John Singer Sargent and picture framing

An examination of Sargent’s picture frames from his years in Paris and London and his visits to America, identifying his framemakers and his preferred framing styles. A related note is available on John Singer Sargent’s suppliers of artists’ materials.

Published February 2013. It is hoped to develop this study further. Please provide feedback to Jacob Simon at [email protected].

Pictures are referred to by their number in the complete Sargent paintings catalogue by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, which forms the source for much of the documentation in this text. Locations are only given for public collections.

Sargent in Paris
Sargent’s early years in London
Sargent’s travels in Europe
The use of antique frames
The Louis Quatorze and the Louis Quinze
The taste for the Italian Baroque
'Sargent oak pattern'


John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) took a strong interest in the framing of his pictures, but then this was something of a necessity for any portrait painter. Born in Florence to American parents, his formative years as an artist were spent in Paris where he trained under Carolus-Duran. He moved to London in 1886 and achieved great success as a portrait painter, so much so that from 1898 he could command the very sizeable fee of 1,000 guineas for a full-length. In 1907 he announced his intention to retire from portrait painting as a business. Henceforth he focused on his landscapes and mural paintings while continuing to paint a few portraits in oil, generally as favours for old patrons and friends. To satisfy the wider demand for portraits he resorted to charcoal drawings in the form of head-and-shoulders sketches which he could dash off in a couple of hours. In his later years he spent much of his time on his decorations for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Sargent was a man of diverse experience, widely travelled and at home in Paris, London or New York, more cosmopolitan than any other English or American portrait painter of his generation.

Our knowledge of Sargent's role in picture framing is incomplete. On occasion he would use antique frames. But more often than not he chose to use modern frames, albeit generally in revival styles. It has been claimed that Sargent's involvement in framing extended to the provision of a precise description for a new frame if an antique frame was not being used [note 1]; however, not enough is known about his procedures to support a generalisation of this sort.

What is clear is that Sargent played a significant part in the process by which a patron came about a frame. In the absence of his studio records and those of most of his framemakers, the evidence is three-fold: correspondence with his patrons, the recurrence of certain favoured frame patterns and the survival of various frames labeled as made by one or other of his favoured framemakers. Sargent's use of antique frames and of revival patterns, generally French or Italian in type but occasionally Spanish, was a mainstream taste and can be paralleled in the work of other society portrait painters of the period, if seldom with such consistent splendour.

Sargent in Paris

The frames from Sargent's Paris years, 1874 to 1885, remain to be documented. They depend heavily on standard French types of the period, judging from the relatively few early pictures which retain their original frames. In the Luxembourg Gardens of 1879 (cat.721; Philadelphia Museum of Art) has a typical heavy Salon frame in the Louis XIV style, ornamented with a running pattern of flowers set between paired leaves. The frame is gilded like almost all Sargent's frames. That the ornament was cast in plaster rather than carved in wood is clearly visible in areas of damage. Another frame of this type may be found on the almost contemporary Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra (cat.724; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Madame Edouard Pailleron (cat.25; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC), a portrait of one of Sargent's most significant early patrons, also dating to 1879, is framed much more expensively, as Sargent's society portraits often were, in an extremely rich fruit-and-leaf cushion frame with five bands of decoration in all, three of them in the wide deep back hollow and back edge of the frame. The ornament is in plaster, finished to a very high standard, with gilding over a red bole and burnishing on the highlights; the fruit-and-leaf pattern repeats every 20 inches. This distinctive style can also be found on Gustave Moreau's Narcisse of the mid or late 1880s (Moreau Museum, Paris), and no doubt a wider search would pinpoint the pattern more precisely.

Other Sargent portraits from his Paris years have, or once had, Italianate cushion frames, albeit not quite of this richness: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit of 1882 (cat.56; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) has a rich fruit-and-leaf design reversing at the centres, while Dr Pozzi at Home of 1881 (cat.40; Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles) was once housed in a comparable frame, known from an old exhibition photograph [note 2]. These patterns owe much of their inspiration to Italian and French 17th-century frames of the sort of Octavia Hill (fig.7), as discussed below.

Quite exceptional is the frame on El Jaleo of 1882, the large Spanish dancing scene in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (cat.772). It is likely that this is the frame in which the picture was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882 and in any case the frame is recorded in a photograph of 1901 before minor subsequent alterations [note 3]. The frame moulding, a very wide plain inward sloping flat set within twisting foliage on the top edge, was clearly designed with the picture in mind, almost like a proscenium in a theatre giving on to a stage, with the lighting coming from below. On the bottom of the frame there were ‘little polished protuberances, that suggest the absent footlights, a very ingenious piece of forethought on the artist's part’, according to a critic who probably saw the picture in New York in 1882 [note 4].

At a much more modest level, for his watercolour, Landscape with two children, c.1878-9 (cat.648), Sargent wanted a white mount and a simple gold frame (‘une baguette d’or, simple’), as he told his unidentified framemaker in a note in French on the reverse of the watercolour itself.

Sargent in his studio

Fig. 1 Sargent in his Paris studio, photograph attributed to A. Giraudon, c. 1883-4, with his celebrated Portrait of Madame X.

Sargent's celebrated Portrait of Madame X (cat.114; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) caused a furore at the Paris Salon in 1884. It can be seen in a crisply detailed classical frame with a frieze of overlapping leaves in a view of the artist’s Paris studio (fig.1), taken shortly before the portrait was sent to the exhibition. The frame has since been replaced more than once, most recently by a pattern with a repeating leaf design which in some ways approximates to the original. It was adapted from one located in store at the Metropolitan Museum, as it happens one made by Sargent’s framemaker, Thomas A. Wilmurt & Son [note 5].

In 1887 Sargent took a lease on Whistler's old studio in Tite Street, Chelsea, and henceforth made London his home. He continued to visit Paris from time to time, and his French experience was a formative influence, not only on his style as an artist but also on his taste in picture framing.

Sargent’s early years in London


Charles Mitchell May label

Fig. 2 Label of Charles Mitchell May, 1894, on the reverse of Coventry Patmore (fig. 5).

Portrait painting was an international business for Sargent and he needed to be able to rely on the services of experienced framemakers. In London in 1887 he can be found using a long-established craftsman, W.A. Smith (c.1828-1909) of 20 Mortimer Street, Regent Street, better known for his work for G.F. Watts [note 6]. Sargent came to prefer Charles Mitchell May (c.1840-1914) of St Ann's Court, Soho (see fig.2), whom he used for much of his work from at least 1894 until May’s son went out of business in 1922. For more routine framing from 1900 or before he went to another leading firm, Chapman Bros of King’s Road, Chelsea, close to his studio (see figs. 3 and 4) [note 7]. For Smith, May and Chapman, see British picture framemakers. Sargent is also said to have used Harold Roller (1859-1934) for framing but this is uncertain; Harold’s brother, George, did however undertake picture restoration work for Sargent [note 8].


Chapman Bros label

Fig. 3 Label of Chapman Bros, 1900, on the reverse of Sargent's drawing of Harley Granville-Barker (fig. 10).

Chapman Bros label

Fig. 4 Label of Chapman Bros, 1906, on the reverse of 1st Earl Roberts (fig. 9).


Sargent needed to gain the approval of his patron when framing a commissioned portrait. But with his other work he could please himself. El Jaleo from his Paris years has already been discussed. In London, his striking full-length portrait, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (cat.183; Tate, London) was a focus of attention when exhibited at the New Gallery in 1889. It has a remarkable frame of Celtic inspiration, very probably the original, and so chosen by Sargent if not designed by him. It should be added that in the absence of documentation it remains a possibility that the purchaser, the actor Sir Henry Irving, chose to have the picture reframed [note 11].


Whistler frame

Fig. 5 - Coventry Patmore by J.S. Sargent, 1894, in a Whistler frame, gilt directly on the oak, made by C.M. May (National Portrait Gallery).

Not all of Sargent's portraits were elaborately framed. His portrait of the poet, Coventry Patmore (cat.302; National Portrait Gallery, London), painted in 1894, has a simple flat reeded Whistler frame (fig.5) made by Charles Mitchell May (see fig.2), and a very similar frame can be found on his portrait of a fellow artist, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon of c.1900 (cat.297; National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). Was the Whistler pattern one which Sargent reserved for certain types of sitter?

The ubiquitous Watts pattern can be found on three of Sargent's Vickers family portraits including The Misses Vickers of 1884 (cat.129; Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust), commissioned by the Sheffield industrialist, Colonel Thomas Vickers [note 9]. This frame type was also used for Sargent's 1904 full-length of the colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (cat.473; Singapore History Museum), commissioned by the Straits Association to mark Swettenham's term as Governor of the Malay States. Perhaps the relative simplicity of the Watts pattern matched the taste of certain types of patrons.

Spanish 17th century style frame

Fig. 6 - Sir Frank Swettenham by J.S. Sargent, 1904, in a Spanish 17th-century style frame of reverse section, made by C.M. May (National Portrait Gallery).

It is worth noting that when Swettenham came to frame his own three-quarter length version of Sargent's portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London (cat.474), he accepted a considerably more elaborate pattern, a Spanish 17th-century style frame of reverse section with foliage centres and corners (fig.6), made by Charles Mitchell May. The same pattern is found on Sargent's exactly contemporary portrait of Viscountess D'Abernon (cat.466; Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama) [note 10].

The remaining sections of this survey of Sargent's frames examine various aspects of his years in London: his forays to America, his European travels, his use of antique frames, and his taste for Italian and French revival patterns.

Sargent in America

Many of Sargent's American sitters sat to him in Paris or London and no doubt some of these portraits were framed in Europe rather than America. Sargent's visits to America were sporadic: his first as a practising artist, made in 1887, was followed by others in 1890, 1895, 1903, 1916 and later. Sargent needed to know who to turn to for the best work in picture framing in America, both during his visits and for the occasions when he sent portraits from London to America unframed. We shall see how his choice of framemaker developed over the years.

On his first visit in 1887 Sargent went to the long-established New York firm of Thomas A. Wilmurt at 54 East 13th Street for the frame for his portrait of LeRoy King (cat.194), though the frame has since been replaced [note 12].

On his 1890 visit, Sargent apparently sent his portrait, Lawrence Barrett (cat.272; Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, New York) to Wilmurt for framing but it is now in a Stanford White design. Sargent may have met White in Europe as early as 1877, and subsequently they became close friends [note 13]. A partner in the leading New York architectural practice of McKim, Mead and White, Stanford White (1853-1906) took a special interest in the design of picture frames, drawing on a wide range of traditional European designs for inspiration. As he did for several other artists, White apparently provided frame designs for some of Sargent's portraits, perhaps not surprising in view of his close links with many of Sargent's sitters.

Various portraits from Sargent’s 1890 visit have Stanford White frames, perhaps made by White’s then framemaker, the French-born New York cabinetmaker, Joseph Cabus (1824-94), or his son Alexander. Sargent's full-length of Mrs Edward L. Davis and her Son of 1890 (cat.250; Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has a superlative frame to White's design, very wide and in low relief, with a gadrooned sight edge, outset mouldings at the corners and centres, and flat 'Dutch ripple' patterning in compo as the main background ornamentation. An almost identical frame type, but writ small, can be found on two other portraits from the same year, the three-quarter-length Henry Cabot Lodge (cat.264; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC) and the half-length Royal Elisha Robbins (cat.268). Other contemporary examples occur on Eleanor Brooks (cat.258) and Lawrence Barrett (cat.272; Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, New York). These frames are variations on a White design used for Thomas Wilmer Dewing's Lady with a Lute of 1886 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

Subsequently when Sargent painted Henry G. Marquand (cat.343; Metropolitan Museum of Art) in London in 1897, he suggested that the frame might be designed and made in New York by 'someone Stanford White knows' [note 14]. Following White's death in 1906 his designs were taken over by the Newcomb-Macklin Company. Their label can be found on the frame of Elizabeth Chanler (cat.287; National Museum of American Art, Washington DC), a portrait of 1893 [note 15]. Another picture by Sargent, A Capriote (cat.702; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), exhibited in New York in 1879, has a simple Stanford White pattern and is probably an early reframing. The small-scale repetitive patterns of many of White designs made them easy to reproduce, and they have been much copied.

On his visit to America in 1903, Sargent turned to the Boston artist-framemaker, Charles Prendergast (1863-1948). It was in 1903 that Prendergast joined with Hermann Dudley Murphy, a Boston painter and framemaker, in Carrig-Rohane, an arts-and-crafts-inspired frame-making cooperative in Boston [note 16]. The frame for Sargent’s portrait, Charles Martin Loeffler (cat.444; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), a gift from the artist to Isabella Stewart Gardner, has a boldly carved frame, signed ‘Prendergast’ and dated 1903, but is otherwise undocumented [note 17]. Another portrait from the same year, Mrs Charles Pelham Curtis (cat.443; Portland Museum of Art, Maine) is housed in a carved and gilded Italianate frame by Prendergast. Sargent recommended Prendergast to General Charles Paine for his portrait in 1904 (cat.478; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), but warned his patron that carving the frame would take time. In 1907 Sargent makes mention of a Prendergast frame for a portrait painted in London, William Crowninshield Endicott Jr (cat.544; Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). On at least one occasion, Sargent paid Prendergast directly for a frame [note 18], but it is not clear how closely Sargent himself was involved in the choice of these frames.

The framemaker, Walfred Thulin (1878-1949), is said to have worked for Sargent but this connection remains to be documented [note 19]. A Swedish-born woodcarver, he took over the Carrig-Rohane framing business in 1911.

In 1922 Sargent was in touch with ‘Bayley’ concerning a watercolour, Mrs Gardner in White, possibly about framing it (cat.586; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). It would seem that he may be identifiable with the dealer, Frank William Bayley (1863-1932) of the Copley Gallery in Boston, where Sargent's work had been exhibited in 1917 [note 20].

Sargent’s travels in Europe

Sargent was born in Florence and travelled extensively in Italy, Switzerland and France as a boy. An early sketchbook, dating to a visit to Venice in May 1870 when he was 14, bears the label of the supplier, Giovanni Brizeghel in the Merceria dell’Orologio (Metropolitan Museum of Art, see note 21).

As a mature artist, Sargent travelled extensively in Europe, making numerous visits to Italy and many elsewhere. He probably took painting materials with him, generally French or English, but went to local suppliers as needs arose (see John Singer Sargent’s suppliers of artists’ materials). On a visit to Venice, perhaps in 1880 or 1882, he turned to Giuseppe Biasutti for supports for several works, and on a subsequent visit to the city he used Emilio Aickelin, who offered ‘Articoli per belle arti’, for the paper for one of his watercolours in about 1907. These works would be sent home to his studio in London. There was no reason to frame them locally unless an immediate need arose such as in 1913 when he wanted to make a present of a watercolour to a long-established patron, Ariana Curtis, and turned to her ‘old framemaker Bonati’ in Venice [note 22].

Even on his return to London, he would not necessarily have his landscape and figure paintings and drawings framed unless sending them to an exhibition or perhaps making a gift to a friend. In the case of his painting, Olives in Corfu, apparently done in 1909, it was not framed until acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1922, when the museum sent it to Chapman’s for framing [note 23]. Indeed, various sketches remained in Sargent’s studio until his posthumous sale in 1925 and may only have been framed by a subsequent purchaser.

Sargent’s use of antique frames

In London in the 1890s Sargent showed a taste for antique French and Italian frames. "Today I saw an old frame which I think might suit the picture", he wrote to Sir Andrew Agnew in 1893 about the portrait of his wife, Lady Agnew (cat.286; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), a painting which helped establish Sargent's reputation in London [note 24]. "I have found a charming old frame", he told an American patron, Mrs Whitin of Whitinsville, when framing his portrait of the actress Ada Rehan in 1895 (cat.308; Metropolitan Museum of Art) [note 25]. Sargent was not alone in using antique frames. In 1899 it was said of the Royal Academy exhibition, "there is a noticeable display of old frames, for which there is now a great demand" [note 26].

Octavia Hill frame

Fig. 7 - Octavia Hill by J.S. Sargent, 1899, the frame probably Italian 17th century (National Portrait Gallery).

Examples of the use of antique frames on Sargent's pictures include Carolus-Duran of 1879 (cat.21; Sterling and Francine Clark Arts Institute, Williamstown), like Lady Agnew in a French frame, and Octavia Hill of 1899 (fig.7; cat.366), and Mrs Fiske Warren and her Daughter of 1903 (cat.445; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), both Italian. Many of these antique frames show signs of alteration to fit the pictures suggesting that Sargent usually chose a frame once he had completed a portrait, unlike some artists who would paint a portrait to the size of a favoured frame [note 27]. Although Sargent sometimes altered the format of his pictures quite late on in the painting process, usually by folding back a strip of canvas, there is no evidence to suggest that this was done to fit the picture to a particular frame [note 28].

A collection of old picture frames belonging to Sargent was sold at Christie's in 1925 following his death. In all more than 140 frames appeared in the sale, some sold singly and others in lots of as many as a dozen. The frames which fetched the greatest prices included a gilt frame carved with shells and leafage, an Italian gilt frame carved with foliage and acorns, and two gilt frames carved with floral designs. Other lots included a Carlo Maratta frame, a gilt frame surmounted by the head of Medusa, a French gilt frame with applied festoons of flowers and trophies and a painted white frame [note 29].

The Louis Quatorze and the Louis Quinze

The taste for French revival patterns - the terms Louis Quatorze and Louis Quinze were used very loosely - was established in England in the early 19th century and later renewed in even more resplendent form in the frames used by Duveen and Agnew’s for selling Old Masters to rich collectors in America and Britain - and used by Sargent and a few other leading society portrait painters for framing their portraits. In the case of Duveen it has been said of his Louis XIV frames that their quality in some cases actually surpassed most period frames; he gave his clients 'better-than-period' frames [note 30]. Something of the same tendency is at work with Sargent's finest society portraits. The richness of their frames needed to match the price of the portraits.

The starting point for a consideration of these revival patterns should be the originals which served as inspiration if not exact models. So we find the rococo forms of the antique French frame on Lady Agnew, fitted in 1893, taken up in the portrait of the art dealer, Asher Wertheimer of 1898 (cat.347; Tate). And in the case of the portraits of the society hostess, Lady Sassoon of 1907, and her daughter, The Countess of Rocksavage of 1922 (cat.531, 603) [note 31], it is possible to identify an almost exact source for the frames: Jean-Marc Nattier's full-length Madame Henriette de France of 1754, one of a set of the daughters of Louis XV at Versailles (the differences in Sargent's frames are very slight: a matter of scale, the introduction of the sanding and the detailing of the corners and back edge). Here Sargent can be seen applying the trappings of the ancien regime to Edwardian Society.

Sargent also portrayed several members of Asher Wertheimer's family, including his daughters Ena of 1905 and Almina of 1908 (cat.485, 549; Tate), in very rich matching Louis XIV revival frames (the sides here are straight and there are prominent centre and corner panels with distinctive cross-hatched grounds). These frames are altogether richer and more three dimensional than the Salon patterns Sargent had used in Paris as a young artist in the late 1870s.

Italian 17th century style frame

Fig. 8 The Misses Hunter by J.S. Sargent, 1902, detail of an enriched Louis XIV style frame (Tate).

Sargent's grandest portraits were recipients of some of his most elaborate frames. The Acheson Sisters of 1902 (cat.411; Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, Derbyshire), a particularly ambitious group of the three Acheson girls at full-length, has a highly enriched Louis XIV frame, supplied by his London framemaker, Charles Mitchell May, with prominent cartouches at the centres, half-centres and corners [note 32]. This pattern is repeated on Sargent's contemporary image of The Misses Hunter (fig.8; cat.410). At the other end of the scale his more modest works were usually given simpler frames in the French style: the rather standard composition Barbizon frame echoing the Louis XIV style for his Hospital at Granada, 1912 (National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, see note 33) and the frame for Henry James, 1913, made by Charles Mitchell May, his framemaker (cat.568; National Portrait Gallery, London). It would seem that some of Sargent's male portraits received rather more severe frames. His full-length Arthur Balfour, 1908 (cat.550; National Portrait Gallery, London) is housed in a classical Louis XVI frame surmounted by a crowning laurel leaf garland and cartouche.

It was to France that society, led by Edward VII, looked for all that was most fashionable in design and interior decoration. So it is not surprising to find so many of Sargent's society portraits framed in French revival patterns. It was also to France, and in particular to Paris, that dealers such as Duveen turned for the finest frames. The question arises as to whether Sargent followed suit. In 1914 in the report of a National Gallery committee into the retention of important pictures in Britain, one of the trustees, the banker and collector Robert Henry Benson, himself a Sargent patron, contributed an appendix on picture framing: "But for the finest water-gilding," he wrote, "such as is to be seen round Mr. Sargent's pictures, you must go to Paris" [note 34].

The implication is that Sargent turned to Paris for some of his frames, despite the difficulties inherent in ordering abroad, and perhaps to a firm such as Bourdier at 21 rue de Courcelles, singled out by Benson. However, until the construction and labelling of Sargent's frames is studied in detail, as can only be done with the frames off the walls, it is not possible to clarify the sourcing of Sargent's frames. Until evidence emerges to the contrary, it should be assumed that the frames for his English portraits were made in London rather than Paris. His usual London framemaker, Charles Mitchell May, called himself 'English & French Picture Frame Maker', advertising his 'thoroughly competent workmen English and French' [note 35]. That splendid frames in the French manner were being produced in London is clear from Sir John Lavery's The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace (National Portrait Gallery, London), framed in 1913, probably by the French framemaker, Emile Remy, who had set up in business in London in 1904 [note 36].

The taste for the Italian Baroque

Both in Paris and in London Sargent chose some Italian 17th-century frame models. Particularly common are his richly finished frames with ornate bands of overlapping leaves, fruit and berries in high relief, described here from their profile as 'cushion' frames. These frames are generally of reverse section, that is, with the most prominent moulding nearest the picture, and sometimes are not purely Italian in inspiration; there are French and English influences at work as well.

Though Sargent sometimes used antique examples such as found on Octavia Hill (fig.7), most of his frames of this type were contemporary revival patterns. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit of 1882 has already been singled out from Sargent's Paris years as has Madame Edouard Pailleron of 1879 for its exceptionally ornate pattern. On many of these frames the rounded forms of the fruit are burnished so as to catch the light. The masterpiece of Sargent's early years in London, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose of 1885-6 (cat.871; Tate) is very different in detail to these French frames but almost equally rich and resplendent in overall effect (it is now housed in a reconstruction of the original frame which was prepared for the Tate exhibition in 1998) [note 37]. Narrower and more austere is the leaf-and-berry pattern in the English 17th-century manner, reversing at rosette centres, on the full-length Duchess of Portland of 1902 (cat.414).

Italian 17th century style frame

Fig. 9 - Field-Marshal 1st Earl Roberts by J.S. Sargent, 1906, detail of an Italian 17th-century style frame, pattern no. 7301, made by Chapman Bros (National Portrait Gallery).

Narrow gilt moulding frame

Fig. 10 - Harley Granville-Barker, drawing by J.S. Sargent, 1900, detail of a narrow gilt moulding frame, made by Chapman Bros (National Portrait Gallery).


Some of the Italianate patterns found on Sargent's work were in commercial production. His Field-Marshal 1st Earl Roberts of 1906 (cat.522; National Portrait Gallery, London) is housed in a good stock moulding (fig.9), made by Chapman Bros of Chelsea (see fig.4), a pattern which occurs in similar form on the work of Sir William Orpen [note 38]. On a smaller scale, very dense fruit-and-leaf stock patterns can be found on some of Sargent's landscapes and interior scenes.

'Sargent oak pattern'

Sargent's charcoal portrait drawings and his watercolour landscapes and portraits were usually framed in simple narrow gilt mouldings (nos. 103, 105, 108-9, 130 and 132 in the 1998 Sargent exhibition, all from private collections). An early example, Harley Granville-Barker of 1900 (National Portrait Gallery, London), is reproduced here in a frame made by Chapman Bros (fig.10; see also fig.3).

C.M. May frame

Fig. 11 - General Officers of World War I by J.S. Sargent, detail of a frame made by C.M. May (National Portrait Gallery).

The official commissions which followed in the wake of World War I were framed in sober styles. His drawings were finished in a narrow moulding gilt directly onto oak, perhaps the pattern being supplied to the Ministry of Information in 1919 as 'Sargent oak pattern frames' [note 39]. His ambitious war paintings, Gassed of 1919 (Imperial War Museum, London) and General Officers of World War I of 1922 (fig.11; cat.587; National Portrait Gallery, London) have much wider frames, but still very plain, with raised inner and outer mouldings and a wide flat central frieze, which is painted in the case of Gassed, gilt on the General Officers. The latter frame was made by the May family business, by now May & Son, immediately before the firm ceased trading.

Sargent's last years were much taken up with work for the decoration of the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston. In 1924 a retrospective exhibition of his work was held in New York. It was in April the following year that Sargent died at his studio in Tite Street in London.

This short piece on Sargent and his picture frames has ignored some important frames with a claim to be original.. It leaves many questions unanswered, some of which will be resolved by closer scrutiny of the frames themselves, others by research in the archives of his patrons and suppliers. Did Sargent send pictures from London for framing in Paris? Just how close was his involvement in framing? Does any correspondence survive in which Sargent - or his sitters - write of his attitude to framing? And are framing bills known?

Jacob Simon
February 2013
[email protected].


This survey is an expanded version of a text first published in September 1998, inspired by the major Sargent exhibition in London, Washington and Boston in 1998-9. It was revised in January 1999, May 2002 and January 2003. It has not been possible to study more than a very few of the frames from the reverse. The standard catalogue is Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, Yale University Press, New Haven and London: vol.1, The Early Portraits (1998); vol.2, Portraits of the 1890s (2002); vol.3, The Later Portraits (2003); vol.4, Figures and Landscapes, 1874-1882 (2006); vol.5, Figures and Landscapes, 1883-1899 (2010); vol.6, Venetian Figures and Landscapes, 1898-1913 (2009); vol.7, Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907 (2012).

1. Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1994, p.76.

2. Reproduced in Eva Mendgen (ed.), In Perfect Harmony,, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and Kunstforum, Vienna, 1995, p.196.

3. See Mary Crawford Volk, John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, Washington, 1992, pp.72, 79-81.

4. The Art Journal, New York edition, vol.44, 1882, pp.350-1, accessed through Google Book Search; the bibliographical accuracy of this reference needs verification.

5 See Carrie Rebora Barratt, ‘American Frames in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Choices and Changes‘, in Eli Wilner (ed.), The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame, San Francisco, 2000, p.172.

6. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.1, p.180; the frame made by Smith for the portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887 (Taft Museum, Cincinnati) is no longer on the picture.

7. Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, London, 1996, p.135. Chapman features in Sargent’s correspondence in 1910 and 1913 (Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.6, pp.50, 191).

8. Elaine Kilmurray, text on Sargent's painting of Joseph Comyns Carr and Nettie Huxley in a Boat, written May 1989 for the exhibition Twenty Important Works from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century at Peter Nahum's, 5 Ryder St, London. For Roller, see British picture restorers.

9. For the framing taste of the Vickers family, see the Vickers album (National Portrait Gallery Archive) containing photographs showing the frames of the following pictures by Sargent: A Dinner Table at Night, 1884 in a Louis XIII-revival overlapping leaf-and-berry frame (cat.133; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco); Mrs Albert Vickers, 1884, a full-length in a Watts frame (cat.132; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond); Edward Vickers, c.1884, a head in a richly ornamented frame with leaf sides and laurel top (cat.135); Fishing Boats, Whitby in a similar frame (cat.855); Garden Study of the Vickers Children, c.1884, in its present unusual centre-and-corner frame with ribbon-and-reeded top edge (cat.134; Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan); Izme Vickers, 1907, a three-quarter length in a similar frame (cat.534); and Dorothy? Vickers, c.1885-6, a head-and-shoulders in a simplified Watts frame (cat.136). These identifications are based on a list made by Richard Ormond in October 1981.

10. Simon, op.cit., p.183.

11. The frame on Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is reproduced in Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts, Frameworks, London, 1996, p.388, as probably designed by Sargent and made by Harold Roller (p.463 note 72). However, there is no evidence to document Roller’s involvement. The frame was altered many years ago to receive glass.

12. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.1, p.200; Andrew W. Katlan, American Artist's Materials Suppliers Directory. Nineteenth Century. New York 1810-1899. Boston 1823-1887, Park Ridge, New Jersey, 1987, p.265.

13. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.1, p.xiii; see also Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent, London, 1957, pp.108-10, 134-7. For the subject of Stanford White and picture framing, see William Adair, ‘Stanford White’s frames’, The Magazine Antiques, March 1997, pp.448-57, and Nina Gray, ‘Within Gilded Borders: The Frames of Stanford White’, in Eli Wilner (ed.), The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame, San Francisco, 2000, pp.82-103.

14. Doreen Bolger Burke, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol.III, A Catalogue of Works by Artists born between 1846 and 1864, New York, 1980, p.252.

15. Katlan, op.cit., pp.296, 358. The label on this portrait gives Newcomb-Macklin's address as 45 West 27th Street, New York.

16. For Prendergast, see Carol Derby, ‘Charles Prendergast’s Frames: reuniting design and craftsmanship’, in Carol Clark et al., Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: a catalogue raisonné, Lakewood, New Jersey, 1990, especially pp.95-9. It is hoped to study the records of the Carrig-Rohane Shop, 1903-62, in the Smithsonian Institution, to inform the next edition of this online text on Sargent and framing. For summary information on the records, see Detailed description of the Carrig-Rohane Shop records, 1903-1962 | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution at

17. Derby, op.cit., p.97.

18. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.3, p.101

19. Thulin is linked to Sargent by Suzanne Smeaton in 'The Art of the Frame'. An exhibition focusing on American frames of the Arts and Crafts movement, 1870-1920, Eli Wilner & Co. Inc., New York, 1988, p.14, but without indication of her source.

20. Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by John Singer Sargent for the Benefit of the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris, The Copley Gallery, Boston, 1917. For Bayley and the Copley Gallery, see Directory for the History of Collecting at

21. Stephanie L. Herdrich and H. Barbara Weinberg, American drawings and watercolors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent, New York and New Haven, 2000, p.78.

22. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.6, p.93.

23. See Stella Panayotova, I Turned it into a Palace, Cambridge, 2008, p.134. The frame cost £6.4s (Fitzwilliam Museum archives, ledger 960692).

24. Julia Rayer Rolfe et al., The Portrait of a Lady. Sargent and Lady Agnew, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1997, p.24. The frame has been slightly reduced at the half centres at top and bottom. See also Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.2, p.66.

25. Burke, op.cit., p.246, and Ormond and Kilmurray, vol.2, p.92.

26. Simon, op.cit., p.23.

27. See note 26.

28. See Jacqueline Ridge and Joyce Townsend, 'John Singer Sargent's later portraits: The artist's technique and materials', Apollo, September 1998, vol.148, pp.23-30, fig.9, for a reproduction of one of Sargent’s portraits with canvas folded back.

29. Christie's, 31 July 1925, lots 7-55, kindly communicated by Richard Ormond. The frames which fetched the greatest prices, from £17.17s down to £12.12s, included a gilt frame carved with shells and leafage, size 42 x 33 ins, an Italian gilt frame carved with foliage and acorns, size 51 x 54 ins, a gilt frame carved with floral design, size 39 1/2 x 30 ins, and a second frame of this description, size 47 x 31 ins.

30. Simon, op.cit., p.24.

31. For a reproduction of an earlier portrait of 1913 of the Countess in its frame, see Andrew Moore (ed.), Houghton Hall, exh. cat., Castle Museum, Norwich, 1996, p.161.

32. I am grateful to Charles Noble for informing me in August 2006 that the Acheson Sisters is stamped or stencilled in black on the reverse about seven times: C.M. MAY/ GILDER & PICTURE FRAME MANUFACTURER/ SOHO. W.

33. John Payne, Framing in the Nineteenth Century: Picture Frames 1837-1935, National Gallery of Victoria, 2007, p.121.

34. Retention of Important Pictures, National Gallery Committee Report, Chairman Lord Curzon, 1914, Appendix IV ('Notes on Frames' by R.H. Benson).

35. Simon, op.cit., p.135.

36. Simon, op.cit., p.119.

37. Jacqueline Ridge, 'Preparing for the Sargent exhibition', Tate. The Art Magazine, Summer 1998, pp.v-vi (where the recreation of the frame on Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is briefly discussed and illustrated).

38. In particular, Orpen's H.M. Butler of 1911 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

39. Simon, op.cit., p.79.