This special issue of the Journal of Canadian Art History, co-edited by Laurier Lacroix and Sacha Marie Levay, is an unprecedented examination of the history of the frame in Canadian art. While contributors have drawn most of their case studies from Ontario and Quebec, the collection marks both an important foundation for this under considered topic and a challenge to future researchers working in national and transnational frameworks.
Often scarcely noticed or taken for granted, the frame nevertheless plays a complex role in the life of a painting and the perception of two-dimensional artworks. Frequently designed by the artist or commissioned by a gallerist or the work’s first owner, the frame is there primarily to protect. There is a tendency to forget that it also possesses a visual and aesthetic dimension, and that it forms a transitional space between the work and its environment. The history of framing constitutes a chapter in the history of art, decorative arts, fashion and taste, and is also indirectly linked to economics, politics and religion – in short, to cultural and social life. Frames reflect the choices made by the artists, dealers, collectors and curators who create, modify, care for and sometimes replace them, and it is important to understand the reasons behind these choices. The frame’s diverse functions include support, containment, demarcation and extension, and it can be studied from different viewpoints using a variety of approaches. The goal of this colloquium was to explore from a historical perspective the various interests that have influenced frames produced in Canada, particularly in Quebec and Ontario.
Scholarly interest in the evolution of art frames is not new in the West. In 2008 a wide-ranging conference on the history of the frame in the United States was held in New York. Entitled The Transforming Power of the Frame: Makers, Marriages & Materials – Exploring American Frames and Frames in America, this gathering highlighted the need to organize a similar event focusing on Canadian practice, which would be a first. Intended as an initial forum for exchange and dialogue on the subject, Encadrement et recadrage. Histoire et fonctions du cadre au Canada / Frame and Framing in Canada: Functions and History was held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on 23 and 24 October 2014. The specific aim of the conference, which brought together a group of curators, art historians, conservators, researchers and practitioners, was to establish a broad picture of practices and knowledge in the field with a view to generating enlightened reflection and stimulating future research. During the conference, participants from the academic, museum, conservation and market realms shared the results of their projects, research, observations and investigations through formal presentations and group discussions. The contributions of the seventeen participants explored a range of subjects and practices related to framing, from the seventeenth century to the present, using a number of different methodological approaches: aside from typological and stylistic analyses, there were presentations on fabrication and marketing, and talks on the domestic and institutional applications of the frame, its practical and symbolic functions, its ubiquity at the turn of the twentieth century and its disappearance from contemporary art practices.
In 1975, when I joined the curatorial team at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, frames, let alone frame scholarship, were not on the radar screen. Looking back even further, to my student days, I am quite certain that frames were never mentioned by a single professor. Those of you who are of my generation will remember slide lectures in darkened classrooms and standard texts like the then-current edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, where the word “frame” does not appear in the index. Not a single frame is included in its illustrations of the corpus of objects canonical within the “pyramids to Picasso” narrative then holding sway in art history course work. Little wonder, then, that most of us began our careers with little or no knowledge of frames, and little or no impulse to take them into account. To this day, print and online reproductions of works of art rarely include frames, a notable exception being the auction literature – so often a trend-setter in cataloguing protocols – where paintings on offer are illustrated with their frames when the latter are deemed value-added components to the enterprise, a sales strategy often resulting in higher hammer prices.
But old ideas die hard, a good example being the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s massive history painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by the German-born American painter Emanuel Leutze. Painted in 1851 and acquired soon after by a New York collector for the then-stupendous sum of $10,000, the work entered the Met’s collection in 1897, where it would soon become a visitor favourite, remaining so for over a century. By the time it was donated, it had already lost its original frame, an elephantine construction custom-made for the painting, boasting iconographical accretions and an inspiring inscription elaborating the romantic historical narrative intended by the artist. In 2007, in anticipation of the opening of its renovated American Wing, the Met invested a reported half-million dollars to replicate the frame, long lost to the vagaries of time and indifference and known only from archival photographs. The painting, now reframed to its full visual impact and layers of meaning, is a centerpiece of the museum’s new installations. Yet on its collection website, the painting continues to appear frame-less, orphaned from the richly laden and very expensive “packaging” it was always meant to have. Closer to home, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), Gabriel Max’s 1878 The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, another public favourite, regularly appears frame-less in the museum’s publications and website, cropped from its elaborate and iconographically hefty Arts-and-Crafts oak frame, complete with Hebrew inscription, that has graced it since at least 1888, commissioned by its first owner, the Montreal collector Sir George A. Drummond.
Carved Frames from Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Quebec
This study concerns the surviving picture frames found in places of worship that were made in Quebec during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There seem to be no secular or domestic frames extant from this period, despite documentary evidence that shows they existed. There is a good deal of generally reliable information concerning paintings and frames in the account books kept by parish councils and religious communities. Wherever possible, technical analysis (including wood identification) has been undertaken to compare historical data with the existing historiography.
Frames were an integral part of the interior decoration of a chapel or church. They were rarely contemporary with the paintings they adorned, and were generally commissioned at the same time as the tabernacle or retable. The colony’s carvers put considerable creative expression into these frames, although they conformed to certain restrictions regarding form and finish imposed by their clients.
Towards a Typology of Early and Modern Paintings at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
Included in the collection of early and modern paintings belonging to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec are several hundred frames made principally between the seventeen and twentieth centuries by artists, carpenters, craftsmen, carvers, gilders and decorators, mostly anonymous. Unfortunately, as is the case with many other museums, there is little if any available documentation relating to the vast majority of these frames. Mindful of this situation, which assumes particular significance when considering the conservation, restoration and showcasing of these objects, our institution took advantage of the impetus generated by the conference Frame and Framing in Canada: Functions and History and the imminent reinstallation of its collections of early and modern art to embark on the study of this major decorative corpus. During the spring of 2014 a Parisian specialist of European frames studying in the museology program of the Université Laval began an internship at the museum, where she was commissioned to analyze several dozen frames under the supervision of the curator of early art. This exercise resulted in a typology enabling us to better identify and understand the various types of frame, their origins, certain execution techniques, and a number of distinguishing characteristics, such as style and finish.
Carpenters’ Frames, a Solution for Nineteenth-Century Institutions
Many frames made in Canada between the late eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth are comparable in their simplicity of execution and the discreet elegance they bring to the works they adorn. This essay suggests that owing to the large number of portraits painted during this period a market developed for elaborate frames executed by carvers. The author further observes, however, that many of the frames made for churches and chapels were constructed by carpenters but also integrated carved ornamental elements (shells and palmettes), in order to make them less severe and increase their appeal.
Carpenters’ frames typically display simple profiles, with bevelled mouldings composed of right angles or curved forms (concave or convex) and executed using saws, planes, chisels and rasps. They are generally finished with varnish or stain, resulting in a shiny or semigloss surface. Simply made, modest and plain, carpenters’ frames nevertheless fulfil the two basic functions of any frame – protection and decoration – extremely effectively. Careful study of these frames reveals that they drew upon a repertoire of elementary decorative motifs (beading, gadrooning, dentils, cable moulding, billet moulding) that were not always executed with absolute regularity.
The main practical purpose of a frame is to protect the painting it adorns when the work is moved around or even just hanging on the wall. The frame is also intended to finish the work, make it look complete, raise it up off the easel to its place of prominence on the wall. As soon as a frame is added to a painting, the art work increases in importance; the frame draws attention to the work. In the same way, displaying an object in a vitrine, whether it be a small sculpture or a silver teapot, makes the work look more impressive; it becomes a rarefied object and achieves the status of a work of art.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a period marked by debate over the major versus the minor arts, there was a renewed interest in the decorative arts – a development associated with the English Arts and Crafts movement and, on the Continent, with the desire to create a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk. Painters in Europe and North America began to reconsider the frame and treat it as a work of art. Artists began not only to design their own frames but went beyond the frame and designed the painting’s whole setting. Most famously, in James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room of 1876–77 for Frederick Richards Leyland in London, the artist created an all-encompassing framework for his painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which extended out to include the colour of the walls and shelves, as well as the decoration of the ceiling, window shutters, and the woodwork.
Most art museums today favour period framing. As explained by D. Gene Karraker, “A period frame relates to the historical details or fashion of the time of the artwork the frame supports.” Specialists in the field are now focusing on historical and geographical framing considerations to contextualize the origin of a painting. Provenance, historical and geographical aesthetic trends, as well as the artist’s own choice of a frame, have all become influential factors.
Before the adoption of this trend, framing practices were influenced by several factors, including economic conditions, society, religious context, and changing styles, weakening the connection between the frame and the painting. Framing practices at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) were also influenced by these various factors. As research on the history of frames becomes more available, we are able to better appreciate the importance of frames and see the past in a new light.
The Thomson Collection of Canadian Art, European Art, and Ship Models developed for more than fifty years before its arrival at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ken Thomson’s early acquisitions foreshadowed interests, not the intensity, that marked the collecting in his final decades.
His first acquisition of a work by Tom Thomson (1877–1917) and the Group of Seven (Thomson and the Group), J.E.H. MacDonald’s (1873–1932) oil sketch Algoma, was made almost twenty years after he began collecting in the early 1950s. His interest in these artists deepened to the extent that he acquired their work with increasing focus and determination; by 2008 more than half of the nearly 600 paintings in the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art (Thomson Collection) were by Thomson and the Group.
When the Art Gallery of Ontario reopened to the public on 14 November 2008, after the completion of its project of expansion and renovation, Transformation AGO, more than two-thirds of the nearly 650 Canadian paintings and works on paper in the Thomson Collection, and all but seven of the more than 250 paintings by Thomson and the Group, had been reframed expressly for their installation at the AGO. The reframing of a gift of this size was unprecedented in Canada. Unlike other gifts from single collectors that indelibly altered their new homes, the Thomson Collection was to be installed in purpose-built galleries that would inform their presentation. By 2008 this collection of historical paintings had witnessed multiple transformations in framing styles, museological attitudes, and art historical reception en route to its integration in a large public museum. None of the published reactions to Transformation AGO observed that this preeminent collection of Thomson and the Group was largely reframed in off-white frames unlike any the artists selected for their works. This silence contrasts with the discussion of William Rubin’s reframing of the collection of modern painting at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) done for its Cesar Pelli & Associates expansion (1984) that was published locally and nationally, as well as in subsequent literature on the history of framing. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, Brenda Richardson’s 1986 reframing of paintings by Henri Matisse in the Cone Collection was the subject of lively local discussion, the likes of which was neither initiated nor imitated in Toronto.
In 1953 a collection of paintings of Canadian cities went on an impressive international tour: first to Latin America, stopping in San Juan, Mexico City, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo; then across the Atlantic to London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Stockholm, The Hague, and Madrid. The exhibition, Cities of Canada, travelled with its own setting, which consisted of four tons of drapery-hung aluminum paneling and an integrated lighting system and was shown in a variety of public spaces for anywhere between six to ten days at each venue. Newspaper reports lead us to believe that attendance was impressive: 30,000 visitors saw the show in Stockholm and 7,000 attended the closing day in Madrid. The paintings returned to Canada in early 1954 and toured twenty-two cities across the country before being retired in 1955 in Montreal.
This collection belonged to the Seagram Company and was the creation of Samuel Bronfman, its long-term president. Bronfman’s project is impressive even today, its genius lying in a seamless melding of an optimistic mid-twentieth-century view of Canada as a modern, urban, and industrial nation with a prestigious international publicity campaign for Seagram itself. A few years earlier he had hired the painter Robert Pilot (1898–1967) to commission artists to portray a selection of Canadian cities on canvas. With the help of A.J. Casson (1898–1992), Pilot chose twenty-two painters – including A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974), W. Goodridge Roberts (1904–1974), Charles Comfort (1900–1994), and Jacques de Tonnancour (1917–2005) – from the ranks of the Royal Canadian Academy to produce both preliminary painted sketches and larger, final works of their assigned city. Portraying an urbanizing and industrializing country, many paintings highlight the encroachment of the city on the countryside and the exploitation of natural resources. The McCord Museum acquired the Seagram Collection in 2000: the acquisition consists of one hundred and forty-one works depicting the territory, history, and traditions of Canada, eighty-three of which are part of what became known as the Cities of Canada collection.
Observations on the Frame-Batten of the 1950s and 1960s
The Emancipation of Painting
During the 1950s and 1960s, frame profiles were generally simplified, and in some cases the frame was abandoned entirely. This simplification, observable in avant-garde art practices throughout Canada and elsewhere, was particularly evident in the work of artists for whom the logical conclusion of the precepts of modernist painting was abstraction. This position was effectively defended and justified in the formalist discourse expounded by Clement Greenberg, a masterly commentator of the period. It was increasingly common to see frames composed of narrow strips – initially in wood – often separated from the edge of the painting by other, shallower wooden strips, set back and painted in dark tones. While continuing to establish the limits of the surface, this arrangement also had the effect of affirming the autonomy of the means deployed upon that surface, thereby subtly contributing towards the self-referential nature of this form of painting (Greenberg). The batten, or strip, often handcrafted, began to appear in different materials, including aluminium and Plexiglas. If it remained the prototypical wood, the narrow front edge was treated in a variety of ways – painted or given a gilded or metallic finish. A commercial version of the strip-frame produced subsequently on a fairly large scale featured the addition to the front edge of the strip of a narrow convex moulding made of gold plastic. Use of this standardized, factory-made model, which quickly became widespread, accompanied the affirmation of the new painting paradigm.
(Re)framing the Frame
Urban Intervention and Documentary Surround in the ART series by Maclean
This essay examines the status of the frame– for so long a vital and integral part of painting – in the realm of contemporary art, many of whose forms go far beyond the two-dimensionality of the “pictorial.” During the 1960s and 1970s numerous artists turned away from painting to adopt new conceptual, performative and site-specific practices that made the notion of a physical frame seem anachronistic, or even impossible. But far from disappearing, the frame found a new theoretical relevance in the practices of artists associated with institutional critique.
Circumscribing the Work
A Few Notes on the Frames Used for Works by Members of the Beaver Hall Group
Looking individually at the rare archival sources that mention the framing of works may seem to be of merely anecdotal interest. But aside from the information they provide about particular works, when studied and compared they point to other major issues, including those of hanging works as part of an ensemble and the type of frames selected by a collection or exhibition curator as a component of an exhibition concept. The article opens with a quote from Alain Fleisher: “To each work it hangs on a wall, the museum gives a supreme frame: all the other works on exhibition.” After citing a local example – the interaction between several works in the new pavilion of Quebec and Canadian art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – the author stresses the importance of learning about a work’s first frame, the surround initially chosen for a painting. This shift from ensemble to object also serves to highlight the diversity of positions being presented by participants in the conference, which this text introduces.
The frame is a more or less standard component of a painting. It would be difficult for the curator of a collection or exhibition to imagine displaying a painting minus a surround of some kind, if only the simplest form of strip- frame. This said and understood, the possible approaches to the issue are virtually infinite, as the essays presented here demonstrate.
But what is it, inherent to the notion of the frame, that raises questions? The aim of this conclusion, at once a privilege and a risk, is to suggest some answers based on the various contributions to the conference. Janet Brooke’s paper “The Historiography of the Frame: Knowledge and Practice” is a fitting place to start, since the simple, operative dialectic of its subtitle echoes the binary division that characterizes the positions of the various authors taken collectively – particularly if we shift it towards another duality. The essays in the first group set out the elements of the subject that concerns us: the frame as object. Those in the second, however, take a different analytic approach. There are many possible transversal interpretations, but before expounding further it can be said that the first set of texts approaches the frame as a proposition, while the second poses it as a problem.