Completing the Image: Baroque Frames from the collection of Philippe Ávila

an exhibition: The Institute of Fine Arts, 1 East 78th Street, New York
24 January to 21 February 2020

Curated by Lisa A. Banner

Introduction by Lisa Banner

Frames complete pictures, holding them for display on a wall or other setting, and presenting them to the viewer. They follow the form of the stretched canvas, protecting the work, and defining physical structure and visual borderlines to separate and support that picture from the outside reality of the viewer. The frames shown here reveal some of the rich abundance of patterns, forms and designs created to present European paintings from the Baroque period, with one example of a later French papier maché frame with a Baroque profile, embellished to reflect and capture the light with japanning and glimmering mother-o’-pearl.

Baroque elements – curvaceousness, theatricality, and movement – are present in picture frames from the late 16th to the end of the 19th  century; and they also appear paradoxically in the restraint of severe, linear 17th century architectural mouldings, which were intended as a simple division between the viewer’s reality and the contained image. Frames create visual and physical borders to their contents, to shape or to display. Empty frames lose their context and sometimes their meaning; however, they survive as relicts of something previously created and displayed, and are frequently recommissioned to serve anew.

Drawings of frames demonstrate one aspect of how asymmetrical designs emerged. The 18th century study exhibited here, of a French cartouche with figural and shell decoration, probably served as a presentation drawing, suggesting the choices given to the client before the project of carving and gilding the frame was begun. Frames were so highly valued in Europe that they were often listed individually in estate inventories prepared for appraisals, with descriptions, measurements, and values that at times surpassed the cost of the painting.


Frames in Baroque paintings
by The Frame Blog

Frames have often been used as metaphysical devices in European paintings, appearing, famously, in Van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini marriage portrait in the National Gallery, London, where both sitters and artist are reflected in the little convex looking-glass on the back wall.

The Baroque age, however, seems peculiarly drawn to representations of looking-glasses and other framed objects in paintings, and to their use in undermining the apparently straightforward depiction of reality which appears at first glance.

Diego Velásquez (1599-1660), Las Meninas, 1656, o/c, 320.5 x 281.5 cm., Museo del Prado, Madrid

Velázquez exploits the interplay of framing devices above all in his huge group portrait, Las Meninas. The various spaces which are framed in this painting generate a cat’s-cradle of complex relationships, in which the viewpoint of the spectator changes as his or her eye moves across the canvas. The artist, who portrays himself in the act of painting, looks out of his own canvas at us; but we are not after all his models, since, on the wall behind him is a looking-glass, reflecting the king and queen – the subjects of that vast other painting-within-the-painting, the back of which is turned to us. However, since they are reflected behind the artist, they must be placed equally far in front of him, in our own space; so – are they us? And does the apparently large space in which they pose therefore extend as far again forwards as backwards, into the real space in which we stand?  The figure standing at the back – who appears to be almost on a level with the king and queen – is himself in another  space, on the daylit stairway, framed on one side by the doorway, and on the other by a curtained window, where he pauses, reflecting on the intersecting realities of these different spaces. Meanwhile, in the frames hanging on the painted walls, histories and mythologies echo, subvert or comment on the relationships of the various figures below them, in the room.

Murillo (1617-82),  Self-portrait, o/c, 122 x 107 cm., National Gallery, London

Murillo’s portraits and self-portraits also use the frame as a bridge between realities: for example, this integral painted oval frame in faux stone which serves as a window on which the artist rests his hand. The sill on which the frame rests is given added realism by means of the tools of Murillo’s trade which lie upon it – the unrolling drawing, pencil, dividers and ruler; the palette and brushes.  Strangely, however, the reality of these objects creates a tension with the reality of the portrait, so that we begin to question where he is, and in what space? Is there a third level of existence, beyond the world of the spectator, and the world in which the pencil and brushes lie? Perhaps this frame is not a bridge, but a  device to separate, fragmenting reality into a series of discrete strata.

Rembrandt (1606-69), Agatha Bas, 1641, o/c, 105.4 x 83.9 cm., and detail, Royal Collection Trust

Rembrandt uses a similarly painted frame in his portrait of Agatha Bas, where the edge of a trompe l’oeil arch-topped ebony moulding emerges from behind the real, three-dimensional frame, allowing the sitter to hold onto the right-hand side while her fan projects over the bottom rail. These gestures are so discreet and subtle as to be barely suggestions, and yet the physical presence of Agatha Bas and the implied space in which she stands are both inexpressibly enhanced.

Rembrandt (1606-69), Girl in a picture frame, 1641, o/c, 105.5 x 76 cm., and detail, Royal Castle Museum, Warsaw

In the same year, Rembrandt used an almost identical visual trick in the tronie known as Girl in a picture frame (or Girl in a hat). The trompe l’oeil ebony frame in this case is only partial, extending along the bottom of the painting and up the right-hand side. Rembrandt dealt with the framing of some, at least, of his work, writing to Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the stadtholder, Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, in an effort to recoup the cost of ‘two ebony-wood frames’; it is therefore interesting to speculate how both paintings would originally have been framed – whether modified ebony frames might have been built to accommodate the painted elements. The artist knew and painted the ebony-worker and framemaker Herman Doomer (c.1595-d.1650), who might well have been intrigued by such a project. This illusionistic game with reality and with the viewer’s expectations is part of the theatrical aspect of the Baroque: another version of the intersection of different viewpoints and spaces which Velázquez and Murillo were also playing with.

Georges de La Tour (1593-1653), The penitent Magdalen, c.1640, 133.4 x 102.2 cm., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Georges de La Tour’s Penitent Magdalen places a looking-glass as the heart and centre of the painting. The Magdalen has withdrawn from the temporal world, expressed in those symbols of mortality, the skull and the flickering candle, and is rejecting the props of worldliness – her rich clothes and her pearls – for the spiritual world, which will transcend everything else. The looking-glass is a symbol of vanity – doubly so, because it is made of precious metal and inlaid with gemstones; but it is a question as to what she sees, looking into it: the life she is leaving, or her own short life, or perhaps the temptation to stay.

François Boucher (1703-70), La toilette, 1742, 52.5 x 66.5 cm., Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Boucher’s La toilette is full of the vanities of life; the woman at her toilet is caught between a giltwood and a red lacquered looking-glass, whilst what is perhaps her own earlier, more innocent self in the portrait beyond the screen is occluded and unable to speak. These various frames suggest the different layers of life – its realities and its deceptions.


Catalogue of the exhibition

1   Spanish 17th century carved and gilded reverse profile frame, with flowered back edge, acanthus corners, and punchwork reposes on the frieze; centred and bound bunched bay leaf sight edge; c.1675-1700; 16 ¾ x 11 ¾ x 5 ins; overall size 27 x 21 ½ ins. Modern antiqued replacement looking-glass

2   Italian 17th century carved and gilded reverse profile frame, probably from Bologna or Parma, with geometric and cabochon back edge; cabochon chain; acanthus leaf frieze; centred raking stopped channel fluting at top/ sight edge; 19 ¼ x 15 ¼ x 5 ins; overall size 25 x 29.5 ins.

3   British late 19th- early 20th century carved, gilded and lacquered polychrome wooden drawing frame by the luxury goods manufacturer Bing; provenance from Bing collection, London; decorated and signed on edge by ‘Dreyfous’; 13 ¼ x 9 5/8 x ¾ ins; overall size 14 ¾ x 11 ¼ ins.

4   Unknown artist, mid-18th century French School, design for a cartouche in Rococo style; ink and wash over black chalk on laid paper, 7 1/5 x 10 ½ ins.

5   Portuguese or British, late 18th – early 19th century, solid ebony carved ogee moulding frame, 9 7/8 x 10 1/8 x 2 ins; overall size 13 ½ x 14 ins.

6   French Louis XIII carved and gilded oak drawing frame, second half 17th century, with convex profile; cross-cut acanthus on a hazzled ground on top edge; with cable moulding at sight edge on a hazzled ground, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1 3/8 ins, overall size 12 ¼ x 10 ins.

7   Hispano–Flemish carved and ebonized wooden bolection frame, second half 17th century, stepped in a series of concave and convex mouldings; 10 ½ x 7 x 1 7/8 ins; overall size 14 1/8 x 10 ½ ins.

8   Spanish carved parcel-gilt and polychrome pine bolection frame, last quarter 17th century, from Seville; flowered back edge; corners with scrolling foliate cartouches and roses; centres with scrolling sunflower cartouches and tulips; black glazed reposes; floret chain at sight edge; 22 7/8 x 17 ½ x 4 ¼ ins; overall size: 31 3/8 x 26 ½ ins.

9   French or British late 19th century Napoleon III/ Victorian papier maché drawing frame with ogee profile; japanned finish in black picked out in red, blue and gold, inlaid with mother-o’-pearl; 11 x 13 x 2 ½ ins; overall size 16 x 18 ins.


Photographs courtesy of Josh Gaddy

Philippe Ávila, a scholar of Spanish frames, is also a  giltwood and frame restorer and conservator. He is the author of ‘An introduction to Spanish Baroque frames in the Golden Age’.

Contact him by email on


The Institute of Fine Arts
The James B. Duke House
1 East 78th Street New York
New York 10075
Tel.: 212 992 5800  Email: ifa.program@nyu.eduI

Simon Vouet (1590–1649), The toilet of Venus, c.1640, o/c, 164.94 x 114.46 cm., Carnegie Museum of Art