The importance of the frame

Last week I was fortunate enough to be in New York, an artist’s paradise. While in New York I visited the Guggenheim (for the first time) and while wondering around the gallery rooms housing a selection from the Guggenheim’s collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century European paintings I was struck by the choice of frames for these famous, iconic works of art.

The mighty Guggenheim

The mighty Guggenheim

Some had detailed, guilted carved frames and others simple, plane ones. Once I noticed the frames, I stopped noticing the art. Even when I tried to forget the frames, I couldn’t. All I could see were the frames and all I could think about was the reasons behind the choice of frame and indeed the choice to frame at all. Why are these great works of art framed? Were they just framed because their original private owners had had them framed or were they framed for the gallery? Were we supposed to consider the styles of the frames as a separate exercise in art appreciation? There certainly was beauty in many of the frames (and I would argue, the opposite too).

A distracting  frame, but of itself a stunning sight

A distracting frame, but of itself a stunning piece of craftmanship

After returning home I felt the need to research the business of framing art.

From a practical point of view, paintings are often framed for protection. However, I have rarely framed any of my paintings (perhaps due to cost rather than as an active choice). The frame can act as a boundary between the painting and the background surface, it helps focus the attention of the viewer on the paintings (although this is debatable in my opinion).

Some might argue that the frame adds a level of value to the painting: it ‘finishes’ it off. It makes it more professional (and more sellable if that is the goal of the artist).

Often a framed painting includes a glass surface over the art work (but not always). As an artist, I find the presence of glass quite irritating as I like to examine the process and texture of the painter and painting. I also feel closer to the artwork and the artist if there isn’t a barrier between myself and the artwork.

Interestingly, many contemporary paintings tend to be unframed in the gallery, whereas more classic pieces (i.e. before the middle of the last century) are framed.

Is framing subject to fashion? Pre-Renaissance art pieces perhaps tended to have simple frames, if any. The Renaissance and the 18th century were the glory days of framing. The style toned down a little in the next century and disappeared in the last one, to be almost non-existent in this one.

Interestingly, there appears to be very little on the Internet on the philosophy of the frame. There is a lot of advice on how to choose a frame, how to frame, and what sorts of frames an artist can select from but nothing on why we frame, or in fact very little on this topic.

I have learnt through researching this subject that throughout most of the modern (that is, postmedieval) era, original frames were discarded whenever a painting changed hands. The new frame was then matched to the new surroundings. Frames originally were designed to match the style of the house: door frames, window frames, mantle pieces, other framed objects such as mirrors. It is for this reason that there are now very few genuine Renaissance-era frames. They were simply thrown away.

There were in fact different styles of frame used in the the post-medieval and Renaissance eras: the Tabernacle frame, the Cassetta frame, the Gallery frame. Framing was an art in itself.

So the frame was originally conceived as an interior design feature. Surely, then, art in art galleries in the 21st century does not need to be framed? Yet we frame so much and we retain the frames of previous centuries on the art of those centuries perhaps to maintain the sense of that era.

I would like to see an art gallery remove all the frames from its collection just to see what that would be like and how the viewer experience would alter.

I would suggest that in a separate gallery room, the museum mounts the frames on the walls without the paintings so visitors can get a feel for the glory of the styles and craftmanship of the frames without the distraction of the paintings. I think that at the moment I find it hard to appreciate the whole experience of a framed painting.

It is possible that I am unique in this though.


Italian Renaissance Frames, The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available from [last accessed 27 September 2015]

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