These Are A Few of My Favorite Frames

Next to the paintings, what I like best are frames, and the MIA collection has some great ones. In case you’ve never picked out your own favorites, here are mine. First, you will note that my list ends around 1900, because that seems to be when framing, as a decorative art, started its decline to the point where modern art dispenses with frames entirely. Second, I have arbitrarily excluded, as insufficiently idiosyncratic choices, four frames whose uniqueness would place them on most everyone’s list:

A. The tabernacle frame that announces Charlotte of France’s royalty;
B. The Rococo sensuous richesse of Mme Aubry;
C. The Baroque/ Neoclassical flourish in gold that dwarfs Countess Pignatelli;
D. The talking frame that continues the savage lampoon of Mlle Lange.

What follows is my personal Top Ten, in chronological order, subject to revision the next time I visit the galleries.

  1. Saint Romuald. This seemingly simple frame seems to match the purity of Fra Angelico’s paint, but on closer inspection there’s a lot going on. A band of blue cloverleafs, separated by two blank circles, picks up the aquamarine of the Saint’s cloud and book. The inner frame is stamped with diamond shapes that once were red. The craquelure in the gold at his feet adds years to Romuald’s countenance.
  2. Still Life. The Dutch 17th century is full of black frames, but none as effective as the Claesz. The absence of color matches the painting’s restrained feel, yet the black sets off the dashes of blue, yellow and red. The wave trim gathers light and bounces it off the pewter and glass. The ripples come in two styles and three sizes, setting up their own intricate harmony. (See, also, Two Studies of the Head of an Old Man.)
  3. View in the Roman Forum. Codazzi’s Corinthian columns soar upward to a shell-and-scroll crown grander than the undistinguished painting it surmounts. Just as intriguing are the vaguely architectural shoulders with their floral insets. Who says a frame need be rectangular?
  4. Mirror, Italy. Black and gold are a stunning combination, especially when each is softened by age. The acanthus leaves swirl like waves in a storm; fading sunflowers grab the raised inner frame, while other flowers peek out below. Persephone peers into space under a crown of narcissus, rose and marigold, a bewitching precursor to the Veiled Lady.
  5. Attributes of the Arts. The MIA is blessed with classic masterpiece French frames to go with its Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Boucher (to name some highlights), but my favorite is the Chardin. All feature flowers, shells, interlacing vines; an inner band, sanded band, main decorative band, outer band of entwined florets or encased circles; and elaborate cartouches or accents at the four midpoints. The Chardin has diapered panels with cross-hatched background – elegant, masculine, definitive.
  6. Portrait of A Young Man. Bright gold can look tacky, or it can illuminate, as it does here, casting a veritable spotlight on the youth’s cheeks and white collar. Gericault may be Romantic, but this frame is pure Neoclassic, with low-relief designs borrowed from Pompeii – lyre, bay branch, grape cluster, vase. Compressed tulips form the inner band, while a pattern of floret and two horseshoes repeats 30 times down the outside.
  7. Crossroads of the Eagle’s Nest. As Daubigny is underrated, this frame is undernoticed. At first it seems generic, with its sanded band and inner ring of rosettes. But study, for a minute, the corner pieces, from whose unusual abstract design fully formed flowers sprout. Restraint, interest and elegance – so different from the neighboring examples of busy but boring acanthus and oak leaves.
  8. Portrait of Harriet Brown. This broad, brown frame is as simple, and severe, as the sitter. The grain of the wood adds interest and sets off the unmodulated background; and the inward slope slides the viewer’s eye into the picture, where Mrs. Brown’s eyes push right back.
  9. Sala dell’Illiade in the Pitti Palace. In a Decorative Arts gallery where all the frames have a part to play, this is the star: an open framework of oak leaves that literally fly off the wall yet curve in to bring the eye back to the painting – eventually. This is a junior partner to the mirror frame, above.
  10. The Bronze Horses of San Marco, Venice. After two rows of gold banding set off the image, a row of beading leads to a marvelous pattern of alternating flowers and oakish leaves, encased in an Art Nouveau trumpet-vine swirl against a stamped-gold background. Outside the frame is another tiny band of feathered S-curves. In all, four stately patterned bands match the four horses of San Marco.
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