally larger sight; something which would play up the astonishingly tactile and three-dimensional presence of the curtain, which has certainly far more presence than the flowers it purports to hide, or to reveal. What a great pity that it should have lost its flair to an insensitive act of framing; the tension between perceived reality and decorated flat surface is so much greater than any of the other works with curtains illustrated here.
A final word on trompe l’oeil curtains:
From The diary of Samuel Pepys, 19 May 1660: ‘At the Hague we went to buy some pictures, where I saw a sort of painting done upon woollen cloth, drawn as if there was a curtain over it, which was very pleasant, but dear’ .
Painted interiors with curtained pictures
1656 – inventory of the estate of Jacob Jansz van Velzen, Delft…: ‘A painting showing the Crucifixion of Christ with a gilt frame with a rod and green curtain; A flower pot in a gilt frame with a green curtain in front of it; Two large paintings, Mary and Joseph with the four converted sinners, the one in a black frame with a blue curtain in front of it, and the other in a gilt frame.’ 
The authors of Prijst de lijst, where this extract is published, state (as noted in the Rijksmuseum entry, above) that the curtains’
‘… primary purpose was probably to protect against direct sunlight and against dirt such as dust and smoke. Moral considerations presumably played no rôle’.
However, it is clear that there may very well be a number of varied purposes and considerations involved in the use of curtains – the real, tangible kind, the trompe l’oeil kind, and on the pictures shown in painted interiors – although these are generally conveyed quite subtly.
Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (c.1561-1635), Sir John Kennedy of Barn Elms, 1614, and detail, Woburn Abbey
Paintings with the latter sort of curtained pictures (secular subjects hanging in domestic interiors) don’t begin to surface until the portrait with which they are associated becomes large enough to encompass more of the interior the sitter occupies; in other words, until the pose is full-length, or at least half-length, and there is more space around it, and a wall which is not dissolved by a window. This portrait of Sir John Kennedy is an early available British example of this arrangement; the painting hanging on the side wall in its typical 16th–turn-of-the-17th century black-&-gold architrave frame is curtained more than halfway across, but still evidently hides a woman’s likeness.
This might be the epitome of romantic compositions – the beloved too precious to allow idle eyes to light on her, but a source of pride which must at least be hinted at – if it weren’t that Sir John appears to have been the archetype of a bounder, marrying fair Mistress Brydges as a sort of Scots-English Act of Union encouraged by the king, eager to get his paws on her inheritance and house but probably having an earlier wife in his attic. She eventually expelled him from the eponymous Barn Elms, which he then attacked with a gang of supporters. All of this makes the curtaining of the portrait, and the dating of the whole work after Elizabeth Brydges’s divorce from Kennedy in 1611, the more mysterious. Perhaps the curtained painting is a concealed image of his illegitimate daughter and heir – a hit at his erstwhile wife, which only she and his supporters would understand?
Italo-Flemish School, Portrait of gentleman beside a framed portrait of a lady, C17, o/c, 104 x 91.1 cm., reframed, and detail, Sotheby’s, 8 April 2020, Lot 9
This is, or at least seems to be, a happier conjunction of two sitters; the man so ready to show off the woman’s portrait (betrothed? wife? or another possible daughter?), the woman apparently happy with her lot, and clad in the first stare of fashion (the ruff indicates a date of c.1610-20). Can the unidentified artist be painting her from life, or has he already painted her, and is copying his own work into this later portrait? Was the real curtained picture one painted by another earlier artist, and is the gentleman posing later, in a time when fashions were moving on, but he has resumed his wedding finery? Is the artist copying (and possibly improving on) an older colleague’s work? The layers of reality offer so many possibilities .
The nature of the hang is interesting, too. Unlike the Gheeraerts portrait, above, where the fictive rail runs parallel with the top member of the frame, here the rail is raised above it and pushed slightly backwards so that the curtain drapes over the whole work, concealing and protecting it completely. There is also a bizarre arrangement of three ribbons supporting the hanging ring at the centre back and stretched across the wall above, causing an unsightly collision with the curtain rail of five spidery limbs. Might this mean that it is all a temporary arrangement, set up for the painting of the gentleman’s portrait, and that in reality (whatever that is), the woman’s likeness lives elsewhere? Her frame, however, is simple and attractive, parcel-gilt with a black frieze decorated with delicate foliate scrolls and clasps, in mordant gilding.
Willem van Haecht (1593-1637), Apelles painting Campaspe, 1630, o/ panel, 148.7 x 104.9 cm., Mauritshuis, and details of curtains, rails and curtain rings on the frames of various subjects (Quentin Massys, Portrait of a scholar, 1520-25, Städel Museum, Frankfurt; Sebastiano del Piombo, Ferry Carondelet and his secretaries, 1510-12, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum; Massys, The moneylender and his wife, 1514, Musée du Louvre; Rubens, Battle of the Amazons, 1617-18, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)
David Teniers (1610-90), Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his picture gallery in Brussels, 1647-51, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna; and details of Titian’s Violante from paintings of the Archduke’s gallery in Vienna; Staatsgalerie im neuen Schloss Schleissheim; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Belgium
The 1630s and 1640s saw a great many paintings of picture galleries from the hands of artists such as Willem van Haecht, David Teniers, Frans Francken, &c., which should be added here for the record, but which cannot be trusted for their accurate depictions either of frames or of curtains. In these images, the paintings are the thing : meticulously-reproduced copies of works owned by the patrons involved or hung together in imaginary collections, and the accessories are merely there for verisimilitude. The curtains are distributed randomly amongst these paintings, just as the finish of the frames and the arbitrarily-imported oval or ‘Sansovino’ pattern are changed or added for variety; they add a bit of asymmetry amongst the grids of mouldings, and bring in some larger patches of colour. They do not suggest any deeper meaning or reason for their use, but here they are: groups of curtains gathered to graze at a waterhole, rather than a solitary browsing example.
Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), Man with a glass & a jug & a woman lacing her bodice, c.1665, and detail, Private collection
Single examples of curtained pictures in domestic interiors are much more interesting, since – although they may be equally imaginary – they are freighted with so many potential meanings. Here is a vanished work by Pieter de Hooch: the woman laces her bodice whilst looking meaningly at the man in the loose shirt and nightcap, who smiles back at her, and above their heads a gold-framed curtained painting discloses the bare reclining limbs of a Venus/nymph/mortal about to be seduced by Zeus.
This might, in other circumstances, be a horrid warning of nefarious goings-on, and of unchaste women who end (as in the Zeusian universe) transmogrified to cows, bears, madness or small piles of cinders. However, there is also a dog, the symbol of fidelity, which almost certainly indicates that this is a married couple enjoying an affectionate moment before the cow outside calls for his attention, and the house inside for hers. Possibly the reclining figure is actually Hera, wife of Zeus, and thus (forgetting the cows, bears and other misfortunes) an advertisement for married love.
Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), A lady surprised by her lover, 1665, Wellington Collection, Apsley House
Another, slightly more stylish couple, and an equally stylish but Auricular frame, which apparently (by reference to another painting ) contains another lounging nude. Here the reference must be to Venus as goddess of beauty and love, although the small beribboned lapdog also looks forward to fidelity and marriage. Why is Venus curtained in these paintings? – it cannot be to preserve the modest cheek, since, in the Woman with knitting, a servant and child in the Guildhall Art Gallery, the whole of a Venus is visible down to her ankles, with what is probably an equally naked Cupid on the other side of her. Perhaps the reason is merely protection, rather than concealment, since all three curtained nudes are set in splendidly ornamental giltwood frames, suggesting that they may be prized souvenirs of a Grand Tour, or expensive gifts on a marriage. The curtains of the last two run on rails under the sight edge at the top of the frame, so that the upper part of the frame is still visible, and in the Lady surprised…, the carved putto or cupid is clearly defined.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67), Woman reading a letter, 1665, and detail, National Gallery of Ireland
Metsu’s picture frame here is ebony and severe, like the matching looking-glass frame; it goes with the stormy monochrome sea and wind-tossed boats in the painting beneath the green silk curtain. The museum entry explains this painting as a warning:
‘…a ship sailing on choppy waters, a reference to the then common simile that love is like a rough sea…’
…although the pendant, Man writing a letter, has, hanging on the back wall, a sunlit autumnal vista of trees, mountains and happy woolly goats, in an extremely beautifully carved and depicted Auricular frame, with one of Venus’s doves at the crest. This frame has no curtain, confirming that the seascape is not curtained for protection, but only so that the maidservant can draw attention to its emblematic warning by revealing more of it to the viewer. The frame of the seascape is another instance where the curtain rail is raised right above the top of the work: it is silvery grey, and fastened to little spherical silver finials (although sagging slightly under the weight of the curtain). The hanging fixture is also prominent – a faceted piece of black-painted wood sticking up from the back of the frame, where it will have been let into the wood, providing a sturdy weight-bearing ring.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67), A man and a woman beside a virginal, c.1665, o/ panel, 38.4 x 32.2 cm., and detail, National Gallery, London
There is a similar ebony frame with raised hanging fixture on the landscape in Metsu’s Man and woman beside a virginal; this is uncurtained, and shows an ambivalently semi-clouded landscape with a lake or river (the weather may go metaphorically either way). The curtain on the work beside it is gauzily translucent (although this may be due to the darker painting beneath showing through over time); it hangs across the top of a larger, slightly arched Auricular frame, which apparently contains a scene of the festival of Epiphany based on one by Metsu himself – a scene of riotous celebration, drinking and masquerade. The catalogue entry draws attention to the wine glass in this picture, which echoes the glass the young man in the foreground is offering to the young woman; the inference is that of a slippery slope, which may bring her eventually to carousing in taverns with notorious drunks dressed up as the Magi. It is up to her to attend to the Biblical quotations inscribed on her virginal, to leap up, twitch the curtain across the painting, and commend the young man to his violin.
The curtain on the extreme left-hand wall is not another frame covering, but the window curtain; it has been casually hooked over the painting hanging there in order to give more light to the musicians, but this slovenly way of housekeeping is probably the sort of thing which leads to illicit wine-drinking and other excesses.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67), The Hinlopen family, c.1662-63, o/c, 77 x 82.6 cm., and detail, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
A last Metsu with a far more tragic story: this group portrait of the Hinlopen family has been narrowed down in time to the environs of 1663 – the year in which the baby died of measles and her mother had a fatal miscarriage. The young son also died the following year, and the father in 1666, leaving only the two little girls. Hinlopen may have chosen to have the portrait finished in remembrance of his wife and baby; and the painting on the back wall, in its Auricular frame, may show the interior of the church where they were buried – and where the two male members of the family would also have their funerals. This is hinted at in the presence of the shadowy figure carved at the top of the frame: not a cheerful cherub’s head, but an adult (so to speak) mourning angel. The curtain in this case becomes an instrument of grief and revelation, like the Lenten curtain on an altarpiece (see Part 2).
Emanuel de Witte (1615/17-92), Portrait of a family in an interior, 1678, o/c, 68.5 x 86.5 cm., and detail, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Emanuel de Witte’s family portrait is happier, full of fruit and flowers, a classical garden visible, and one of the artist’s own church interiors on the wall. It shows a sun-filled church, full of people, with no particular reason for its curtain save to show an example of another way of fixing the rail, on another type of frame. The latter is flat, probably made of ebony, with a prominent gilded leaf-tip sight edge; it is held on the wall by two metal rings fitted over hooks at the top, and two small bracketlike hooks at the bottom. The curtain rail is fixed to the back of the frame, and curls out, round the side of the frame and along the top.
Surviving frames with curtain fixings
Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83/84), Still life, c.1664-65, o/ panel, 33.7 x 24.2 cm., with antique hanger and original curtain rail holders, National Gallery, NG 2582. Photos: with thanks to Peter Schade
Just as the real curtains and rails have vanished from nearly all the frames that they once accessorized, so very few of the fixings, originally screwed or nailed to the wooden mouldings, have survived. Where they have, they are a priceless reminder of context and custom, and deserve to be conserved and also highlighted in captions and catalogue entries, as an indication of how the painting within was once displayed. This still life by Jan de Heem in the National Gallery has been reframed in a 17th century Netherlandish ebony frame, which has had the shaped cast iron holders restored, which held the curtain rail. They are decorative, with little spurs at the bottom, and seem to offer a choice of two heights for the rail, covering fractionally more or less of the frame.
Maria van Oosterwyck (1630-93), Still life of flowers, c.1685, Joslyn Museum, Omaha
If a curtain and rail were added to the National Gallery frame, the effect would be close to that of the flowerpiece by Maria van Oosterwyck in the Joslyn Museum. This has survived in its original fruitwood and parcel-gilt frame along with the fixings and curtain rail, and a green silk curtain has been made for it – probably based on the trompe l’oeil painted examples of Gerard Houckgeest’s Interior of the Oude Kerk and Van Mieris’s curtain on the Flower garland in Chicago. It is a splendid use of the opportunity offered by chance and time to show how the painting might have been seen by the client who first acquired it, and although the museum doesn’t intend to display it with the curtain all the time, the fact of its being available is valuable and imaginative.
Hendrik Bering (fl. 1695-1704), Portrait of the regents of the Burgerweeshuis in Naarden, 1695, 226 x 337 cm., Burgerweeshuis Naarden, Naarden
Another example of a surviving curtain rail and its holders belongs to a group portrait of regents in the orphanage at Naarden in the Netherlands, where this time two white curtains have been made and attached to the rail. This was necessary, because the length of the rail on a work which, framed, is 3.7 metres across, means that another support is needed to hold it up in the centre, inhibiting the closing of a single curtain. Two other group portraits in the orphanage have also survived with their original frames and fixings, but without the curtain rails. The protection which the curtains gave was probably the most important point, inside an orphanage, what with the continual movement of large numbers of children creating a lot of dust; the portraits of the men who ran this charity would most likely have had their curtains opened on Sundays and festivals.
The frame as a curtain
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Venus & Cupid, 1592, o/c; carved giltwood moulding frame, Tuscan, late 16th– early 17th century, and detail, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
Just as Renaissance tombs had sculpted curtains around them, usually drawn back by a convenient angel or two, so the trope was adapted occasionally for the wooden frame. There are various trophy frames where corselets and weapons are shown against swags of drapery, but these are usually outcrops of the banners which might be carved along the top in in the upper corners. The swags of cloth on Lavinia Fontana’s Venus can be seen as working curtains (if not very efficient), since this is exactly the kind of subject which might have been physically covered in the late 16th -early 17th century, for similar reasons to the covering of Titian’s portrait of a woman in black for Vendramin – this is the portrait of a woman in the court of Bologna, probably a member of the Ruini family.
The ‘curtain’ belongs to a Mannerist cassetta which was put on the painting later, but is entirely appropriate for it. It has been restored  save for the topmost ornament on the crest; this might appropriately have been the head of one of Venus’s doves, but is more likely to have been a cupid’s head.
Hyacinthe Rigaud (workshop; 1659-1743), Louis XIV, 1700, o/c, Chateau de Chenonceau
Other examples in which a draped curtain is part of the decorative composition of the frame can be seen in the article on trophy frames.
 Museum record for this case
 William Smith, William Wayte & G. E. Marindin, eds., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1890, ‘Speculum’
 Sara J. Schechner, ‘Optics, instruments and painting, 1420-1720: reflections on the Hockney-Falco thesis’, Early Science and Medicine, vol.10, no 2, 2005, p.143; ‘…a sponge dipped in powdered pumice was suspended from the mirror to be on hand in order to clean it’.
 Ibid., p. 144
 Ibid., p. 145
 Ian Mortimer, ‘The mirror effect’, Lapham’s Quarterly
 Kathleen Warwick-Smith, ‘Tracking Prudence: what an iconographic trail reveals about Western culture and its pathology’, Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies, vol. 15, no 1, 2020, p. 26
 See museum catatalogue entry
 See museum catalogue entry
 Marielle Brie, ‘D as in Damascene’, La Gazette Drouot, 10 June 2020
 Maarten van ’t Klooster and The Frame Blog: ‘Corneille de Lyon: French portraits, Venetian frames, Islamic ornament’
 Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scirè, Giorgione: myth and enigma, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2004, no 14, p. 219; with grateful thanks to Dr Kiril Penušlisk for sending me this essay
 Erin Campbell, ed., Growing old in early modern Europe: cultural representations, 2017, ch. 9, note 7; entry on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s website for La Vecchia’s appearance on loan there in 2019
 Giorgione: myth and enigma, op. cit.
 Ibid., p. 220
 This was probably the practice of, for example, the Venetian frame and antiquary dealer Antonio Zen in the 1840s and 1850s: see Z in A biographical dictionary of nineteenth century antique and curiosity dealers; see also the tabernacle frame in the collection of the V & A which combines a 16th century crest with a 19th century carcass and façade
 See ‘19th & 20th century Italian framemakers: articles in The Burlington Magazine’
 Miguel Falomir and Ana González Mozo, ‘Lotto’s portraits: their conception and execution’, in Enrico Dal Pozzolo & Miguel Falomir, eds, Lorenzo Lotto: portraits, exh. cat., Prado and National Gallery, 2018, p. 76
 Hélène Verougstraete, in Frames and supports in 15th and 16th century southern Netherlandish painting, 2015, p. 86, quoting Angelica Dülberg, Privatporträts. Geschichte und Ikonologie einer Gattung im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1990, and Lorne Campbell, Renaissance portraits, Yale, 1990
 Ibid., pp. 86-87
 See museum catalogue entry
 Enrico Dal Pozzolo, ‘Three portraits of Lorenzo’, in Lorenzo Lotto: portraits, op. cit., p. 45
 The cover formerly inscribed on reverse: BERNARD. RVBEVS / BERCETI COM. PONT / TARVIS. NAT. / ANN. XXXVI. MENS. X.D.V. / LAVRENT.LOTVS P. CAL. / IVL. M.D.V. (Bernardo Rossi of Berceta, Papal Count [Bishop] of Treviso, age 36 years, 10 months, 5 days, Painted by Lorenzo Lotto, July 1, 1505); see museum catalogue entry
 Falomir and Mozo, op. cit., p. 67
 See ‘Part 1: Covers and shutters on sacred works’
 Bronwen Wilson, ‘The Renaissance portrait: from resemblance to representation’, in John Jeffries Martin, ed., The Renaissance world, 2015, p. 462
 Catherine Whistler, ‘Titian’s Triumph of Love’, Burlington Magazine, CLI, August 2009, p. 536
 Ibid.: Appendix. Jill Dunkerton, ‘The conservation of the Triumph of Love’, p. 542
 From the paper presented by Gunnar Heydenreich, ‘The practice of framing in the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder’, given at the 2005 conference in Dresden, Northern European frames
 See the technical examination of 2011 in the entry on the Cranach website
 Heydenreich, op. cit.
 From Horace Walpole, A description of the villa of Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill, near Twickenham. With an inventory of the furniture, pictures, curiosities, &c., 1774, pp. 77-78. The brother of this cabinet, designed by Walpole for his friend Thomas Brand and also made by William Hallett, is in the Art Institute of Chicago
 Lucy Cox, Christie’s sale, Old Master and British paintings, London, 8 July 2016, Lot 193
 Pliny the Elder, The natural history, transl. John Bostock, bk. 35, ch. 36
 Amu Golahny, ‘Elisabetta Sirani’s Timoclea and visual precedent’, Source, 30, 2011, note 6, p. 5
 Angela Ho, ‘Gerrit Dou’s enchanting trompe l’oeil: virtuosity and agency in modern collections’, Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, 7:1, Winter 2015, quoting Jean Baudrillard, ‘The trompe-l’oeil’, in Calligram: Essays in New Art history from France, ed. Norman Bryson, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 53–54
 Gerard Houckgeest, Interior of the Old Church in Delft, 1654
 The diary of Samuel Pepys, 1659-69, first published in 1825; 19 May 1660 – with thanks to Neil Jeffares for the quotation
 P.J.J. Thiel, C. J. de Bruuyn Kops, Prijst de lijst, 1984, Rijksmuseum; transl. as Framing in the Golden Age, 1995, pp.350-52, quoting Bredius III, pp.879-80
 Cecilia Treves has written a piece on the painting here
 ‘…the Morning toilet in Lord Barnard’s collection’
 For more on this frame, see Louise Delbarre and The Frame Blog: ‘Histoires de cadres: frames in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen’
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Thanks for this article.
I’m confused by the frame for the portrait of Holzschuher. As is apparent from the image at the head of the article, the cover does not actually fit the frame. Do you know if it has been cut down at some point? And is there a slot in the existing frame, between the inner and the outer?
Thank you for your comment, and I’m glad if you enjoyed the article.
The first image in the article is just a montage of various items mentioned within it, to give a very brief impression of its scope; also to catch the attention, with luck, by using something colourful and – I hope – attractive.
If you read the section dealing with the Dürer portrait, you will see an unaltered photo of the painting and its cover hanging together in the museum, one above the other. They do not fit together any longer, as you can see that the cover has warped. This has probably affected the optical relationship of cover to frame, as, when I made the first montage, I didn’t alter the respective sizes of either piece – I merely moved the cover up, in front of the frame, to give an impression of their belonging together.
I also explain in the paragraph beneath the Dürer that the cover originally fitted between the inner and outer frames; i.e. it slid between the pale ash outer and the dark-stained inner frame. I hoped that the piece on Lotto would have explained how sliding covers worked, and that close-up details of the Dürer frame would be enought to illustrate where the cover actually went. Presumably a fraction of the border of the cover must have shown inside the ash frame when it was in place – unless the warping of the wood has just made it appear smaller than the sight.
I hope that this helps…
Thanks for the reply. I found a photo of the cover in the slot, which shows that it does fit. The photo used in your article, with the two parts one above the other, does not accurately preserve their relative sizes, as I had assumed. There is some kind of optical distortion that makes the cover look too small.
I’ve made an animated 3d model of the Holzschuher portrait using the photographs in this article (see the “private” link below). I’d like to make this model viewable to the public on Sketchfab.com. Who should I ask for permission to use the photos? Is it enough to ask “Frame Blog,” or do I have to contact Peter Schade directly?
Here’s the link:
What a brilliant idea! You could contact Peter Schade via Twitter (@psframes), just to be polite, but am sure that he won’t mind, and you could credit him for the photos wherever you publish it. If you would be happy for me to add it to the article on The Frame Blog, I would very much like to do that, and would credit you, and link to you if you have a website, &c…?
The link which you mention hasn’t made it through the software, I’m afraid. If you are on Twitter or Instagram and we follow each other, I could send you my email address?
WordPress seems to have automatically converted the link I posted into the embedded image that appeared in my reply. I’m not sure how to avoid that. You can get to the model by going to “sketchfab dot com slash gsugunhouse” and scrolling until you find it. It can be shared in various ways from there.
Fantastic post! I might add Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror to this seminal blog
Thank you! – I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.
Parmigianino’s self-portrait is brilliant and innovatory, but perhaps wouldn’t fit in with this article, as it doesn’t have a cover…
Since I happened to see this, I’ll post the link to a 3d model I made of the Parmigianino. It is not great for the frame, but does show the curvature of the surface of the painting itself. Here it is: https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/parmigianino-self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror-6ec9065989ca459e8fed186933c6a277