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JOEL Joel's Blog

Framed! How a Great Frame Enhances the Picture


Eric Sloane
Eric Sloane "Vermont in November"

Many museums and galleries have a tendency to try to frame everything in uniform black, aluminum frames. It works, more or less, but deprives the viewer of the enhanced impact of a picture that is framed with a complementary frame. The frame not only serves as a portal into a picture but as also the transitional element from the wall to the painting. This is where the art of the woodworker, carver, finisher, and sometimes gilder can take a great painting and take it to the next level.

Last Sunday I visited Sotheby's auction house in NY to check out their sale of American Art. Much of the art was nothing special, except in one respect: it was wonderfully framed. The paintings for sale belonged to a single large collection, and the owner evidently gave great thought to the frames that would best showcase the art. I was struck by the contrast to the auctions I've seen at Christie's, in which even a monumental piece might be framed by a thoroughly inappropriate frame - for example, an austere landscape framed by something baroque, ornate and exuberantly gilded. Often the inappropriate frame added only the sense of showy wealth, with no positive aesthetic contributions. Demonstrations of importance (rather than relevant beauty) may well be enough in the "keep it moving" atmosphere of an auction house. The artworks' new owners are of course welcome to mat and frame the works however they please.

Here are some examples of how a great frame enhances the picture.

Framed! How a Great Frame Enhances the Picture 2
Above is a detail of a corner of a frame on a painting by Eric Sloane. The rustic frame reminds us that we are dealing with nostalgia. But the wood isn't distressed, it doesn't look like junk. Because the frame is well made and not distressed it doesn't convey the idea that the painting is folk art. It conveys the idea of a nostalgia for traditional America.

Carl Ivar Gilbert
Carl Ivar Gilbert "Christmas Eve"

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This is the oddest frame in the bunch. The irregular bumps in the molding of the frame, coupled with a limed surface, This is an urban scene, with snow.

William Henry Dethlef Koerner
William Henry Dethlef Koerner "Wires Down, Tracks Flooded (The Rescue) (right)" Arthur E. Becher "Untitled (Valiant Knight)"

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Both of these pictures have wide frames that serve as a border between the narration of the painting and the outside world. I love the restraint both frames show in their presentation. But neither are exactly plain.

Harvey T. Dunn
Harvey T. Dunn "The Firing Range"

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The carved pattern of the frame perfectly complement the stones in the street and sort of extend the boundaries of the painting.

William Henry Johnson
William Henry Johnson "Untitled (Uninhabited War Scene)"

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I'm not really a fan of paintings on brown paper or bark like frames, but here I am proven wrong. The texture of the frame, and the multiple layers of matting, really set off this work so amazingly well.

Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton "The Old Tree, Becket, Massachusetts"

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It's pretty obvious to me that the curved corners and round beads of the frame perfectly complement the blended colors and muted curves of Benton's painting, but the multi-hued frame also serves to set the mood of the piece.
Join the conversation
09/18/2019 David
On the 19th century European paintings galleries at the Louvre, there are a couple rooms of empty frames, and a small climate controlled and super secure vault room of very rare wood frames.
Excellent post! I make a lot of frames for very expensive art pieces and sometimes it's hard to make frames that people want, knowing that they are totally wrong for the piece.
09/18/2019 Merle Krueger
Surely it is no coincidence that you chose as your first painting a work by Eric Sloane. Many of us will have read with pleasure “A Reverence for Wood” as well as “A Museum of Early American Tools”. Somehow I never knew he was also an illustrator of some renown. Some interesting observations about the impact of frames btw.
I'm a huge Eric Sloane fan and yes it is no coincidence that Sloane leads the pack. I wrote about him here:
10/21/2019 Ashmun Workshop
Thanks for posting! The framing choices in private collections are almost always more fascinating than those of institutions.

We're frame makers with a studio down the street from you in Sunset Park, at the Army Terminal!
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