Nicolaes Maes: original frames, French fashions, metal appliqués 

The recent exhibition on Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) and his works at the National Gallery, London (February-September 2020 [1]), was notable for its inclusion of a text panel highlighting some of the original and surviving frames on the Gallery walls. Exhibitions concentrating on frames of various styles, movements or collections are organized from time to time, but to find a display of an artist’s paintings which actively points out their settings is both incredibly rare and extremely heartening, and should be memorialized to encourage more curators to follow the path of Bart Cornelis and Nina Cahill.

Text panel in the Nicolaes Maes exhibition at the National Gallery, London, 2020

Maes famously trained in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam from the age of around sixteen, when Rembrandt himself was in his early forties, and returned to his native town of Dordrecht when his was around twenty. His early work on his own account seems to have encompassed religious and history paintings, and also genre scenes, many of them based on, or inspired by, paintings by his master. He must also have been inspired by Rembrandt’s own interest in frames (an interest which has been concealed by the lack, today, of original frames surviving on the work of an artist so much in demand over the centuries that his paintings have been constantly reframed as they moved from collection to collection).

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

However, it is only necessary to look at the pictures  which contain trompe l’oeil details of integral painted frames to see that this was an artist who took especial interest in how his work was displayed. Along with these painted ebony mouldings, his friendship with the ebony-worker, Herman Doomer, and his correspondence with Constantijn Huygens on frames which Rembrandt had procured for Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, Governor of the Netherlands, reveal that (as, of course, with most artists) he was intimately concerned with the business of framing.

Rembrandt (1606-69), The Holy Family, 1646, oil/ wood, 46.8 x 68.4 cm., Museumslandschaft Hessen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

His painting of the Holy Family in a firelit Netherlandish interior was even given its own complete trompe l’oeil frame with Auricular decoration of the arched top (cropped by some later owner, along with part of the three other sides), and a pretended curtain, hung on a rail in front.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), The Holy Family (after Rembrandt), c.1646-50, red chalk, blue chalk, brown & red wash on vellum, 22.8 x 27.9 cm., Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Rembrandt’s ‘framed’ Holy Family must still have been in his studio when Nicolaes Maes was a student there, as it was copied by the latter in a chalk and wash drawing which shows the missing parts of the frame, and its overall shape and impact very clearly; details include the fixtures for the curtain rail.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Young woman at a cradle, c.1652-62, o/c, 33.8 x 28.8 cm., and detail of top of canvas, Rijksmuseum

When he came to create his own variation on Rembrandt’s Virgin as a contemporary young Dutch mother, Maes imitated the curtain on its rail, slung in front of a heavy ebony moulding as if across the front of a frame. This is only a partial frame, however, and lacks the theatrical presentation  of the full-scale painted setting produced by his master.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93),  The eavesdropper with a scolding woman, 1655, o/panel, 46 x 73 cm., and detail, Guildhall Art Gallery

He did paint at least one complete trompe l’oeil frame, for the eavesdropper painting now in the Guildhall; this is an ebony ‘frame’ with ripple mouldings, and another curtain shades it, hung on thin rod which appears slightly bowed by the weight of the material. Like Rembrandt’s faux ebony mouldings, it makes the painting quite hard to marry with an actual frame, without designing half of a wooden structure which would treat the painted moulding as its own frieze and sight edge. It would be interesting to know whether canvases with integral frames of this sort were ever hung just as they were, outside the artist’s studio, without any other physical frame. The need to protect a painting and to display it within an applied wooden frame was a convention which even in the 17th century had existed for several hundred years, and collectors found it difficult to cope with pictures which subverted this tradition. The set of 15 trompe l’oeil paintings by Cornelius Gijsbrechts, produced in the 1660s for the Royal Kunstkammer in Copenhagen Castle, were probably hung unframed when new, but were given at least two different types of frame in the 18th and 19th centuries [2].

Rembrandt (1606-69), drawing for John the Baptist preaching shown in frame, c. 1655, pen & wash, 14.5 x 20.4 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphiques, L. Bonnat Bequest (Ben.969)

Rembrandt, (1606-69), drawing for The anatomy lesson of Dr Joan Deyman/Deijman shown in frame, 1656, pencil & wash, 10.9 x 13.2 cm., Amsterdam Museum

Drawings for painted compositions presented in intended designs for their frames, or (possibly) in fantasies which would remain in the mind of the artist, are part of this problematic area which covers the realizable and hypothetical in the world of the artist’s frame. Maes would have left Rembrandt’s studio by the time the two drawings above were produced, around 1655 and 1656, but they may be surviving examples of a preparatory process which would have been going on all the time – almost certainly for every important painting carried out in the studio. These suggestions of framing, and of the paintings seen within the frames sketched for them, stand for all those which have not survived; and – along with the oil painting of The Holy Family – are particularly interesting in that all three have aedicular structures (pilasters, pedestal and arched top or triangular pediment). Like Renaissance altarpieces, they may suggest architectural openings (windows or wide doors), through which the spectator can contemplate a scene in some other world, which is close to him, but at one remove; they may also suggest a proscenium arch, with the painted scene presented like a drama. Whether they are serious designs which might have been carried out in wood, paint, gold leaf, stain and polish, is another matter.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Study for Tobias and the fish, 1650

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), The young mother, 1655-57, pen, ink & wash, 13.5×17.7cm., Metropolitan Museum, New York

Rembrandt’s interest in sketching the type of frame he was considering for his work may explain Maes’s own early drawing of Tobias and Raphael with a plain arched frame brushed around it, and the drawing of The young mother, which represents a picture with oval sight and frame with spandrels, probably made of ebony or fruitwood. These are very plain designs which could be executed by a framemaker, and would appeal to purchasers.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Portrait of a woman with white gloves, 1657, o/panel, 81 x 69.2 cm., Christie’s, Amsterdam, 7 May 2013, lot 139

When Maes begins to move from genre scenes to more lucrative portrait-painting, his frames become an index of contemporary fashion – either immediately of the time in Dordrecht, or of a subsequent collector.  The bunched leaf-&-berry frame on this portrait of a woman with white accessories is a French Louis XIII-style pattern, current in Paris for thirty years or so from the 1640s. Such a style may have reached the Netherlands fairly rapidly, given the great increase in the 17th century of engraved prints, books of ornament, designs for furniture, interiors and tapestry, and travelling artists and craftsmen, crossing European borders in ever greater numbers [3]. A frame such as this might, if the original, be an example of Maes’s up-to-the-minute awareness, or a slightly later reframing by the family.  The provenance of the painting includes, most recently, a French sale, and it may have been in France for some time; however, the sunflowers interspersed with the foliage and berries suggest that this is a Netherlandish frame.

Nicolaes Maes (?;1634-93), Four children, 1657, o/c, 150 x 112 cm., Groeningemuseum, Bruges

This group portrait and its frame, which is almost certainly original, provide more evidence that the previous frame (on a portrait from the same year, 1657) may also be original, made in the French taste which was popular with Netherlandish collectors. This current frame blends a Louis XIII-style flower and foliate garland with a Netherlandish or Flemish black and parcel-gilt cabinetmaker’s frame, the garland being carved in a stained and polished fruitwood or walnut. Apart from the frame having been put on the painting upside-down – so that the lateral drops grow upwards, rather than falling down from the flowers which pin them at the top corners – it is a stunning example of an adopted style being remade in a local vernacular. The foliage includes olive leaves and olives, vine leaves and grapes, bay leaves and berries, sunflowers, and ribbon bindings at the top and bottom centres and lower corners. It has a sophistication which suggests, if this were a frame obtained through the artist, that Maes had learnt much more that the art of painting in Rembrandt’s studio, and that, even at the age of 23, he was capable of finding the best framemakers for his clients, and commissioning a setting as handsome as his compositions.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Joan Ortt, c.1672, o/c, 49 5/8 x 41 ins (126 x 104 cm.), Sotheby’s, Paris, 25 June 2008, Lot 27

The influence of French design on Netherlandish artists was supplemented by other sources, such as Spanish and Italian – firstly through the long years when Habsburg rule brought together disparate areas, such as Naples, Flanders, Holland and Spain, and secondly – after the Peace of Munster in 1648 – through the surge in independent Dutch trade in the Mediterranean. This may account for the completely different type of foliate frame from the French Louis XIII garland style which is found on two of Maes’s paintings from the early 1670s.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Anna Pergens, wife of Joan Ortt, 1672-75, o/c, 49 5/8 x 41 ins (126 x 104 cm.), Sotheby’s, Paris, 27 June 2008, Lot 27

These frames were made for the marriage portraits of Joan Ortt, a wealthy merchant and traveller, and his wife Anna, daughter of another mercantile family. Ortt was familiar with other European countries including Italy, and he may himself have suggested this variation on a Baroque leaf frame, and perhaps have found a carver who could copy a similar model, or who could follow a design for it by Maes. Netherlandish frames of the period were often elaborately decorated with foliage and flowers, but these tended to be carved as though laid on or hanging against a flat base, and although produced in every degree of relief, from shallow and flat to three-dimensional and undercut, they never achieve the rampant, flowing, free-form appearance of the scrolling acanthus on a Baroque Italian frame. In the present frames, the acanthus branches undulate from the bottom centre up to the top, where they rear into a fronton supporting the crowned armorial bearings of Ortt and his wife; their pierced and sculptural curves mimic the painted curves of drapery, curtains, plumes, hair and wig. They are attached to a torus moulding with stylized imbricated oak leaves, which forms the foundation and structure of each frame, and also its sight edge.

Three acanthus frames were made later, in 1683 and the 1690s, for portraits by Cornelis Jonson of members of the Hoeufft family [4], but they are more tightly scrolled and lack the fluidity and animation of these two oval frames.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Jacob Benckes, o/c, 17 ¼ x 12 7/8 ins (43.8 x 32.7 cm.), Metropolitan Museum, New York

Another pair of portraits – made in this case to celebrate a betrothal – is set in trophy frames, which in the way of 17th century Baroque marriage frames use complementary symbols and motifs to express the career and achievements of the man and interests or power of the woman. Benckes was a captain and later a commodore, and in 1673 actually recaptured New York briefly from the British. He sat for his portrait by Maes the year before he was killed, so his fiancée was never married to him. She kept the paintings, however, through her subsequent marriage, helping the survival of two particularly attractive small-scale trophy frames (further enhanced by their restoration for the exhibition of Maes’s work). Binkes’s frame has a classical military trophy on the left-hand side, with a corselet and helmet hung against splayed weapons, and on the other side naval instruments – a cross-staff, globe and leadlines – with more weapons. At the base a cannon and basket of cannon balls sit above an anchor, and are supported by two of Poseidon’s horses. At the top, Poseidon himself rides another seahorse with webbed feet, whilst two small tritons blow conch shells in the corners.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Ingena Rotterdam, betrothed of Admiral Jacob Binkes, 1676, o/c, 17 ¼ x 13 ins (43.8 x 33 cm.), Metropolitan Museum, New York

The frame of the pendant portrait is covered with festoons of flowers and fruit, promising abundance and fertility, with four pairs of doves (Aphrodite’s birds), and two small erotes in the centres. At the top is Aphrodite herself, holding a flower and beckoning to the figure of Poseidon on the other frame.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Jean or Jan Hoeufft the younger (Liège,1601-1677, Utrecht); no date (1670s?), no location

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Joan Hieronymus Hoeufft, died 1699, 1677, Private collection

As well as marriage portraits, Maes also produced groups of individual portraits within a family; one of his better clients probably having been the Hoeufft family, descended from the dodgy banker, Jean/ Jan Hoeufft senior, much of whose business and property was in France, but who eventually had to forfeit both and return to the Netherlands. Various portraits from this family group surface from time to time, the sitters generally wearing armour, red drapery and cheerful smiles, like Joan Hoeufft, above.  Presumably all (six?) of them originally had the same frames as these two; a Louis XIII-XIV-style strapwork torus, a drastic simplification of designs for mouldings and friezes derived from sources such as Jean Le Pautre. There must have been a great number of these decorative but uncomplicated mouldings, reflecting elements of architectural settings such as the running ornaments on ceilings and doorframes, and the friezes of chimneypieces, as well as motifs on silverware and the borders of tapestries. Sadly, many – possibly most – of them have fallen to a modern blanket reframing of Netherlandish paintings in black frames.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Group portrait of three children [probably from the Van Reede family], 1677, o/c, 126 x 152 cm., in a b-&-w image, and hanging in situ in Stichting Slot Zuylen, Oud-Zuylen

Other variations on French frames also pop up on Maes’s paintings. The group portrait of the Van Reede children, painted twenty years later than the early group of Four children in the Groeningemuseum, has been set in a Louis XIII bolection frame (possibly carved in limewood [5]). This echoes a series of nine others in the castle at Oud-Zuylen, framing full-length portraits of the family who owned it. All ten are ornamented with cross-cut acanthus, enriched with trails of husks along the veins.

Jean Le Pautre (1618-82), panel with acanthus bolection frame, from Le Tome Premier des Oeuvres d’Architecture de Jean Le Pautre, published in the 17th century by Pierre Mariette le fils, and republished by Charles Jombert in 1751

This reverse acanthus moulding is a translation of a fashionable French ornament which would have been available in imported plates, such as those published by Jean Le Pautre (1618-82). It is probably not so much the choice of Maes himself, or even commissioned through him, but obtained directly by the family as part of a serial framing of their family portraits. However, such a frame would be an index of the artist’s standing as a fashionable painter, whose work would be displayed by his clients in avant-garde splendour.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Philip Schrijver, 1675-99, o/c, 45.4 x 35.3 cm., Westfries Museum, Hoorn

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Cornelia Tyloos, 1684, o/c, 44.7 x 32.9 cm., Westfries Museum, Hoorn

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Johannes Reeland, 1670s-90s, o/c, 45.7 x 33 cm., ex-Johnny van Haeften

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Agatha Prins, wife of Johannes Reeland, pre-1679, o/c, 45.7 x 33 cm., ex-Johnny van Haeften

Another group of identical or very similar frames is found on the portraits of two married couples by Maes, and on that of the mother of one of the men (Philip Schrijver, above) by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet, and on an unknown child, by an anonymous artist [6]. The latter two are in the same collection, from Stichting De  Monté VerLoren, as those of Philp Schrijver and his wife, now in the Westfries Museum.

Nicolaes Maes, Philip Schrijver, 1675-99, and detail

These frames consist of hollow convex mouldings, pierced to allow flickers of light to penetrate to the ground beneath, and reflect back, animating the flowers and foliage with which the moulding is carved. This was originally a Venetian technique, learnt from the city’s commerce with Islamic craftsmen, and can be found there in, for example, the Vivarini altarpieces in the church of San Zaccaria.

Antonio Vivarini (1415-80) & Giovanni d’Alemagna (c.1411-50), Polittico di Santa Sabina, 1443, San Zaccaria, Venice. Photo: Didier Descouens

In the Santa Sabina altarpiece, above, the framing moulding around the angel at the top centre has shallow relief pierced ornaments on a blue ground, with undercut gilded mouldings standing above them (possibly with some reliquary purpose).  There are other areas where the pierced ornament is carved proud of the wood, and picked out in gold on a blue ground, and others again where a strip of pierced giltwood has been laid over the blue ground, such as the border of quatrefoils beneath the frame of the angel. This technique was transferred to Baroque frames, where pierced convex mouldings were laid over gilded flat or concave mouldings in a process which was also reminiscent of contemporary silverware.

The frames of Philip Schrijver and his wife, Cornelia Tyloos, are quite complex, carved with a variety of leaves including acanthus at the top, vine leaves and grapes, rose leaves and roses, and oak leaves; and finishing with a carved hollow floret as a hanging device (Philip’s portrait has lost this). The frames of Johannes Reeland and Agatha Prins have a different arrangement of plants, with florets on the top rail, oak leaves and acorns down the right-hand side, and paeonies (?) and vines on the left. These may be purely decorative, or have some symbolic message; the frames are in any case extremely attractive borders for the small portraits they contain, displaying them like miniatures in a jeweller’s settings.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Portrait of a man: possibly Sir William Temple, 1670s, o/c, 70 x 57 cm., Christie’s, Amsterdam, 2 December 1987, Lot 206

This portrait, possibly showing Sir William Temple, English ambassador to the Netherlands, seems to be the only example of an Auricular frame on Maes’s work (which, overall, has a greater bias towards 17th century French styles). It’s not, however, a modest example of the Auricular, but a full-blown, eye-catching, attention-grabbing construction of air, sinews and lianas. Unfortunately there seems to be no other image of it apart from this black-&-white photo, and it is to be hoped that it still remains with the portrait.  It appears to be carved from dark polished fruitwood (but may be walnut or stained softwood), with an inner frame of bunched bay leaves, to which the outer network of leafy sunflower stems and paeonies or roses is attached.  The segmental brackets at the sides, with a sharp elbow leading down into an S-scroll, are distantly derived from the segmental scrolls on ‘Sansovino’ frames, whilst the lobed forms at the bottom corners and in the crest are pure Auricular motifs.

Unknown carver, Auricular balustrade, c.1650, walnut, 180 x 140 x 15 cm., Amsterdam (?), two views of the same object, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In structure, composition and Auricular detail, it may have been influenced by something like this shaped balustrade in the V & A, which was exhibited in the 2018 Kwab exhibition at the Rijksmuseum,  with a related carving, now in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. The integration of the various motifs on the Maes frame is, however, nothing like so fluid and graceful as these much earlier balustrades; the leafy stems are awkwardly twined over the curving Auricular forms, and altogether it’s reminiscent of Ruskin’s comment on Alma Tadema’s Pyrrhic dance: that ‘the general effect was exactly like a microscopic view of a detachment of black beetles in search of a dead rat’.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Clara Jacoba Brouwere, c.1690, o/c, 69 x 55 cm., (frame overall is 129.5 x 88 cm.), Private collection, Netherlands

This magnificent marriage-portrait frame was executed for Maes’s painting of the sitter around or some time just after her marriage to Anthonius van Asch van Wijck in 1688, near the end of Maes’s life [7]. It consists of a wide, canted frieze with an enriched chain moulding containing pierced palmettes, a centred bunched- bay leaf moulding, and an acanthus tip sight edge. The fronton – a shouldered, round arched outline of a pediment – contains the bride’s family’s coat of arms (apparently ‘two salmon hauriant’ – or vertical – and a star [8]) in polychrome, supported by two putti in curly periwigs holding a crescent ribbon and draped in a bunched leaf festoon which is looped over the scrolled corners of the pediment, and falls in graduated drops down the sides. There is a matching pierced apron below, holding a single bewigged cherub’s head with spread wings, which supports another bunched leaf festoon terminating on the scrolled corners of the apron, and crossing two small acanthus leaves which terminate in projecting tassels. It’s  a grandiose flourish, restrained by its linear structure, which presents the 18-year old Clara as a queen.

Apart from this final splendid example, some of the most interesting of Maes’s frames are a set of four made for portraits of the Van Alphen family around 1680.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Four members of the Van Alphen family, c.1680, o/c (portrait of Simon van Alphen, bottom left, 71.5 x 57.2 cm.), Rijksmuseum; as hung in the exhibition at the National Gallery in 2020

Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), Simon van Alphen, c.1680, o/c, 71.5 x 57.2 cm, Rijksmuseum

Nicolaes Maes, Members of the Van Alphen family, c.1680, now Rijksmuseum

They are bolection or reverse profile frames with an ogee frieze, and are veneered in a beautifully-figured polished walnut. At the corners and centres are pierced appliqués of gilded tin, which may appear an unusual method of decorating Netherlandish frames, but which turn out on investigation to be a pan-European ornamental technique, fashionable from at least the late 16th to the late 17th century. Considering the material and method of working it, the flowers with which they are decorated are surprisingly naturalistic and well composed. Two of the frames retain shields at the top for the family armorial bearings.

Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78), Volkera Pauw, 1671, o/c, 125 x 101 cm.,  private collection

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Engelbert Pauw, bottom right corner; Nicolaes Maes, Simon van Alphen, bottom left corner

There is one other group of very similar frames, on eight portraits of the Pauw family painted by Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1671 [9]. The Maes portraits are only around 4/7 the height of this earlier set, but otherwise they are remarkably close in design – the frames of the Pauw portraits are also ogee bolection mouldings of walnut, with similar but not identical gilt metal appliqués, which are attached in this case just to the corners.

Mary Beale (1633-99), Self-portrait, c.1666, o/c, 43 x 34 ½ ins (109.2 x 87.6 cm.), National Portrait Gallery

Mary Beale, Self-portrait, bottom right corner; Nicolaes Maes, Simon van Alphen, bottom left corner

The effect – and purpose – of these appliqués is similar to a contemporary style which became very fashionable across the North Sea in Britain during the last third of the 17th century.  This was the panel frame (which appeared in both convex/hollow versions and reverse/bolection versions), and which used decorative areas of shallow, calligraphic floral sprays carved at the corners and centres of the main moulding, with shaped ‘mirror panels’ or reposes in-between. This restrained, attractive pattern could be finished in gold or silver leaf, and – although it exploited the dynamic potential in emphasizing the corners and centres of the frame – was also an economic alternative to a fully-carved frame, which was a consideration for families who needed several identical frames, or collectors who were rationalizing a gallery hang.

Exactly the same emphasis and subtly decorative ploy is at work in the tin appliqués used by Van Hoogstraten and Maes. They could either be cast or – in the case of these thin plates – hammered out on a form, the background cut away, and the surface gilded. They could then be attached with tiny pins at various points. They give an immediate sense of opulence to the polished walnut body of the frame, completely out of proportion to the outlay involved.

Cabinet on stand, 1650-60, Antwerp, veneered in ebony, tortoiseshell, ivory, mother-o’-pearl composition, with lacquered brass mounts, 66 x 55 2/3 x 18 ins (167.4 x 141.2 x 45.6 cm.), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Like the British panel frame, where the carved panels might echo details of door locks, architectural carvings, furniture embellishments or silverware, these appliqués imitate the mounts of grand luxe furniture (later of ormolu, but also of brass), helping to integrate the decoration and furnishings of a whole interior. In the case of these frames, they are made in the floral style, extremely popular for silverware in the Netherlands at the time; although the Flemish cabinet above also includes brass mounts with Auricular elements and Baroque mascarons and festoons.

The use of metal mounts to enrich furniture and other articles arose at an early point; thin sheets of ‘latten’, which could be made from bronze, brass or tin, were produced in the Middle Ages, and stamped decoration was an offshoot of this craft.  There was a flourishing brass industry in the valley of the Meuse in Flanders during the Middle Ages, which spread to France, Britain and Germany, and there was a corresponding use of gilded bronze ornament in Italy.

Spanish ebony cassetta with filigree silver appliqués, & detail, probably late 16th century, Norbert Theiss (with thanks to Peter Schade)

There also seems to have been an independent craft of applying silver, and perhaps other metals, as filigree mounts on frames in Spain; how this may have been developed, and how it is connected to, influenced, or was influenced by, the use of such mounts elsewhere in Europe needs further research. It is a cheaper and very attractive alternative to inlaid metal and ivory ornament, another branch of frame decoration in the 17th century.

Flemish cabinetmaker’s frame in walnut, c.1600, 23.7 x 14.3 cm., and detail, Norbert Theiss frame exhibition, Baden-Baden, 2018

Here is an early example of a Flemish cabinetmaker’s frame, c.1600, with oak mouldings and walnut frieze, and bronze corner appliqués representing two putti supporting a crown or coronet; in this case, the plain hanger forms the apex of the arrangement of bronze, giving balance to the whole, and subsuming a functional piece of equipment into the decorative whole. The effect of polished brass against polished wood is extremely rich (just like Maes’s tin appliqués), but cheaper than a carved giltwood frame would be.

Brass frame mounts shown from front & reversed, Thomson Collection (courtesy of Bruno Hochart)

Appliqués on ebony-veneered frames were, of course, also common: these four pieces form a set recently unpinned (grr) from the frieze of a small Flemish frame with entablature profile, c.1630-40, on which they formed the decorative centres; they are made of brass doré au feu, or ormolu. They are enriched with stylized tulip flowers. Such ornaments may have been one way of enlivening a hang of ebony, ebonized and fruitwood frames, when the darkness needed a little lift – just as ebony frames might be given a gilt sight edge, or stringing (very fine straight lines of inlaid silver, pewter or ivory).

Italian cabinetmaker’s frame, late 16th–early 17th century, veneered with ebony, with canted frieze; decorative grotesque bronze hanger; 17 x 12.8 cm. Norbert Theiss frame exhibition, Baden-Baden, 2018 

This may also account for the appearance of brass appliqués which are formed into decorative hangers. The example above is an Italian ebony frame of the late 16th–early 17th century, with the face of a small putto or cherub in the mount of the hanger. This could be an individual flourish; it might also suggest a collector’s mark in an overall hang of frames, or perhaps an associative mark for a group of sacred paintings. A frame like this, of course, might also have been produced with corner and centre appliqués to match the hanger.

Giovanni Battista Discepoli (1590-1654), St George & the dragon, oil on an octagonal slate, c.1630, in pietre dure frame with gilt bronze mounts, Rob Smeets, TEFAF 2016

The widespread use of mounts and appliqués on European picture frames seems to have grown exponentially during the 17th century. This (above) is an example of the use of gilt bronze mounts on an Italian picture frame; here the gilded seraphs’ heads are probably cast in moulds. They fulfil several functions on this frame: pragmatically covering the joints of the octagonal, highlighting St George’s holy metier, and providing a focal guide for the eye into the centre of the painting. In this they function like the rays of a sculpted glory. The crest fitment may be an elaboration of the hanger (see the frame above), or an ornament like a fronton which disguises it.

All the metalwork mounts noted here would have been made by metalworkers, and not by the framemakers, who would have bought them in or been given them by the clients, due to guild restrictions.

Cornelis de Neve (1609-78; attrib.), John Tradescant the Elder, 1645-61, Ashmolean Museum

Thomas de Critz (1607-53; attrib.), John Tradescant the Younger, 1645-61,  detail, Ashmolean Museum

These, rather amusingly, are the poor relations of the Baroque Italian angelic mount: a set of frames in the Ashmolean on portraits of the Tradescant family – simple architraves painted black which have been decorated with applied papier mâché ornaments of cherubs’ heads and foliate motifs (some have modern replacements). This is a quick and economical method of giving distinction to a very plain frame; the ornaments are gilded, like the sight edge, giving the appearance of opulence for very little outlay at all. They date from between the wedding of Tradescant junior in 1645 to a relative of Thomas de Critz, and 1661, when Elias Ashmole donated them to the Museum. The fact of papier mâché being used suggests that metal appliqués were common enough to have created their own even poorer cousins, which might be mistaken for metal by the casual eye.

Flemish bolection looking-glass frame, c.1650, repoussé gilded brass mounts on tortoiseshell, veneered over (probably) a vermilion ground, & detail (courtesy of Bruno Hochart)

Frame ornaments in repoussé and découpé brass were highly developed in both Flanders and Holland, and are often associated with the use of tortoiseshell veneer. The contrast of the rich colouring with gold creates an instant air of grand-luxe, and for this reason, as well as due to the difficulty of framing paintings happily in such a brightly-coloured setting, is often used for looking-glasses. The mascarons perhaps represent the seasons or the elements, and are surrounded with very naturalistic flowers in the Netherlandish floral style.

Giovanna Garzoni Piceno (1600-70), Hedgehog in a landscape, vellum, 23.5 x 38 cm., Christie’s, New York, 19 April 2007, lot 88

An equivalent secular style, with naturalistic foliate ornament in the corners, clasp-like centres and lozenges at the demi-centres, has been used to reframe this delightful hedgehog; although the starry bosses in the corners could indicate that the frame may have started life on a sacred painting – and perhaps even with a different orientation.

French paperolle reliquary, c.1665-75; the paperolle by the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, in a tortoiseshell veneered frame with foliate ornaments cut from sheet brass, & detail, 30.7 x 25.3 cm., Drouot, 29 June 2015, lot B28 (courtesy of Bruno Hochart)

Both cut-&-stamped and cast gilt bronze or brass ornaments of different levels of sophistication were also in use in France during the 17th century (from long before Boulle was born in 1642), as can be seen, for example, from the coarsely-cut brass examples on the frame above. When polished, however, and in conjunction with the polished and clean glow of the tortoiseshell – probably also veneered on a red ground – these would have given a very different and richer effect from how they appeared in the saleroom.

Jean Armand (attrib.), one of a pair of frames, Paris, c.1650-55, tortoiseshell inlaid with ivory (the pendant reversed: ivory inlaid with tortoiseshell in the same pattern), with gilt bronze mounts, Drouot, 20 June 2009, lot 139 (courtesy of Bruno Hochart)

Highly-crafted bronze versions were very fashionable by the mid-17th century in France; the frame above, and its pendant, with swirling eagles morphing into sinewy scrolls and twisting shells, has a good mixture of the Auricular in it.

From all these varied examples it can therefore be seen that this was a technique which had diffused throughout Europe and through several stylistic manifestations, and must date – in its application to frames – from at least the second half of the 16th century and probably earlier. The statement in Prijst de lijst that,

‘Frames with mountings of this kind are extremely rare…’,

annexed to a comparison of the 1671 Van Hoogstraten frames with the c.1680 Maes Van Alphen family frames [10], should be seen in the light of these other earlier instances from different countries.

Since Van Hoogstraten was the son of a silversmith himself (and also became one of the Masters of the Mint), he would presumably have known the  best craftsmen in Dordrecht to apply to for work of this order, and also to recommend, for example to Nicolaes Maes. Both men were living for a period along the Steegoversloot in Dordrecht, coinciding there from 1671-73/74, which is the time when the Pauw family portraits were being painted and framed. There is some correspondence of style between the appliqués on the two series of portraits, and – when added to the connections between the two artists – indicate that Maes may very well have taken the idea for this type of frame ornament from Van Hoogstraten.  If the metal appliqués which the latter commissioned for his frames were of the right quality and price – perhaps discounted for reasons of friendship or family connection – this might even have caused Maes to use the same craftsmen for his own frames, although in 1673/4 he had moved to Amsterdam. He evidently retained close links with Dordrecht, through his family, and the fact that he still owned two houses there at his death.

Unknown silversmith, Dordrecht layette basket, 1668, parcel-gilt silver, 10.2 x 62.5 x 33.8 cm., and detail, John Endlich Antiquairs, TEFAF 2016

An interesting object in relation to both location, period and decoration in this respect is an example of a parcel-gilt silver layette basket, made in Dordrecht in 1668, in the so-called ‘floral style’. Sadly, the maker’s mark is unidentified.  It shows the type and standard of silverwork which was being produced in Dordrecht at this time, and the model which was being emulated – although of course at a much lower level of skill and in a much cheaper material – for the respective frames and their mounts.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Engelbert Pauw, bottom right corner; Nicolaes Maes, Simon van Alphen, bottom left corner; Dordrecht layette basket, 1668, bottom left corner

There may well be other unrecorded frames of this type, just as there may be some – like the Flemish frame mentioned earlier, from which a set of brass appliqués was detached – which appear to be plain ebony, walnut or fruitwood, but which were once richly embellished with daffodils, tulips, sunflowers, roses and paeonies, stamped from cheap tin, and gilded into ornaments of charm and beauty.


The section of this article concerned with metal appliqués is indebted to Bruno Hochart, for his help with images and examples.

NB Nina Cahill, one of the curators of the Maes exhibition in London, has kindly alerted me to the 2018 publication on Jacob Binkes/ Benckes: Jan de Vries, Verzwegen Zeeheeld: Jacob Benckes (1637- 1677) en zijn wereld, Zutphen, Walburg Pers, 2018, which corrects our knowledge of him.


[1] Previously shown at the Mauritshuis, The Hague

[2] See Henrik Bjerre, ‘Frames: State of the Art. Part 2: Picture frames in the Royal Danish collections

[3] For example, in the designs of Jean Le Pautre: bunched leaf and imbricated leaf

[4] See P.J.J. van Thiel & C.J. de Bruyn Kops, Framing in the Golden Age, 1995, no 86, p.339, the English translation of Prijst de Lijst, Rijksmuseum, 1995

[5] Ibid., no 78, pp. 318-19

[6] Ibid., no 87, pp.340-41, notes 2 and 3. The anonymous married couple mentioned in note 3 may be the same as the portraits of Johannes Reeland and Agatha Prins shown here

[7] Ibid., no 89, p. 344

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., no 67, p. 294

[10] Ibid.