Reasons for reframing: focusing on Titian

The more famous and sought-after the artist, the more his or her painting tends to move from collection to collection over the years, and the more likely it is that it will have been reframed – in some cases, several times, and with varying degrees of success. There are different reasons for this; usually commercial, the painting having been sold, and the new buyer wanting it to conform to his collection, or wanting to stamp his insignia of ownership on it.

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), Portrait of Inigo Jones, 1630-35, o/c, 64.5 x 53.2 cm., Hermitage Museum

When the Walpole collection of paintings was sold from Houghton Hall, much of it to Catherine the Great, the frames stayed behind – not, presumably, being thought of as having any great value in the later 18th century – and the pictures were reframed in St Petersburg. Van Dyck’s portrait of Inigo Jones, for example, has acquired a 19th century fluted hollow or scotia frame two centuries too late for it, creating a strange disjuncture from the style of costume and hair, and also from the physical material of the painting. It may not have been hung immediately after journeying to Russia in 1779 and therefore lacks an 18th century frame, or it may have been framed twice in its Russian sojourn, the second time around the middle third of the 19th century.

Van Dyck, Portrait of Inigo Jones, 1630-35, in a montage with the frame of Van Dyck, Bearded man wearing a wheel ruff, c.1634, Ashmolean Museum

Its current frame may not be the most suitable, but the Hermitage is in a difficult position, without access to what are in any case fairly rare frames from 1630s Britain. An example from another bust-length Van Dyck portrait of the same period in the Ashmolean suggests one option for what the Inigo Jones may originally have looked like; a very good replica might be a better solution.

Then there is the question of a legacy; the son who inherits his father’s collection may have immense respect for the paintings in the collection, but he may want to update the house which probably forms part of the bequest, including its furniture and frames. When Nicolas Poussin painted The adoration of the golden calf (National Gallery) and The crossing of the Red Sea (National Gallery of Victoria) in 1632-34, the pair would almost certainly have been framed in Turin in Italian Baroque frames for the client, Amedeo dal Pozzo. But by the beginning of the 18th century they were in Paris, and had been inherited from his father, along with the family hôtel, by Jean-Baptiste le Ragois de Bretonvilliers.

Nicolas Poussin, The crossing of the Red Sea, 1632-34, o/c, 155.6 x 215.3 cm., National Gallery of Victoria 

When the hôtel was redecorated around 1710, both paintings were reframed in contemporary idiom, and both of them have retained their extremely beautiful, and beautifully-made, Régence frames. These may not be chronologically correct fot Poussin’s work (although, like the artist, they are French), but they are extraordinary works of art in their own right; they reflect the history of the paintings; their exquisite workmanship is a tribute to the value of their contents, and their richness of ornament acts as a foil to the classicism of Poussin’s style. No museum worth its salt would contemplate removing collectors’ frames of such calibre; although if they were hung with some furniture of the same period the paintings might marry even better with their frames. Context is one of the most important factors in displaying a painting well.

War may also be the cause of subsequent reframing; most, if not all, of Arcimboldo’s oeuvre has lost its original framing, which would have been Italian Mannerist in style, and now is generally in a ragbag of later, often quite recent, frames. An example is Rudolf II as Vertumnus, which was looted from the court of Prague and now forms part of the collection of Skokloster Castle in Sweden.         

Jan van Eyck (fl.1422 -d.1441), Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his wife, 1434, oak panel, 32 1/4 x 23 1/2 ins (82.2 x 60 cm.), National Gallery, NG186

Similarly, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, which had made its way from Flanders into the Spanish royal collection by inheritance, was taken by Joseph Bonaparte in his baggage train when he fled before the advance of the British troops in the early 19th century. Joseph, brother of Napoleon, had been created King of Spain in 1808, and had spent much of the following five years staving off his brother’s efforts to have the royal collection sent from Madrid into France. In 1813, Wellington’s army defeated the French at the Battle of Vittoria, and Joseph set off for Paris with a core of the more portable paintings. The baggage train was captured by the British, however, and a Colonel Hay ended up in London with the Van Eyck, which he finally sold to the infant National Gallery in 1841 – probably through the influence of Charles Eastlake, Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission [1].

At some point in its eventful history the painting lost its frame and the integral cover, which would have given it a book-like structure; both were probably painted (like other Van Eycks) in a faux stone finish by the artist. Holman Hunt saw the painting in the 1840s, soon after its acquisition, and was profoundly impressed by it; when he mentioned it in his book on the Pre-Raphaelites in 1905 he remembered it as having a ‘dignified ebony frame’ [2]. This is almost certainly the present setting, a Victorian Gothic revival rainsill pattern in dark polished oak, with a gilded sight edge mimicking colonets and a canted sill, which was made for the National Gallery. In the later 20th century this was swapped for a modern flat frame in pale beechwood, which suited it in no atom of a way whatever; fortunately, the Victorian frame was retained and reunited with the painting. Although it is patently a revival, it is relatively plain, attractively proportioned and finished, and complements the work well enough in terms of colour, tone and style to stand in for the irrecoverable painted frame.

Jan Steen (1626-79), As the old cock crows, the young cock learns, c.1662, o/c, 94.5 x 81 cm., Musée Fabre, Montpellier

War is probably also the cause of the rather striking framing of the Netherlandish paintings in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier. This delightful museum was founded in 1825 on the collection left to the city by the artist, dealer and collector, François-Xavier Fabre, and was greatly expanded by subsequent legacies, including nearly eighty paintings, as well as sculptures and 400 works on paper, left by a wealthy entrepreneur, Antoine Valedau. Many of these paintings are Netherlandish, and all of them are framed in French Empire style – presumably due to the depredations caused across Europe by the Napoleonic wars, and the greater ease of transporting unframed pictures. As with the Van Dyck portrait of Inigo Jones in the Hermitage, the disjunction is extreme: the frames are a hundred & fifty to two hundred years later than the paintings, and in the Neo-NeoClassical idiom of Napoleon’s designers, Percier and Fontaine. They have also been gilded and regilded overall in a high tone. In spite of the collector’s tendency to reframe his acquisitions to fit in with his interior decorations and with the rest of his collection, it is hard to comprehend the aesthetic sensibility which could live happily with this result; however, these Empire frames are part of the founding history of the museum and its early benefactors, and – in spite of the distraction they create – may now (sadly) be immovable.

Since the most celebrated artists have the least chance of retaining their original frames, it will be no surprise that Rembrandt’s work especially has gone through many reframings over the years, and is still undergoing this process in pursuit of the relevant curator’s idea of a suitable setting. Sadly, some of the more splendid collector’s frames have fallen victim to a spreading blight of mediocre reproduction ebony patterns, whilst elsewhere less attractive examples remain in place; however, the occasional giltwood frame which survives can be of the calibre of the Régence frames on Poussin’s Golden calf and Red Sea.

Rembrandt (1606-69), Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, 1657, 0/c, 48.6 x 37 ins (123.5 x 95 cm.), private collection, on loan to National Gallery of Wales

The portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet has an extravagantly sculptural French Rococo frame; although it is not clear when this would have been fitted to the painting. The latter may have been in England since the 1720s; it was bought by the Douglas-Pennant family of Penrhyn Castle, Wales, in the 1860s, and hung in the breakfast room there until 2013. The frame seems both to have been cut to fit the painting, and to have been given an inlay – possibly to contain a glazing door – but its three-dimensional qualities and highly detailed ornament have survived these alterations. Like the jewelled setting of a miniature painting, it holds the portrait in a halo of undulating gold, chosen by a discerning owner to isolate and emphasize it within the rest of the hang.

Rembrandt (1606-69), Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, o/panel, 58 x 46 cm., Rijksmuseum

There are more recent imaginative reframings which also look beyond the ebony frame for a Rembrandt; for example, the small panel of Jeremiah in the Rijksmuseum, which was acquired in 1939.

Andrey Nikiforovich Voronikhin (1759-1814), The picture gallery, Stroganov Palace, 1793, watercolour & gouache, The Hermitage

This had made its way into the collection of Count Alexander Stroganov in the 1770s, and can be seen in Voronikhin’s painting of the picture gallery in the Stroganov Palace, where it was housed in a NeoClassical gilt frame (it is the third small painting to the right of the left-hand column, in the lower tier). It has now been put into what is probably a looking-glass frame: a 17th century bolection profile with canted sight edge, veneered in golden and amber tortoiseshell, the markings of which echo both the brushwork of the painting, and the colours of the landscape. This is a bold and creative step, which emphasizes the fiery destruction of Jerusalem in the background, and rescues the whole work from what must have been an occlusion of all its subtlety in a gilt frame.

Titian (c.1490-1576), ) & workshop, An allegory of prudence, c.1550-65, o/c, 75.5 x 68.4 cm; before (top) & after; National Gallery.  NG 6376

An Old Master whose work – apart from architectural altarpieces – has been all but completely reframed, is Titian. In 2014 the National Gallery, London, launched a crowdfunding appeal to purchase a 16th century Venetian cassetta for Titian’s Allegory of prudence, which was then contained in a 17th century Louis XIII French frame. The appeal was successful, and the ‘new’ frame illuminated the painting, both in terms of chronological and structural sympathy, and of ornament appropriate to the painting.

Titian (c.1490-1576), Supper at Emmaus, c.1545, o/c, 64.2 x 78.7 ins (163 x 200 cm.); frame by Vincenzo Bolci, c.1836; National Gallery of Ireland  Photo: with thanks to Rob Markoff

Another Titian which has undergone an eccentric reframing by a past owner is the Supper at Emmaus in Dublin. Prince Nikolai Demidoff had a particularly mad Rococo revival attributive frame created for it in the 1830s, by the Italian carver and gilder Vincenzo Bolci; it is carved in limewood, and combines a ground of trompe l’oeil basketwork with trophies of loaves and fishes, nets and floats, and garlands of roses. For some time the National Gallery of Ireland (which had acquired the work in 1870 from the auction of the Demidoff collection) hung the frame separately, outside the picture galleries, but in 2000 it was restored, and reunited with the Titian [3]. It is a matter of debate as to whether the history of the painting, as illustrated by the collections through which it has passed, may be more important than its aesthetic presentation; it is possible that, in this case, a full-size reproduction in the Demidoff frame and a 16th century Italian frame on the Titian might not solve both questions more happily for historian and spectator.

Titian ( c.1490-1576), The death of Actaeon, c.1559-75, o/c., 178.8 x 197.8 cm., National Gallery, NG 6420

The National Gallery, London, possessed other unfortunately-framed Titians apart from the Allegory of prudence. One of these is the late, powerful Death of Actaeon, which was painted for the Spanish king, Philip II, along with a pendant depicting that part of the story when the hounds of Actaeon, now in the shape of a deer, attack their master. The National Gallery painting is dominated by the striding figure of the vengeful goddess, bearing down on the man who has dared to see her vulnerable in her bath, her leading arm with its bow seeming to unleash the agitated mass of writhing vegetation which roils around the stricken figure of Actaeon and his lethal hounds in the right-hand side of the painting.

Unfortuntely, some decades before it was lent (initially) to the National Gallery in the 1960s, it had acquired a Victorian revival Louis XIV frame decorated with reproduction Berainesque ornament, which mimics the restless movement of foliage, water and clouds in the painting so effectively as to flatten the composition into a two-dimensional tapestry of small, frenetic, but conflicting strokes. Part of the visual discomfort this causes is due to the undulating progression of busy ornament around the frame, interrupted at corners, centres and demi-centres by outward-thrusting leaves. These are all moving in opposition to the brushstrokes and the foliage on the canvas, so that the movement in the composition is hampered, rather than being reinforced. This is an almost inevitable outcome of choosing a frame of different nationality and period from the painting: occasionally a miscegenation of this kind will, fortuitously, work well (The Arnolfini marriage portrait, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet), but more often than not it is visually disastrous.

Walter Scott, Bradford, The drawing room, Harewood House, c.1950s, b-&-w postcard; Titian, The death of Actaeon, on back wall at left

It is probable that the Titian acquired its reproduction French Baroque frame in the late 19th or early 20th century: either whilst in the possession of the 3rd Earl Brownlow or when sold to the 6th Earl of Harewood [4]. It can be seen in this frame, hanging in the drawing room of Harewood House, in a black-&-white photo of the 1950s which was made into a postcard.

Venetian Mannerist frame, 16th century, giltwood & polychrome

In 2016 Peter Schade, head of framing in the National Gallery, was able to purchase an extremely rare 16th century Venetian architectural frame of sufficient size and grandeur to present the Titian in an historically and ornamentally appropriate way. The death of Actaeon was one of the series of mythological scenes or poesie painted over two decades for Philip II, but unlike the six earlier paintings in the series (executed from 1553-1562) [5], never reached him, remaining in Titian’s studio at the time of the artist’s death from the plague; the pendant seems to have disappeared.

Galerie François I, Château de Fontainebleau, 1530-47

The series is in some sense a collaborative idea between Philip and Titian, designed to hang together in a scheme influenced by that of François I at Fontainebleau in the 1530s-40s. Judging by this model, the eventual hang would have been integrated within an architectural, panelled setting, as was the fashion in Venice during the second half of the 16th century; however, no definite location in Madrid was agreed for such a scheme, due to Philip’s deteriorating health, the unfinished state of the palace of the Alcázar, and his political exigencies [6]. Since there is no documentary reference to the location of the paintings within the Alcázar (or elsewhere) until the 1620s, nor any idea of the style of a putative hang during Philip’s lifetime, there is no model which could possibly be followed today for extrapolating such a scheme, or the frames within it (which in any case would only make sense were all seven paintings to be reunited in the Prado).

The impetus for reframing the National Gallery painting was thus to give an idea of the context within which Titian had created it, and the wider setting within which he – as a Venetian artist – would naturally have conceived it, having visited neither Spain nor Fontainebleau. The evidence for this kind of setting can be found in paintings of interiors, and in frescos and canvases mounted on walls within architectural frames (either painted, or applied wooden or stucco frames).

Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1465-1525/26), The birth of the Virgin, c.1502-04, o/c, 126.8 x 129.1cm., & detail, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

Carpaccio’s Birth of the Virgin, for example, painted for the Scuola degli Albanesi in Venice, includes on the left-hand side part of a landscape, framed in a wide border which chimes with other painted borders in the room, and matches the more three-dimensional door-frame. It is not a window, since the frame has no depth itself, and its position would give no room for the fireplace, outside wall and chimneybreast in the kitchen which can be seen through the door.

16th century Venetian Mannerist frame acquired for The death of Actaeon (top); detail of fictive frame in Carpaccio, The birth of the Virgin (bottom)

It is a fresco in a fictive frame, with architectural ornament similar to (although sparser than) the frame acquired for The death of Actaeon. The ornament in the crest is almost identical to the leafy scroll on the latter. This must be the kind of interior which Titian had grown up with, and what – in a much more opulent form – he might have imagined for his series of poesie made for the Spanish king.

Frieze decorated with paintings in fictive frames, 1550s, Palazzo Thiene, Vicenza

Fictive frames in actual interiors in the region can be found in, for instance, the Palazzo Thiene, built in Vicenza from 1542 to c.1558 by Giulio Romano and Andrea Palladio. The interior is decorated with painted ceilings, and in one room has a deep frieze running around the top of the walls where history paintings in the style of Giulio, and set in trompe l’oeil Mannerist frames, alternate with faux sculptured caryatides.

Fictive cassetta, Palazzo Thiene, Vicenza

Other frescos in the Palazzo Thiene were given wide fictive cassetta frames, ornamented with multiple rows of beading, bead-&-bobbin, and other small classical mouldings, which again are very close in style to the frame acquired for The death of Actaeon.

Titian ( c.1490-1576), St John the Baptist, early 1540s, in original fluted frame with cassetta extended by Mannerist brackets at the top, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice

Contemporary movable frames for Titian’s works would have included variants on the cassetta, often including bands of carved ornament, beading, etc., as recorded in various inventories of the time; whilst Domenico Tintoretto is noted as using ‘beautiful and magnificent friezes’ for his paintings [7]. Titian’s Vendramin family (c.1540-43 to 1550-60, now National Gallery) was described as ‘con suoi adornamenti d’oro’ – ‘with its carved giltwood frame’ – a mid-16th century frame as described in a 1602 inventory [8]. Both references are ascribed (in The Sansovino frame; see notes 7 & 8) to versions of the ‘Sansovino’ frame, although the use of ‘fregi’ or ‘frieze’ in the first reference is more fittingly used for a linear cassetta enriched with multiple parallel ornamental mouldings (as in the frame of Titian’s John the Baptist, above, or in the Venetian Mannerist frame acquired for The death of Actaeon), or embellished with sgraffito or other polychrome decoration.

Tintoretto (1519-94), The lifting of the brazen serpent, 1575-76, o/c, 840 x 520 cm., canvas element within ceiling, Sala Capitolare, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

As well as the mythological decorative schemes devised for palazzi and villas in the Veneto, the grandest and largest-scale series of wall-mounted paintings set into architectural frames were those produced in Venice, for state buildings such as the Palazzo Ducale, for religious houses, and for lay institutions such as the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Here, Tintoretto’s cycles of works for the main chambers of the Scuola were set into the walls and ceilings within complex networks of richly carved, gilded and painted frameworks, which were fundamentally classicizing, but which exploited all the fashionable tropes of Venetian Mannerism – outset corners, exaggerated scrolls clasped across the frame rail, swooping volutes embellished with piastre ornament, modillions and grotesque mascarons. All these features were held in restraint by rows of linear classical architectural ornament – egg-&-dart, cross-cut acanthus, astragal-&-bead, pearls, and simple plain fillets.

These were the frames which, within the overall structure of wall or ceiling, displayed the paintings as the artist intended that they should be seen: their inner space and animating movement opened out by the play of small mouldings within larger forms, and by the use of diagonal emphases creating tension with the picture contour.

Titian ( c.1490-1576), Annunciation, 1535, o/c, 166 x 266 cm., Grand Staircase, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

The Scuola also possesses paintings in movable frames; for instance, Titian’s Annunciation, bequeathed to the confraternity of San Rocco in 1555. This hangs on the landing of the grand staircase in a specially commissioned gilded and polychrome aedicular frame, carved with cherubs and garlands surrounding the arms of the donor. The wide frieze of its inner frame (which holds the painting like a cassetta within the aedicular altarpiece structure) is startlingly similar to the frame found for The death of Actaeon, illustrating very clearly the style of framing Titian would have expected to have seen on his work in the second half of the 16th century.

Elements of 16th century Venetian framing: top row: Titian, The Annunciation; outset corner of frame, Tintoretto, The brazen serpent; both Scuola Grande di San Rocco; (bottom row) details of frame acquired for Titian, The death of Actaeon, National Gallery

The frame so happily acquired for the National Gallery’s Death of Actaeon shares features with enough of the original 16th frames remaining in situ in Venice and the Veneto to validate its choice for so important a painting; it is also a rare and beautifully executed survival in its own right.

Venetian Mannerist frame, 16th century; the process of restoration: framing a life-size photo of Titian, The death of Actaeon

It needed to be adapted to the size of the Titian, the missing motifs reinstituted, and losses in the gilding made good, all of which took time, as this – like a major piece of 16th century furniture – required knowledgeable and respectful treatment.

Titian (c.1490-1576), The death of Actaeon, c.1559-75, o/c., 178.8 x 197.8 cm., National Gallery, in Venetian frame

When the Titian was finally fitted with its new setting and displayed in the Gallery, it was immediately apparent how much a frame from the same area and period could alter the perception and impact of a painting. Instead of a restless tapestry of conflicting brushwork and ornament, the clean architectural lines of the ‘new’ frame opened up the space and perspective within the composition, so that now the spectator appears to be looking through a window onto a landscape in another, but terrifying real, world. The picture has also acquired much greater presence and authority through the width and weight of the frame: it appears to be an actual fragment of a Venetian scheme of mythological decoration, such as Philip II might even have travelled from Spain to see, before commissioning Titian to execute his own poesie.

Titian, three Diana paintings from Philip II’s poesie hanging in 2017 in the National Gallery; The death of Actaeon in ‘new’ Venetian frame

It is tantalizing to imagine a future where the two other paintings from that poesie series, Diana & Callisto and Diana & Actaeon (shared between the National Gallery, London, and the National Galleries of Scotland, and immured in clunky garland frames), might be displayed in replicas of the same 16th century Venetian frame, transforming – in the case of the National Gallery – the two walls of the room where they hang into something more reminiscent of a palazzo in Venice.

Titian, montage of three Diana paintings hanging in the National Gallery en suite in matching Venetian frames

This, surely, is the job of a curator? – to present not the bare painting, as it exists on the panel or canvas or cut out on the printed page of a book, but the complete work of art in something approaching an historical setting, so that the spectator learns more about the time, context and significance of the work through the way it is displayed, and is able to appreciate the entire aesthetic conception of the artist.

These are the best reasons of all for reframing paintings.


[1] For the whole story of the painting, see Carola Hicks, Girl in a green gown: The history & mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, 2011.

[2] See William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, vol. I, p.54.

[3] See The Irish Times, 11 March 2000

[4] Titian’s Death of Actaeon came to Britain in 1636-38, but was bought from the owner’s posthumous sale in 1649 by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, & appears in some of the paintings by David Teniers the Younger of the Archduke’s gallery in Brussels in a variety of imaginary frames. By 1721 it was in the Orléans collection in the Palais Royal, and, like another major work from that collection in the National Gallery, Sebastiano’s The raising of Lazarus, was back in London by 1798. Unlike the Sebastiano it was bought by Sir Abraham Hume, descending to the 3rd Earl Brownlow in 1867; it was bought by the 6th Earl of Harewood in 1919, sold by the 7th Earl in 1971, and eventually acquired by the National Gallery through a public campaign (see Wikipaedia for the entire provenance ).

[5] The six earlier poesie comprise Danaë (Apsley House, London), Venus & Adonis (the Prado), Perseus & Andromeda (The Wallace Collection), Diana & Callisto, and Diana & Actaeon (both shared between the National Galleries of Scotalnd & the National Gallery, London), and The rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).

[6] See the catalogue entry for one of the series of poesie still remaining in Spain, in the Prado – the Venus & Adonis of 1554 (186 x 207 cm.).

[7] Carlo Ridolfi, Le Maraviglie dell’Arte ovvera le vite degli illustri pittori veneti e dello Stato, II, Padua, 1837, p. 507, quoted in The Sansovino frame, by Nicolas Penny, Peter Schade & Harriet O’Neill, exh. cat., National Gallery,Co. Ltd, 2015, p. 30. Many, if not all, of these frames have now disappeared, being notably replaced in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice with mean and narrow modern mouldings, which seem to truncate and diminish the paintings.

[8] The Sansovino frame, ibid., p. 32 & note 46