How Pre-Raphaelite frames influenced Degas and the Impressionists

This article discusses the connections between the innovatory frame designs developed by artists in Britain and in France during the second half of the 19th century.  It was originally given as a paper at the Melbourne symposium, Frame: Concept, History & Conservation, held under the auspices of the AICCM at the National Gallery of Victoria, 24th-26th August 2016.

Ford Madox Brown, The finding of Don Juan by Haidée; Degas, Danseuse au repos

The presentation of paintings in France by the second half of the 19th century had become mired in convention and repetition. The use of moulded ornament had increased; mechanical tools for joinery had been invented; and labour-intensive hand-carved frames were soon replaced by machine-turned wooden mouldings, covered with cast decoration – or pâtes économiques, as it was called. Translating literally as ‘economical paste’, this was a version of what was called composition, or compo, in Britain (although it was made slightly differently, and gave a finer and softer effect). Ornamental frames could be turned out much more quickly and cheaply than at any time in the past, and, with the consequent loss of carvers who also designed and created their own patterns, went the long tradition of invention and innovation.

Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg (1810-75), The Paris Salon in 1861, Photograph, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Frame designs became stuck in the reproduction of much earlier styles, as can be seen from Richebourg’s photos of the 1861 annual Salon in Paris . Here pastiches of French and Italian Baroque patterns rub shoulders with a large number of NeoClassical revival frames. No wonder that the critic Félix Fénéon (who was himself born in 1861) was later to write that,

‘There was no good artist who was not shocked by the disparity between the painting and its frame, the former so fresh, the latter so superannuated’ [1].

The rules of the Salon were highly specific about the types of frame which might be used: hence the oval frame prominent in Richebourg’s photo was backed with a rectangular board to give it the correct shape, while only gilded frames were admissible until 1879, when black and polished wooden frames were finally accepted.

Pietro Martini (1738-97) after J.H. Ramberg, The exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787, engraving, 1787, V & A Museum

In Britain the general style of framing and close hanging of pictures at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions remained very much the same throughout much of the 19th century as it was in France – and as it had been in the late 18th century. This engraving of the scene at the Royal Academy in 1787 could equally be another view of the 1861 French Salon, but for the costumes of the spectators. The same dense hang of paintings, and the same iteration of 17th and 18th century frame designs, was common throughout Europe well into the 1860s and 1870s…

Frederick Mackenzie (1787-1854), The National Gallery when at Mr J.J. Angerstein’s house, Pall Mall, 1824-34, watercolour, V & A Museum

…and when the National Gallery was installed in its first location in London, many of its paintings had antique French frames, applied to them by earlier collectors, whilst others were framed to match in 19th century replicas, even when this was anachronistic or of the wrong nationality.

Victor Orsel (1795-1850), Le Bien et le Mal, 1829-32, o/c, 307 x 205 cm., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Photo: Alain Basset

There were a few artists who rebelled against this tired and uniform approach to presenting their work. The Nazarenes, for example, a loose collection of mainly German artists who worked in Rome in the 1810s and 20s, created frames based on Renaissance and mediaeval altarpieces – usually with quite simple wooden mouldings around elaborate painted borders. The wider Nazarene circle included the French artist Victor Orsel, whose work Le bien et le mal is almost a manifesto of the Nazarene revival of mediaeval arts and crafts, with its gold ground and intricately decorated framework.

Auguste Couder (1789-1873), Scenes from ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ by Victor Hugo, 1833, o/c, 165 x 130 cm., Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris

J-A-D. Ingres (1780-1867), Jeanne d’Arc au sacré de Charles VII, 1851-55, o/c, 240 x 178 cm., & detail, Musée du Louvre

There were also individual painters who created one-off frames for particular works of art, such as Auguste Couder with his Victor Hugo polyptych and frame, and Ingres, who admired the Nazarenes, worked with them during his first period in Rome, and designed idiosyncratically-decorated frames throughout his career. The frame of Jeanne d’Arc…, above, has an intricately-moulded grapevine in the central hollow, symbolizing the Eucharistic element of the coronation.

However, it was not until another group of British artists came together and began to produce designs which were more easily reproducible and economic to make, that any significant shift occurred in the frames which artists themselves chose for their work. It took, of course, even longer for this change to work its way into the habits of collectors, and longer still for it to penetrate the customs of the art establishments throughout Europe.

Franz Pforr (1788-1812), The Shulamite & Mary, 1810-11, o/c, 13 4/10 x 12 3/5 ins (34 x 32 cm.), private collection

Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), The First Translation of the Bible into English, with painted integral frame, 1847-48, Bradford Museums & Galleries

This shift began in 1848, with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites, who included, most importantly, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were greatly influenced by the slightly older and more established artist, Ford Madox Brown. Brown was in his turn influenced by the artists of the Flemish Renaissance, familiar to him as he grew up and trained in Belgium, and by the Nazarenes themselves, whom he met whilst in he was in Rome. The influence of works such as Franz Pforr’s Mary & the Shulamite, with its arched structure and painted spandrels, can clearly be seen in Brown’s painting, The First Translation of the Bible into English, or Wycliffe reading his translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt.

Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), A study for Wycliffe…, possibly showing part of original frame design, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

This now has a later gilded wooden mount overlying the whole painting; however, with the frame removed you can see painted on the canvas much of the original Gothic architectural framework, with its pierced trompe l’oeil mouldings. A drawing in the Walker Art Gallery shows what was probably Brown’s first idea for the frame.

The Pre-Raphaelites felt, rather like the Nazarenes, that the art of the early Renaissance was more sincere and truer to life than the idealization they perceived in the work of artists after Raphael. The British artists, however, were essentially avant-garde, engaging with social problems and contemporary life, from which the Nazarenes had withdrawn.

Charles Allston Collins (1828-73), Convent thoughts, frame designed by Millais, 1850-51, o/c, 84 x 59 cm., Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The first frames produced by Millais and Holman Hunt were likewise very robust and innovative; Millais’s 1851 design for his friend Charles Collins’s Convent thoughts is well-known, and quite remarkably different from the pastiches of 17th century French frame styles which populated the Royal Academy exhibitions. Millais was only 22 when he produced this extraordinarily minimalist frame with its arched sight and no conventional ornament: just those two large stems of botanically-accurate lilies, modelled in compo to match the lilies in the painting.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The hireling shepherd, 1851, o/c, 76.4 x 109.5 cm., & detail of frame; Manchester City Art Gallery

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), The embarkation for Cythera, 1717, o/c, 129 x 194 cm., & detail of frame; Musée du Louvre

Holman Hunt, who was 24, produced a frame in the same year which was ostensibly a conventional pattern, but which actually parodied the rhythmic foliate ornament of 17th and 18th century French Baroque frames. It turned their stylized leafy ornament into naturalistic ears of corn and stooks of wheat, and so extended the satirical thrust of the painting, mocking the fantasy pastorals of Watteau, Boucher and Lancret – those artists whose work would have been framed in Louis XIV and XV styles. These were one-off designs, but they were imaginatively far removed from Victorian academic patterns, and also from the revival Gothic of the Nazarenes. These early frames also aimed at more than the merely decorative.

Millais sadly designed very few frames, and soon abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Holman Hunt, like Ingres, continued to produce extremely varied and imaginative designs throughout his career, but since these were almost all individual patterns they were too diverse to have much widespread influence.

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), The girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-49, o/c, 83.2 x 65.4 cm., reframed 1864, Tate

It was the partnership of Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti which picked up the early enthusiasm of the Brotherhood, and created designs which were widely influential into the early 20th century. They had met in 1848, when Rossetti had gone to Brown for painting lessons (these soon stopped, as he was set to paint arrangements of bottles which bored him rigid), but at that time Brown’s studio contained two paintings with integral Gothic frameworks, including Wycliffe reading the Bible. Rossetti’s own first two exhibited paintings therefore also had Gothicizing frames; unfortunately one of these – The girlhood of Mary Virgin – was so viciously attacked in the press that he reframed both of them, and we have little idea of what the original frames were like. The sole remaining clue is the arched top of the painting, visible in the corners below the replacement frame.

Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), The First Translation of the Bible into English (Wycliffe), 1847-48,reframed with shaped and pierced inlay in 1860, Bradford Museums & Galleries

As for Brown’s Wycliffe, it was rapidly sold and resold, moving through several buyers until the artist reframed that, too, in 1860, covering over the painted church door effect. The time – in England, at least – was not ripe for Gothic altarpiece-like frames.

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), Margaret, the artist’s wife, 1439, o/c, 32.6 x 25 cm., Groeningemuseum, Bruges

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), The salutation of Beatrice & Dante in Purgatory, 1854, bodycolour, 29.2 x 25.1 cm., Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

There was an interval of several years, in which Brown and Rossetti must have been deciding how to proceed, and then, from 1854, a burst of creative designing produced frames in which all the various influences behind them were fully digested and remade. We know that Rossetti and Holman Hunt had gone abroad in 1849 & 50 to Paris and various Belgian cities – Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels and Bruges – where they were particularly struck by the work of Van Eyck and Memling. The frames used on these paintings (with which Ford Madox Brown, too, was familiar from his youth) were completely different from those that they saw in museums at home.

Jan van Eyck , Margaret, the artist’s wife; D.G. Rossetti, The salutation of Beatrice & Dante…; details of horizontal joints

What Brown and Rossetti now – in the early 1850s – took from those Flemish masters were the more secular, non-Gothic, geometrical elements. These were frames which relied on plain architectural profiles, not on opulent ornament; they had unbroken rectangular contours; they used straight butt-joints instead of mitres at the front; they had inscriptions and small gilt or painted motifs on the friezes.

Hans Memling, Jan Floreins Triptych, 1479, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges (top); Antwerp Master, Triptych of the Epiphany, 1500-25, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (lower image); details of oak grain

Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), The hayfield, 1855-56, Tate

In some historic Flemish frames, the grain of the oak was clearly visible through the worn-down finish, whether it had been painted or gilded, and whether or not this had been the original intended effect. This is one of the most striking features used by Brown and Rossetti in their own designs. Victorian framemakers followed the conventional practice of covering the wooden frame with layers of fine gesso, or plaster of Paris, before gilding it; the gesso was rubbed down to a satin-like finish, and the gold leaf burnished, and the result was a glossy sheen like a pure gold ingot. Even where the frame was made of compo, the smooth surface gave a similar effect of molten gold. Leaving out the layers of gesso and applying the gold leaf directly to a beautifully-grained wood was a step made more radical by its very simplicity. It was also an economical action by young painters, removing several stages from a labour-intensive process.

Jan Provoost (c.1465-1529), Two wings with donors from Death & the miser: right wing, 1515-21, 157 x 120 cm., with detail of rainsill, Groeningemuseum, Bruges

Another feature of the Flemish frames which interested Brown and Rossetti was their use of rainsills. These are the canted mouldings at the base of altarpieces which echo the slanted sills of church windows. The Pre-Raphaelite artists, having rejected overtly religious subjects and frames in the style of the Nazarenes, looked at these mouldings from a secular viewpoint, and adopted their novel geometric planes as another feature of their frame designs. This might be as an optical device, in the flat mitred frieze used by Ford Madox Brown here and in a number of his later frames, or in a 3-dimensional canted or even triangular moulding.

10 Brussels Anon Donatrix Jacomijne Huioels detail 1547 Mus des B A Brussels

Unknown Brussels artist, The donatrix Jacomijne Huioels, wing of a triptych, 1547 (dated on lower right corner of frame), Musée des Beaux- Arts, Brussels; and detail of frame

Other elements of Flemish frames interested them, too, as we can see by finding those works still in their original frames and on view at the time Brown and Rossetti were separately in Belgium. These include combinations of gilding with black or ebonized finishes; narrow rounded or reeded mouldings; gold on black motifs; and flat painted corner ornaments.

10 Rossetti The Salutation of Beatrice 1859 National Gallery of Canada Ottawa ed

10 Rossetti The Salutation of Beatrice 1859 National Gallery of Canada Detail 1

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), The Salutation of Beatrice, 1859, & detail; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The underlying geometry of these Pre-Raphaelite frames becomes increasingly obvious – reeds, with their half-round section, flat friezes and mouldings, canted planes, and the opposition of round and square motifs. This severity of geometric volumes and forms is offset by the beautiful random textures given by the grain of gilded oak.

The Pre-Raphaelites were close at this point to the art critic John Ruskin, and they appreciated his support for a resurgence of craftsmanship in Britain. They were also influenced by his belief that the materials used should be the real thing – that there should be no pretence that something was other than what it was. In other words, compo was ideologically unsound, because it was a moulded material pretending to be carved wood, or – when gilded – it was pretending to be solid gold or ormolu. Therefore, the truth to nature of the carved wood and gilded oak used in the Flemish originals, and in the Pre-Raphaelite frames inspired by them, was an important element in the designs produced by the Brotherhood, and later by Brown and Rossetti in particular.

11 Ford Madox Brown The finding of Don Juan NGV sm

11 Ford Madox Brown The finding of Don Juan by Haidée Detail

Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), The finding of Don Juan by Haidée, watercolour, 1869-70, National Gallery of Victoria

Perhaps their most famous and long-lived design is the reed-&-roundel frame, for example the version on Brown’s painting from Byron’s poem, Don Juan. As can be seen, this was fairly simple to produce: a narrow, elegant moulding, given substance and authority by the gilded oak frieze; it suited both watercolours, which this is, and – in a heavier, wider version – oil paintings. It would have presented a relatively economical alternative to the conventional stock frame covered in compo ornament, and would besides have appeared a very modern choice in the 1860s and ’70s.

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus washing Peter’s feet, 1852, o/c, in frame of 1865, with detail; Tate

Another version of this reed-&-roundel pattern surrounds Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus washing Peter’s feet; it was painted in 1852 but reframed in 1865, in accordance with Brown’s and Rossetti’s new designs. It sums up the variety of the mouldings and ornaments they used, and stands as a marker of the avant-garde nature of these Pre-Raphaelite frames. It is a compendium of many of the new motifs: a deep canted moulding with black reeding at the back; a flat top edge with three half-round reeds, with what Rossetti called ‘chefs-square’ at the corners and roundels along the sides; a wide frieze with horizontal butt joints and small roundels carved into the surface; and another canted moulding inscribed with flutes at the sight edge. All of this is made of gilded oak, with the added black reeding giving definition around the contour.

J.F. Herring, Horses in a landscape, before 1865, The Cooper Gallery, Barnsley

If it is compared with the painting by John Herrring, the differences are stark. Herring’s Victorian reproduction French Baroque frame is made of pine covered in compo and oil-gilded. Because compo is moulded and applied to the frame like slabs of plasticine or icing on a cake, it is quite flat, and doesn’t project, or emphasize the ornament with undercutting, so that the effect in the corners has little variation of depth. Inside the hollow, the framemaker has tried to reproduce the intricate textures carved by hand into the gesso of 18th century frames with an overall dimpling, pressed into the compo. The frame has been finished with oil gilding, which catches and holds dust and dirt. The result manages to be at the same time both fussy and flat, and has darkened a lot over time. In comparison Brown’s frame looks clean, simple and uncluttered; it does not overwhelm the painting, but provides a low relief decorative border able to mediate perfectly between the picture and the interior where it hangs. The water-gilding on the oak is still bright and pure, and softened by the underlying texture of the wood.

Frederic Leighton, Sisters, 1862, Private collection

Frederic Leighton was another artist with an early interest in frame design, who was also influenced by the Nazarenes when young. In his twenties he lived in Paris, where he met Ingres, which may have increased his consciousness of frame design. In 1860, when he was 30, he moved to London, becoming one of the first commanders of the Artists’ Rifle Volunteer Corps, a regiment formed against the threat of a French invasion of Britain. Here, he would have been close to Ford Madox Brown, a founder member of the corps who was now 39, Holman Hunt (33), Millais (31) and Rossetti (32) – although Rossetti didn’t stay long; he kept arguing with the sergeant. The Artists’ Rifles was a fertile ground for the meeting, fellowship and interchange of ideas for many young British artists.

Frederic Leighton, Lieder ohne worte, 1861, Tate

Building on his previous interests, and probably stimulated by Rossetti’s and Brown’s designs, Leighton produced some radically geometric, minimal and exciting patterns of his own. He preferred the smooth gleam of gilding on gesso, but his flat black and gold frames, with ornamental roundels and narrow reeds or astragals, are clearly related to those of the Pre-Raphaelites. Looking forward to Whistler’s much better-known designs for frames, it should also be pointed out that Leighton was a long way ahead of him; and in view of a certain quote by Whistler on his own innovation of frames painted with colours, that Leighton’s Lieder ohne worte is painted in dark blue on gold.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The afterglow in Egypt, c.1863, o/c, 82 x 37 cm., Ashmolean Museum

For young, avant-garde British artists in the late 1850s and the 60s, this was therefore the age of the discrete decorative roundel, rather than the flamboyant, foliate and shell-embellished Baroque cartouche.

Roundels by F.M. Brown & Rossetti, 1860s (above); Frederic Leighton, 1861 (below)

These roundels incorporate various influences, as indicated – Gothic, Renaissance and even Arabian; yet three of the smallest (above) hint at an even more exotic source, which had excited the Victorians since the middle of the 19th century.

The Chinese Collection, Hyde Park Corner, 1842, The Illustrated London News, 6 August 1842, V & A Museum

In 1842 the first trade deal had been signed between Britain and China, and that year there was an exhibition of Chinese objets d’arts in London, which was very popular and remained open for some time. A decade later, in 1853, the doors to trade between Western Europe and Japan were reopened after almost two hundred years, and in 1862, when one of the great International Exhibitions took place in London, the Japanese Court was one of the most impressive and novel stands.

The Japanese Court at the International Exhibition London, 1862, The Illustrated London News, 20 September 1862, V & A Museum

The exhibits provided a rich vein of motifs, harmonizing perfectly with the new decorative tendency espoused by these young British artists. Many of them already collected Chinese objects, and were alerted to Japanese design by the imports flooding in, via America and Paris, from the 1850s. Rossetti was even, rather inaccurately, described as ‘the first pioneer of Japanese art in London’ [2].

Edward Burne-Jones, Cinderella, 1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

He liked blue-&-white china and Japanese rugs, infecting his friends with the collecting urge, so that we see Burne-Jones posing his Cinderella against a dresser of blue-&-white china in 1863.

The roundels noted on the various frames can thus be seen in the context of the Japanese mon or heraldic badge: at the  top left, a wisteria garland; at the top right, gingko leaves; and at the bottom right, a kiri or paulownia leaf.

Albert Moore, The mother of Sisera…, 1861, Tullie House, Carlisle

Another artist greatly affected by Japanese art was Albert Moore. He was more than ten to twenty years younger than Leighton, the Pre-Raphaelites and Brown, but was able to associate with them as an original member of the Artists’ Rifles; Leighton became one of his great supporters. Moore was also influenced by his friend and collaborator, the architect W.E. Nesfield, whose eclectic sources – mediaeval, Classical and eastern – fuelled Moore’s highly-developed aesthetic sensitivity [3]. He was a born classicist, studying antique sculpture in Rome, Naples, and the British Museum, and basing the architectural frescos he produced for Nesfield on friezes of Greek and Roman figures.

Albert Moore (1841-93), Pomegranates, 1865-66, Guildhall Art Gallery (top); marble coffer from roof of North porch of Erechtheion, Athens, British Museum, bought 1816 (centre); detail of frame on Pomegranates (bottom image)

He had been drawn to the art of the Pre-Raphaelites in his teens, and it was almost inevitable that he should be inspired by the flat geometric frames of Brown and Rossetti – as well as by the carved stone ornament he found in museums – to produce his own designs. These emphasized the lack of depth in his paintings, and enhanced their linear, decorative qualities. He adopted the Pre-Raphaelites’ gilded oak and wide friezes, paring them down to an even flatter and more minimalist profile in the style of Japanese furniture, to which he added reeding or classical ornament from Greek and Roman architecture.

Albert Moore (1841-93), The Shulamite, 1864-66, detail with stepped & reeded frame; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

In 1859 Whistler had settled in London; he became friendly with the Pre-Raphaelites (notably with Rossetti, who shared his enthusiasm for oriental china) at a point when their innovatory frame designing was at a peak, and when their style of work influenced his own. By 1864, when his friendship and collaboration with Albert Moore began, Whistler was drawing on his collection of china and Japanese prints to introduce a contemporary gloss into his paintings and early frame designs.

J.A.M. Whistler (1834-1903), The Lange Leizen of the six marks, o/c, 36 3/4 x 24 1/8 ins (93.3 x 61.3 cm), & detail of frame, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The four frames he had made for him that year are gilded oak, based on Brown’s and Rossetti’s patterns, including their flat profiles and their arrowhead moulding at the sight edge, as well as decorative roundels. But Whistler’s frames are also covered with incised Japanese and Chinese motifs, while the large medallions in the centres and corners reproduce Japanese ‘mon’ emblems faithfully and rather earnestly.

J.A.M. Whistler (1834-1903), Caprice in purple & gold no 2: The golden screen, 1864, o/c, 50.1 x 68.5 cm., with detail & paulownia ‘mon’; Freer Gallery of Art

J.A.M. Whistler (1834-1903), La princesse du pays de la porcelaine, 1863-65, o/c, 199.9 x 116.1 cm.,with detail & gingko ‘mon’, Freer Gallery of Art

All these ornaments are in fact employed in the same undigested, wholesale way in which Whistler imported oriental props into his paintings – what is known as ‘japonaiserie‘ in contrast to the more considered japonisme. Albert Moore’s influence was needed for Whistler to subsume into his work the more fundamental elements of Japanese art: the use of space and colour, and the organization of ornament.

Albert Moore, Lilies, 1866, Clark Institute of Art; Whistler, Symphony in white No III, 1867, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

By 1865 Whistler was so intimate with Moore that he proposed forming a Société des Trois with him and Henri Fantin-Latour in Paris.  The first work that he painted under Moore’s influence had a completely different style of composition, and far fewer oriental props than the four paintings of the year before. If we compare this picture (Whistler’s Symphony in white No III) with one painted by Moore in tandem with it (Lilies), we can see this alteration in Whistler’s style. He described the Symphony in white to Fantin Latour as his ‘purest’ painting yet, because he now paid ‘most attention to the composition’. Sadly, the original frame of neither painting is now in place – it would be very illuminating to compare them. However, we can compare the signatures, and see that Whistler has not yet adopted his butterfly emblem, whereas Moore’s logo of an anthemion is already part of the whole colour conception.

Albert Moore (1841-93), A quartet: A painter’s tribute to the art of music, 1868, o/c, 24 5/16 x 34 15/16 in (61.8 x 88.7cm), The Pérez Simón Collection

Moore and his family were extremely musical, and his paintings are organized on rhythmic principals which were also influential for Whistler’s work. A quartet, finished in 1868, has a frame in which the long astragals or slender half-round mouldings are broken into different ornaments, creating various intervals in relation to each other, in the same way that the lines of the heads and feet in the painting, set against the lines of shelf and bench, create various rhythms.

J.A.M. Whistler (1834-1903), Symphony in grey & green: The ocean, 1866, o/c, with signature & frame details of 1869-70; Frick Collection

This metaphorical use of music in a visual medium is partly responsible for Whistler’s use of musical titles: his ‘Symphonies’, ‘Nocturnes’ and ‘Harmonies’, which also echo Moore’s use of non-specific titles for his figure groups, such as ‘Pomegranates’, ‘Apricots’, and ‘Azaleas’. Whistler’s Symphony in grey & green: The ocean was given his new butterfly signature on the canvas in the form of a glyph, like Moore’s, but Whistler’s was taken from Japanese prints, where Moore’s came from ancient Greek pottery. The signature was probably added in 1869 or 70, when the painting was also framed in an architrave design: this has a shallow profile carved with groups of reeded mouldings set at different intervals, a subtle japoniste fish-scale decoration, and two painted bands, again with different intervals between the marks (this surface decoration has been repainted, and another butterfly signature added). For all his protestations of originating frame designs, his debt to his peers, from Brown and Rossetti to Leighton and Moore, is clear.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Carnet de croquis, no 16, 1858-60, with a sketch for the frame of La famille Bellelli, Département des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; detail from sketch with La famille Bellelli, 1858-67, o/c, 200 x 250 cm., Musée d’Orsay

Whistler exerted his own influence, however; he became something of a conduit between artists in Britain and in France. When Degas made some of his first sketches for frame designs, at the end of the 1850s, we can see that they were in the same academic, NeoClassical style as the frames in Richebourg’s photo of the 1861 Salon illustrated at the beginning of this paper; and it was just at this point, in 1859, that Whistler decided to leave Paris and settle in London.

Edouard Manet (1832-83), Olympia, 1863, o/c, 130 x 190 cm., Musée d’Orsay

Details from the frames of Whistler’s La princesse du pays de la porcelaine, and Manet’s Olympia

Six years later, La princesse du pays de la porcelaine was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865, where Manet’s Olympia was also on show, in its magnificent traditional Salon frame of moulded plaster. Then, as with the Pre-Raphaelites, there seems to have been an interval of some years whilst Whistler digested the various influences which had affected him, and whilst the group of artists who would become the Impressionists began to develop their own framing strategies.

During this time, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 created a catastrophic upheaval in Paris, and Monet and Pissarro moved to London with their families. The usual comment on this move is to note how their interest in plein air painting was confirmed by studying the work of Constable and Turner. However, Pissarro later wrote to a friend,

‘Watts, Rossetti, strongly interested us amongst the modern men.’ [2a]

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Mary Prinsep, c.1867-69, o/c,66 cm x 53.3 cm., Watts Gallery, Compton

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), Water willow, 1871, o/c on panel, 13 × 101/2 in. (33 × 26.7 cm), Delaware Art Museum

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), Sibylla palmifera, 1866-70, o/c, 98.4 x 85 cm., Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

They would have visited the artists’ studios, probably through Whistler’s introduction, where they could have seen Rossetti at work on Water willow and Sibylla Palmifera, and a portrait of Mary Prinsep still with G. F Watts. The frames of these works must have been as much or more of a revelation than the paintings. The difference from a traditional Salon frame was very striking: the use of gilded oak, also used by Watts; the flat architrave profiles; the wide empty friezes; the minimal use of ornament, and the reeded borders, were all very far from, for instance, Manet’s revival Louis XIII frame for Olympia.

The fruit of these connections appeared from the early 1870s, by which time Monet and Pissarro had returned to Paris. They must have produced some white and coloured frames from at least 1873, when Whistler announced in a letter that,

‘I won’t let any crafty little Frenchman trespass on my preserves… I am the originator of this kind of coloured decoration on the frame…’ [4]

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse au repos, 1879, pastel & gouache on paper, 231/4 x 251/4 ins (59 x 64 cm.), in original frame; private collection. Photo courtesy of Jed Bark

However, it’s not until the third Impressionist exhibition, in 1877, that we find critics commenting on the archetypal white frame. It is also at this point that illustrating the subject becomes extremely difficult. Plain white architrave frames were used by Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot; but these were later replaced by dealers, collectors, and even by the artists themselves. It is thanks to Degas, who guarded his frames so jealously that he took back paintings from friends who had reframed them, that we have any examples at all of these early Impressionist designs. And the one remaining example of a Degas architrave frame with its original polished white gesso finish and gilded flutes, shown here, is in a private collection, and was removed by the auction house for its latest sale in 2008. Designs which are unexpected, unfamiliar, or thought unworthy of the million-pound treasures they house are still, sadly, endangered.

We can see clearly how frames like this were indebted to the Pre-Raphaelite designs which Monet and Pissarro almost certainly saw themselves, and to similar ideas as they were mediated by Whistler to the artists he knew in France. The finish was, of course different – lack of gilding was a further step of economy amongst painters who were still trying to make a place for themselves to earn money and seek commissions. The finish also obscures the similarity of these designs; Degas’s work, seen next to Rossetti’s, immediately makes the latter look far less modernist, and heightens the avant-garde nature of the frame.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Potager, arbres en fleurs, printemps, Pontoise, 1877, o/c, 65.5 x 81 cm., in Degas’s white frame; Musée d’Orsay

Because almost all other examples of these early frames have vanished, the only way we can imagine the twenty-three landscapes shown by Pissarro at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition is to borrow Degas’s white frame, and Photoshop it onto one of those Pissarros.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), La brouette dans un verger, 1879, o/c, 53.5 x 64.5 cm., in Degas’s frame, tinted rose; Musée d’Orsay

In the same way, we can recreate one of the landscapes he showed at the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, where a group of works were presented in frames painted in colours to complement the picture:

‘…for a sunset where the dominant hue was red, a green frame; for a purplish canvas, a frame in a matte yellow; for a green spring landscape, a rose-coloured setting…’ [5]

The year before, at the fourth Impressionist exhibition, Mary Cassatt had shown portraits framed in red or green. These coloured groups must have had a huge impact on their audiences, who were habituated to ornate gilded frames – just as we are, now, to the antique French frames which have been associated with Impressionist paintings for more than a hundred years.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse au repos, 1879, in original frame; sketch from Carnet de croquis no 5, 1879-82, Département des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Degas’s sketchbooks from the late 1870s and early 80s contain drawings for this type of frame, as well as for more imaginative profiles with convex, stepped and reeded mouldings [6]. Here, he is negotiating a much more substantial setting than the flat, simple white architrave frame: something that will be able to compete with the Salon frame, and still look very modern; something which might be coloured to harmonize with or complement the painting, or could be gilded without losing its place in the avant-garde.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), sketch from Carnet de croquis no 23, 1878-79, Département des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), François Poictevin, 1887, o/c, 26.7 x 16.5 cm., Tate; currently on loan to National Gallery

The convex reeded frame was one of his answers, and the only pattern which has more than one or two survivors. He used a gilded version of it on a small portrait given him by Jacques-Emile Blanche, which hung in Degas’s own bedroom for a number of years. This frame has more than twice the surface area of the whole painting, and thus gives it great substance and authority; it also provides a wide margin of transition to the wall where the portrait hangs. As well as this, the reeded ornament creates an effect of perspectival recession into the painting, producing a tension with the very shallow space depicted. For all these reasons, it is a very successful design.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Ludovic Halevy et Albert Boulanger-Cavé dans les coulisses de l’Opéra (Portrait d’amis sur scène), 1879, pastel on paper, 79 x 55 cm., Musée d’Orsay

J.A.M. Whistler (1834-1903), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The artist’s mother, 1871, o/c, 144.3 x 162.5 cm., reframed in 1890s; Musée d’Orsay 

The same reeded frame can be seen in a larger, green-painted version on Degas’s own Portrait d’amis sur scène of 1879, showing how radical these Impressionist frames could be, and how they even may have influenced Whistler’s reeded convex mouldings on his frames of the 1890s.

The Degas Room, Camondo apartment, 82 Avenue des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1910, with the painting L’absinthe, 1875-76, Musée d’Orsay

And yet the Impressionists did not abstain from gilded frames – as the Blanche portrait framed by Degas shows – they just used gilding in different ways. The collection of Count Isaac Camondo, a banker who assembled a large group of Impressionist paintings, contained many uniform gilded frames similar in form to the early white pattern, but with a NeoClassical ribbon-&-stave on the top edge; this is supposed to have been approved by Degas, thirty of whose own paintings and pastels were owned by Camondo. A photo taken in 1910 of the Degas room in Camondo’s apartment in Paris shows at least ten paintings hanging in this setting, in a single corner of the room, and they are preserved with these frames in the Musée d’Orsay. The pastels have white mounts inside the gilt frames.

 Hugues Merle (1823-881), Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, 1866, o/c, 113 x 81.5 cm.

The Durand-Ruel Impressionist exhibition, 1905, Grafton Gallery, London

A related frame was also used by the dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who used specially-made reproductions of a Louis XVI NeoClassical pattern for the Impressionists’ paintings, thus neatly bridging the gap between the avant-garde and the traditional. These have the flat architrave profile of the white frame, but are given a classical respectability by the ornament. They are gilded; Pissarro complained to his son,

‘You saw how I fought with him for white frames, and finally I had to abandon the idea. No! I do not think that Durand can be won over.’ [7]

For the most part, Impressionist paintings are not framed today as the artists originally intended them to be seen; although it is also true that their tastes (and what they could afford) changed over time. Their early and original designs were very far from the antique French Baroque frames that we are used to seeing now on Impressionist pictures. They were different even from the reeded gilt frames evolved by Whistler in the 1890s, which seem to draw on the designs of both Albert Moore and Degas, and different again from Pre-Raphaelite frames; however, the survivors bear witness to the long spate of decorative invention from the mid-19th century, to the international nature of this invention, and to the various influences which diffused in both directions across the British Channel to create an astonishing range of innovatory and modernizing picture frames.


[1] Félix Fénéon, Bulletin de la vie artistique, 1 February 1922, Oeuvres plus que complètes, vol. I, 1970

[2] By Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

[2a]  Pissarro to Wynford Dewhurst, published in Dewhurst’s Impressionist painting, 1904, p. 31-32

[3] For Moore, see the illuminating and very well researched Albert Moore by Robin Asleson, 2000, London.

[4] Letter to George Lucas, 18 January 1873

[5] Georges Lecomte, ‘Camille Pissarro’, in Les hommes d’aujourd’hui, 8: 336, 1890

[6] Degas, sketchbooks (carnets de croquis) from 1858 to 1883, various numbers, Département des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

[7] Pissarro to Lucien Pissarro, 28 February 1883, in Letters to his son Lucien, ed John Rewald, trans. Lionel Abel, 1943, New York