Dresden Gallery Frames

The exhibition of paintings from the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, 'Masterpieces from Dresden', at the Royal Academy in London from 15 March to 8 June 2003 provided the opportunity to examine an unusual style of picture framing.

The Dresden Gallery Frame is a remarkable historical feat both for the number and quality of the paintings framed in a uniform gallery style.

When Augustus III Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1696-1763) bought the '100 best' paintings from the collection of Francesco III, Duke of Modena, they arrived in Dresden in 1746 without frames, possibly due to a disagreement about whether the frames were to be paid for separately or not. This important addition to Augustus's collection of old master paintings had to be framed at once and probably triggered the invention of the Dresden Gallery Frame. Between 1747 and 1752 the whole collection of about 1500 paintings was uniformly reframed, both the new acquisitions and existing paintings in the collection, many of which had been acquired by Augustus III's father, Augustus II, known as Augustus the Strong (1670-1733).

The carving work was mainly undertaken by Mattheus Kugler and Joseph Deibel. Both came originally from Munich where Deibel had been apprenticed to Kugler. In 1743 Deibel stayed in Berlin, working for Johann August Nahl who was very influential as a carver and designer in the development of a distinctive rococo style under Frederic II. Three other carvers, Joseph Ney, Leimer and Foisset are only known from their signatures on the backs of Dresden frames. The frame for Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione's In Front of Noah's Ark is signed by Foisset and formed part of the Royal Academy exhibition (Gal. no. 659; cat. no. 21).

The design of the Dresden Gallery Frame is rooted in the French Rococo but similar in style to other German frames of the mid-18th century. Rocaille corners and centres are imposed on an engraved scotia moulding. Each frame carries at the top the King's coat of arms, set between wings and originally topped by a carved crown, and at the bottom a shield with the initials AR (Augustus Rex). The same pattern is used for frames of all sizes. All the bottom corners are of a similar design. The top left hand corner is distinguished by a wing pointing downwards while the top right hand corner is marked by a splayed finger-like motif.

The picture frames were one of the features remarked upon by visitors to Dresden. Goethe in 1768 wrote of the Gallery, 'My amazement surpassed every expectation I came with. This room turning back in upon itself, reigned over by a magnificence and order amidst perfect silence, the dazzling frames, which had hardly changed since the day they had been gilded, the polished floors, the rooms visited by more viewers than people who came to work -- all this produced a unique feeling of solemn splendour...', while Johann Christian Hasche in a description published 15 years later spoke of the 'magnificent sculpted frames'.

The Dresden Gallery Frame has been used continuously and was reproduced for newly acquired paintings or to make up frame losses over the past 250 years. The ongoing process of restoration and copying has resulted in great variations in both form and quality. Many frames have been regilded, sometimes using silver and metal leaf. Some 19th-century copies were ornamented in cast plaster. But even the better preserved original frames vary widely in such basic elements as the width of the scotia and the type of egg moulding on the back edge.

Gallery frames, made to hang very close together so that the framed paintings would cover the wall from end to end and right up to the ceiling, are necessarily different to frames for pictures designed to hang separately in furnished rooms. The rocaille ornaments on the Dresden Gallery Frames stay well within the outer edge of the frames. This is different to French frames of the time where the centres and corners are usually in line with the outer edge of the frame, or to Prussian rococo frames where the corners extend well beyond the straight back edge. The Dresden frames seem therefore rather boxy when spaced apart as they are today. A good example of a picture gallery that is unchanged can be seen in Schloss Mosigkau near Dessau. The gallery frame is here much simpler but also from the 1750s.

Not all of the paintings in Dresden hang in the uniform gallery frame. More elaborate and varying frames were made for the contemporary 18th-century miniatures and pastels. These were housed in a separate cabinet and are comparable to the best German rococo frames. These frames were made at the same time but do not have the hallmarks of the gallery frame: they do not display the King's coat of arms nor the shield with the initials AR; they are varying in design and do not follow the symmetry of the ordinary gallery frames. Only about one tenth of the collection and none of the frames in the Royal Academy exhibition fall into this category.

The consistent framing of the Dresden collection in the gallery style was broken in 1855 when Dresden's most famous painting, Raphael's Sistine Madonna, was reframed in a renaissance style tabernacle frame. This frame was lost and in 1956 replaced by an engraved moulding frame; a hugely enlarged version of a small Italian 16th-century pattern. Several of the early paintings which are in any case generally less suited to the rococo style frames are now displayed in non gallery frames, some in antiques.

Dresden Gallery Frames can now be found all over the world. Many frames were displaced, especially during the war and subsequent transport to and from the Soviet Union. Two for instance returned on paintings from Potsdam and hang now in Schloss Sanssouci, the summer palace of August's enemy Frederic II of Prussia. Other frames turn up at frame dealers and London auction houses.

Further reading: Christoph Schölzel, 'Der Dresdener Galerierahmen Geschichte, Technik, Restaurierung', ZKK: Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, vol. 16, 2002, pp. 104-29, 34 illustrations.

Peter Schade
schade@globalnet.co.uk
March 2003