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A new Frame of Mind

By Erin Hein
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Detail of the frame during treatment showing the plaster fills in the bead-and-reed running pattern and the red acrylic to match the color of the bol.

Walk into an art museum, any art museum, and what do you see? “Frames” probably isn’t your first thought. How many people focus on the frame around an artwork for even a second before moving on to another piece in a gallery? We put so much emphasis on the art itself that what surrounds it is often overlooked. I am just as guilty of this as the next person, but as an intern in the Conservation Department at the RISD Museum, I gained a new appreciation for the thought and artistry put into frames. At the beginning of the summer, a drawing by John La Farge (1835–1910) was designated for outgoing loan. While examining the piece, the curator noticed that the frame was in poor condition and sent it to the Conservation Department for treatment. The restoration of this frame became my project.

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Picture taken before conservation treatment, to document the condition of the frame.

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Detail of the frame before conservation treatment. Note the acanthus leaf and the losses in the bead-and-reed running pattern.

I was first tasked with filling in the missing parts of the frame. There were losses to the bead-and-reed running pattern and three of the acanthus leaves in the corners. I chose to cast plaster molds to fill these losses, because this method allowed me to retain the detail from the original ornamentation. Because of the miniscule size of the losses and plaster’s inherent fragility, I spent many hours carefully shaving down pieces to fit into the frame, only to have them snap under my fingers. As I attempted to perfectly fill all of the losses, I gained a new appreciation for the construction of this particular art object. The amount of care that must have gone into creating every delicate detail was incredible, especially considering that the frame would inevitably be overshadowed by its contents.

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We used dental putty to press molds on the frame’s intact ornamentation. The molds were used to cast plaster that would fill losses on the frame.

After I glued everything into place, my next step was to paint all of my additions. I originally figured I would paint everything gold to match the frame, but that was not the case. Traditional frames are not just wood and gilding. After the skeleton of the frame is constructed in wood, a layer of gesso—a mixture of binder, chalk, and gypsum—is applied. The gesso is then covered with bol, a red-brown pigment, and the frame is gilded.

In an effort to stay as close to tradition as possible, I painted my white plaster fills with acrylic paint that I matched to the color of the bol. As I worked to disguise my fills, I took notice of the intricate running patterns, the fluting, and the ornamental leaves. All of these elements were beautiful in their individual intricacies, as well as the ways they functioned together.

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Detail of the frame during treatment showing the plaster fills in the bead-and-reed running pattern and the red acrylic to match the color of the bol.

Finally I was ready to gild! I applied an oil size to my fills, waited for it to get tacky, and lightly pressed scraps of thin gold leaf into place. While the oil size dried, I mixed a pigment of glossy varnish and gold mica powder and used this to fill in abrasions on the frame that were too small to gild. Matching the color of the frame was a strange experience. With all of the other steps, I could clearly see the progress I was making. But this time my success was measured by how well my additions disappeared. As I watched my work melt away, my focus broadened from the miniscule changes I was making to the entirety of the frame. I saw the way the bol gave the gilding depth and warmth and the frame became luminescent as it sat on the easel in the conservation studio.

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Applying gold leaf to the tacky surface of the oil size during the gilding process.

During this conservation treatment, my perspective shifted from seeing the frame as a container to seeing it as an art object. The many hours I spent filling and painting led to a level of observation that is hard to achieve in one museum visit. The ornamentation choices made in the frame’s design create balance, much like one would see in the composition of a painting. The beauty and functionality suggest the frames could even be viewed in a decorative-arts context.

Now when I walk through any museum gallery, I definitely won’t ignore the frames.


Picture taken after conservation treatment.

Erin Hein is an Andrew W. Mellon Summer Intern in the Conservation Department. She is studying chemistry and art history at the University of Alabama.