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Notes on John Singer Sargent's frames

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.

September 1998, revised January 1999, May 2002 and January 2003

No study in depth has been made of Sargent's frames so far. What follows is a revised version of a text written before the major Sargent exhibition shown at the Tate Gallery, Washington and Boston in 1998-9; pictures are indicated by their number in the accompanying exhibition catalogue by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond. These notes depend on a scrutiny of the frames as displayed but ideally the frames should be studied from the reverse. Further archival documentation is becoming available as Ormond and Kilmurray's catalogue raisonné is published; Ormond and Kilmurray propose a sustained study which will be published in later volumes of their catalogue.


Sargent evidently took a strong interest in the framing of his pictures, but then this was something of a necessity for any portrait painter. 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-shoulder 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 recently 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; not enough is known, however, about the process to support a generalisation of this sort. (note 1) What is clear is that Sargent played a significant part in the process by which a patron came about a frame. The evidence is three-fold: correspondence with his patrons, the recurrence of certain favoured frame patterns and the survival of various frames known to have been made by one or other of his favoured framemakers. Sargent's use of antique frames and of revival patterns, generally French or Italian but occasionally Spanish in type, 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 (no. 16; 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. 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 (no. 15; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Madame Edouard Pailleron (no. 19; 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 in the Moreau Museum in Paris and no doubt a wider search would pinpoint the pattern more precisely. Other Sargent portraits painted in Paris have, or once had, Italianate cushion frames albeit not quite of this richness: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit of 1882 (no. 24; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) has a rich fruit-and-leaf design reversing at the centres, while Dr Pozzi at Home of 1881 (no. 23; 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 is discussed below.

Quite exceptional is the frame on El Jaleo of 1882, the large Spanish dancing scene in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. It has been suggested 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 (see note 27). 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.

Sargent's celebrated Portrait of Madame X (no. 26; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) caused a furore which encouraged him to move to London. It can be seen in a crisply detailed classical frame with a frieze of overlapping leaves in a view of his Paris studio (fig. 1), taken shortly before the portrait was sent to the 1884 Paris Salon; 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.

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.

Charles Mitchell May label

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

Sargent's framemakers

For Sargent portrait painting was an international business and he needed to be able to rely on the services of really experienced framemakers. In 1887 he can be found using two long-established firms, W.A. Smith of 20 Mortimer Street, Regent Street, in London (a framemaker better known for his work for G.F. Watts), (note 3) and Thomas A. Wilmurt of 54 East 13th Street in New York. (note 4) In London Sargent came to prefer Charles Mitchell May of St Ann's Court, Soho (see fig. 2), whom he used from at least 1894 until May went out of business in 1922, and another leading firm, Chapman Bros of Chelsea (see figs. 3 and 4), who worked for him from at least 1900. (note 5)

Mention should also be made of Harold Roller who has been identified as having framed Sargent's pictures; he ran a firm of picture restorers and framers in London with his brother George, an artist and illustrator. (note 6) In America Sargent will have used Joseph Cabus, and perhaps his son Alexander, for the early Stanford White designs discussed below. It remains to be established whether Sargent had any of his later frames made in Paris, and if so by whom, in his attempts to satisfy the taste of his English and American patrons.


Chapman Bros label

Fig. 3 Label of Chapman Bros, 1900, on the reverse of Sargent's drawing of Harley Granville-Barker (fig. 9).

Chapman Bros label

Fig. 4 Label of Chapman Bros, 1906, on the reverse of 1st Earl Roberts (fig. 8).

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).

Sargent in London: Whistler and Watts

Not all of Sargent's portraits were elaborately framed. His portrait of the poet, Coventry Patmore (National Portrait Gallery), painted in 1894, has a simple flat reeded Whistler frame (fig. 5) made by his London framemaker, C.M. 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 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). Was the Whistler pattern one Sargent reserved for certain types of sitter?

The ubiquitous Watts pattern can be found on several of Sargent's Vickers family portraits including The Misses Vickers of 1884 (no. 42, Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust), commissioned by the Sheffield industrialist, Colonel Thomas Vickers. (note 7)

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 was also used for Sargent's 1904 full-length of the colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (no. 64; 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. 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, he chose a considerably more elaborate pattern, a Spanish 17th-century style frame of reverse section with foliage centres and corners (fig. 6), again made by C.M. May. The same pattern is found on Sargent's exactly contemporary portrait of Viscountess D'Abernon (Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama). (note 8)

The remaining sections of this note examine various aspects of Sargent's years in London: his forays to America, the use of antique frames, and his taste for Italian and French revival patterns. Not all the frames on Sargent's pictures fall easily into this analysis. Exceptionally there are pictures such as his Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth of 1889 (Tate Gallery) with its remarkable frame of Celtic inspiration which demand closer study. (note 9)

Sargent in America: Stanford White

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 visit as a practising artist, made in 1887, was followed by others in 1890, 1895, 1903, 1916 and later. In 1887 for the frame of his portrait of LeRoy King (Private Collection), Sargent went to the New York firm of Thomas A. Wilmurt (though the frame has since been replaced). (note 10)

Sargent may have met Stanford White in Europe as early as 1877, and subsequently they became close friends. (note 11) A partner in the leading New York architectural practice of McKim, Mead and White, Stanford White took a special interest in the design of picture frames, drawing on a wide range of traditional European designs for his inspiration. As he did for several other artists, White provided frame designs for some of Sargent's portraits, hardly surprising in view of his close links with many of the artist's sitters. Sargent's full-length of Mrs Edward L Davis and her Son of 1890 (no. 49; 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 (National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC) and the half-length Royal Elizah Robbins (Private Collection). 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). Another picture by Sargent, A Capriote (no. 3; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), exhibited in New York in 1879, has a simpler Stanford White pattern, probably an early reframing. These frames were perhaps made by White's then framemaker, Joseph Cabus.

Subsequently when Sargent painted Henry G. Marquand (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in London in 1897, he suggested that the frame might be designed and made in New York by 'someone Stanford White knows'. (note 12) 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 Winthrop Chanler (National Museum of American Art, Washington DC), a portrait of 1893. (note 13) The small-scale repetitive patterns of many of White designs make them easy to reproduce, and they have been much copied.

Another American framemaker associated with Sargent's work is Walfred Thulin, a Swedish-born woodcarver working in Boston. (note 14)

The use of antique frames

In the 1890s in London 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 (no. 50; National Gallery of Scotland), a painting which helped establish Sargent's reputation in London as a fashionable portrait painter. (note 15) "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 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). (note 16) 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 17)


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 (no.17; Sterling and Francine Clark Arts Institute, Williamstown) and Lady Agnew, both French frames, and Octavia Hill of 1899 (fig. 7), and Mrs Fiske Warren and her Daughter of 1903 (no. 63; 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 the frames to suit his completed portraits, altering them as necessary, unlike some artists who would paint a portrait to the size of a favoured frame. (note 18)



Italian 17th century style frame

Fig. 8 - 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).

Some of the Italianate patterns found on Sargent's work were in commercial production. His Field-Marshal 1st Earl Roberts of 1906 (National Portrait Gallery) has a good stock moulding (fig. 8), made by Chapman Bros of King's Road, Chelsea (see fig. 4), a pattern which occurs in similar form on the work of Sir William Orpen. (note 20) On a smaller scale, very dense fruit-and-leaf stock patterns can be found on some of Sargent's landscapes and interiors.

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 1820s and later renewed in even more resplendent form around the turn of the century in the form of the frames used by Duveen and Agnew 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 21) Something of the same tendency is at work with Sargent's finest society portraits. The richness of the frame needed to match the price of the portrait.

The starting point for a consideration of these revival patterns should be the originals which served as inspiration if not exact models. So that 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 (no. 54; Tate Gallery). And in the case of the portraits of the society hostess, Lady Sassoon of 1907, and her daughter, The Countess of Rocksavage of 1922 (nos. 66 and 69; Private Collections), (note 22) it is possible to identify an almost exact source: 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. He also portrayed several members of Asher Wertheimer's family including his daughters Ena of 1905 (Tate Gallery) and Almina of 1908 (no. 67; Tate Gallery) in very rich matching Louis XIV revival frames (the sides here are straight and have 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.

Sargent's grandest portraits were recipients of some of his most elaborate frames. The Acheson Sisters of 1902 (Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement), a particularly ambitious group of the three Acheson girls at full-length, has a highly enriched Louis XIV frame with prominent cartouches at the centres, half-centres and corners. This pattern is repeated on Sargent's contemporary image of The Misses Hunter (Tate Gallery). At the other end of the scale his more modest portraits, such as his Henry James of 1913 (National Portrait Gallery), were usually given much simpler frames in the French style.

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 23) 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. His usual London framemaker, C.M. May, called himself 'English & French Picture Frame Maker', advertising his 'thoroughly competent workmen English and French'. (note 24) 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), framed in 1913, probably by the French framemaker, Emile Remy, who had set up in business in London in 1904. (note 25)


Narrow gilt moulding frame

Fig. 9 - Harley Granville-Barker, drawing by J.S. Sargent, 1900, detail of a narrow gilt moulding frame, made by Chapman Bros (National Portrait Gallery).

'Sargent oak pattern'

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


C.M. May frame

Fig. 10 - 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, probably the pattern being supplied to the Ministry of Information in 1919 as 'Sargent oak pattern frames'. (note 26) His ambitious war paintings, Gassed of 1919 (no. 149; Imperial War Museum) and General Officers of World War I of 1922 (fig. 10; National Portrait Gallery) 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 C.M. May, 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. 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 any frame bills known?

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

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

3. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol. 1, p. 180; the frame made by Smith is no longer on the picture.

4. 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. Sargent was still using Wilmurt in 1890, see Ormond and Kilmurray, vol. 2, p. 52.

5. Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 135.

6. 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.

7. 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 of 1884 (no. 28; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) in a Louis XIII-revival overlapping leaf-and-berry frame; Mrs Albert Vickers of 1884, a full-length in a Watts frame; Edward Vickers of c. 1884, a head in a richly ornamented frame with leaf sides and laurel top, and Fishing Boats, Whitby in a similar frame; Garden Study of the Vickers Children of c. 1884 (no. 29; Flint Institute of Arts) in its present unusual centre-and-corner frame with ribbon-and-reeded top edge, and Izme Vickers of 1907, a three-quarter length in a similar frame; Izme Vickers, 1890s, a head-and-shoulders in a simplified Watts frame. These identifications are based on a list made by Richard Ormond in October 1981.

8. Simon, op.cit., p. 183.

9. The frame on Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is reproduced by Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts, Frameworks, London, 1996, p. 388, as probably designed by Sargent. See also pp. 387 and 463 note 72 where it is suggested that the frame was probably made by Harold Roller.

10. See note 4.

11. Ormond and Kilmurray, vol. 1, p. xiii; see also Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent, London, 1957, pp. 108-10, 134-7.

12. 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.

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

14. Suzanne Smeaton, '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.

15. 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.

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

17. Simon, op.cit., p. 23.

18. See note 17.

19. 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).

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

21. Simon, op.cit., p. 24.

22. 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.

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

24. Simon, op.cit., p. 135.

25. Simon, op.cit., p. 119.

26. Simon, op.cit., p. 79.

27. Mary Crawford Volk, John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992, pp. 72, 79-81.


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