Framing Art and the Art of the Frame

What is the purpose of a frame on a work of art? Is it to protect or to enhance the work of art? How are frames made? How does one select an appropriate frame for a work of art? When does a frame detract from the work of art? When is a frame actually a detriment? Why do some works of art have no frame at all?

Historical frames are composed of wood which has been joined together using a variety of techniques such as mitering or lap joining. The type of wood used for a frame has historically been indicative of where it was originally made or is representative of a particular cultural group; for example, Italian frames are often composed of poplar or walnut, while Dutch frames are often composed of bass, lime, or linden wood. In this way, a frame’s wooden structure can tell us a lot about the history of the frame, its country of origin in particular, and even if the frame is stylistically appropriate for the work of art it surrounds. Therefore, frames have the ability to deepen and broaden the understanding of any work of art.

The detailed examination of the reverse of frames can reveal important information through inscriptions or signatures. These can often be best seen in raking light, by using a flashlight equipped with ultraviolet light, or with the use of infrared reflectography which reveals remnants of writing otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Additionally, stamps or labels from dates of exhibitions or passages through international customs may be marked on or affixed to the reverse of the frame. These labels should never be removed and ideally be protected from abrasion because they effectively trace the history of ownership of the work of art through time. The history of ownership can be a very important tool when studying the history of collecting. In addition, the history of ownership and exhibition may lend insight into tracking condition changes to a work of art over time.

The decorative ornamentation seen on many historic wooden frames can be carved by hand using chisels and other specialized woodworking tools or molded using a material called composition, or compo (for short). Composition is typically made of linseed oil, resin, glue, and chalk powder. Traditionally, it was pressed while hot into a mold. Compo appears brown in cross-section in an area of breakage. Composition is also distinguishable from wood by the absence of undercarving that would be present in a frame carved by hand.

Composition also has a very identifiable way or cracking (shrinking) over time on the top surface which is that its cracks are perpendicular to the wood grain underneath it as opposed to wood which would crack parallel to the grain of the wood.

Joinery or hardware can also assist in dating a frame. There are many techniques for joining a frame. The most common is mitering, whereby the corners are cut at a 45-degree angle and secured together with hardware. Square-headed or handmade nails were common before the 19th century. Round-headed nails became common in the 19th century.

Some frames are recycled or “upcycled” over time; this is most easily observed on the reverse. It is evident often when there are clear straight breaks in opposing corners on the reverse. Close observation on the front of the frame would also reveal an abrupt end of an ornamental pattern and the beginning of a new pattern. It is not unusual to find that frames have been cut down to re-size them to other works of art. This is not a procedure which should be condoned, however, because frames can be as old as the painting held within, and valuable in their own right.

In addition, some frames are artist-made and considered integral with the painting as a whole work of art. An original frame on the original work of art should never be separated. It is important to research the artist and to determine if a particular artist is one who was in the habit of creating his or her own frames for an artwork.

Frames which appear golden in color are generally gilded with gold leaf but could also be painted. Gilding is a very delicate process whereby sheets of beaten gold are applied to the surface of a frame prepared with clay or oil. The clay layer, called bole, is most often red, blue, or yellow in color and is often visible through the thin layer of gold. The bole imparts a warmth to the frame coloration overall.

Gilding is often distinguishable from paint when the overlapping edges of the sheets of gold are visible to the naked eye and are parallel to one another across the gilded surface (see above). It is important to recognize that gilding can be applied and adhered to the frame surface by means of either oil or water or in many cases both techniques. These techniques have specific implications in terms of care and maintenance of the gold surface over time. The gold sheets used in gilding are typically 1/1000 of an inch thick! Water gilding is often burnished to a bright sheen using a tool composed of a stone agate; oil gilding is unburnished and generally has a more matte appearance. Water and oil gilding can be present on the same frame.

If the gilded frame is historical, it is highly likely that there has been an attempt to compensate for losses and scratches over time. Bronze-based pigments and powders corrode over time and darken to a brown and non-reflective surface, in contrast to the original gold surface. Fortunately nowadays there are more inert products which can be used to compensate for scratches and losses. These do not corrode over time or visually mar the surface, as bronze paints have in the past. Pigments formulated with mica are a more stable choice for re-touching missing areas of gold.

A frame on a work of art should both protect the work of art and complement it in a historically appropriate way. Paintings by Dutch artists, for instance, should generally be exhibited in frames typical of that region and time period.

There are exceptions to this approach, including when an art collector might reframe works of art in his or her own collection because of aesthetic preferences. Frames of a particular style chosen by a collector may prove useful to a museum when tracing the provenance, or trail of ownership, of a work of art throughout its long history.

An unstable frame, either because it is physically deteriorating or because it is infested with wood-boring insects, is a serious threat to any work of art. Insect exit holes, pictured above, can be an indication of insect activity, however these holes do not necessarily mean that there is current insect activity. The absolute presence of wood-boring insects can be difficult to ascertain; however, piles of frass (sawdust and bug excrement, which looks like pepper) located outside of the insect exit holes can be a positive indication for insect activity within the frame. If frass is observed, the frame should be separated from the painting as soon as possible, lest the wood-boring insects infiltrate the wooden stretcher or panel on which the painting is resting. The frame should be placed in a plastic bag and quarantined until a frame conservator can be contacted.

Works of art may not have frames surrounding them because the artist did not want to frame their work of art. Many contemporary works of art do not have frames at all, such as Untitled (71.091) by Mark Rothko and Distorted Circle within a Polygon II (73.018) by Robert Mangold. Research into an artist’s working techniques and framing philosophy is an essential undertaking in determining when and if a frame is appropriate—and if so, which type of frame in particular—for any work of art.

Some works of art are so fragile that additional protection must be designed to protect the painting. A good example of this technique is seen with No. 18 (1996.11.43) by Ad Reinhardt. For exhibition and handling purposes, this auxiliary frame affords additional protection for this particularly sensitive surface.

Care and Maintenance of a Gilded Frame

The best care for a gilded frame is simply to dust it with a soft brush, such as a soft white-haired brush or hake brush from the art store. If the ferrule of the brush is metal, it should be wrapped with tape to protect the surface of the frame surface finish from being scratched. The ferrule is located directly above the hair of the brush. Water should never be used, because it will dissolve water gilding. Commercial products should not be used because of their harsh chemicals, which will dissolve oil gilding. Therefore, all liquids of any sort should be avoided when cleaning gilded surfaces.

Please consult the free referral service on the American Institute for Conservation website, should you wish to obtain the services of a frame conservator.

Ingrid Neuman


Further Reading

Stanley Robertson, “The Routine Care and Maintenance of Gilded-Wood Objects” in Gilded Wood: Conservation and History (Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press and American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1991).

Lynn Roberts,