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Other studies - Northern European

Northern European Frames: a conference at Dresden
A report by Lynn Roberts, December 2005

This conference, Frames: The Northern European Tradition, arranged by Lisa Koenigsberg through her organization Initiatives in Art and Culture, in association with New York University, was held in Dresden at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and the Kulturrathaus from 20 to 22 October 2005.

An exhibition on 'Dresden Gallery frames', Die blendenden Rahmen: Der Dresdener Galerierahmen, had been arranged to coincide with the conference; curated by Christoph Schölzel, it provided a fascinating panorama of a Rococo livery framing which began with the original designs of Matthias Kugler in the 1760s and of Joseph Deibel in the 1770s and continued in the same style throughout the nineteenth century. The exhibition included examples of modern restoration, recutting in the gesso and regilding; whilst the permanent hangings in the main galleries of the Gemäldegalerie demonstrated how the same gallery frame had been used for every period and nationality of painting, from works by Titian, Garofalo and Brueghel to Liotard's delightful pastel, The Chocolate Girl, with its trophy variant of the frame. A catalogue, Die blendenden Rahmen, introduced by Harald Marx and with essays by Christoph Schölzel, Karin Mühlbauer and Tania Korntheuer-Wardak, has been published by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (2005).

The title of the conference, The Northern European Tradition, was justified by an extraordinarily varied and authoritative collection of papers which included those by Hubert Baija, Hélène Verougstraete and Elisabeth Bruyns on Flemish and Netherlandish frames, and work on seventeenth and eighteenth-century German frames by Christian Burchard, Katharina Walch-von Miller and Christoph Schölzel. The papers on modern framings included those from Eva Mendgen on German Historicism; from Suzanne Smeaton on the German influence in American frames; and two especially interesting contributions by Richard Ford on Schmidt-Rottluff's and Feininger's designs, and by Tilo Grabach on Mondrian's frames.

Three contributions demonstrating new or unfamiliar research and scholarship of a high order are discussed here: on Lucas Cranach, on Swedish frames from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, and on the history of Russian frames.

Lucas Cranach

Gunnar Heydenreich's paper, 'The Practice of Framing in the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder' was a fascinating introduction to the subject (see Notes below) Cranach ran what amounted to a factory of artworks in his workshop at Wittenburg, producing frames to his own designs which were moderated through time by outside fashion, function or efficiency. They developed from the earliest engaged frames, valued for their stability and because they allowed both sides of the painting to be seen, and which might use a combination of cavetto and rainsill to produce the effect of a window, or stepped mouldings to enhance pictorial perspective. Cranach's designs remained consistent even when produced by numbers of different workmen; they were inventive (for example, double tondi, the frames of which fitted together like a bowl and its lid to make a protective, portable object); and they were used to wed a painting to the external architecture of, for example, a church, or as a linking device across the different panels of a polyptych.
Heydenreich's minute examination of Cranach's output has revealed that the use of a temporary frame has resulted in unpainted areas of the panel, or that some pictures have been placed in their frames before the panels were painted. A St Catherine altarpiece, for instance, was finished and framed, and then repainted in its frame to correct the colour balance. Since the workshop employed both carpenters and sculptors, panels and frames could be produced relatively quickly and to individual specifications, although one fifth of the entire output falls within the six standardized panel sizes preferred by Cranach. Different types of hanging devices were also used, according to the function or location of the painting. The painting might be hung from two projecting hooks in the frame, have no visible means of support from the front, or have a central wooden eye on the top moulding to fit on a nail. The Altarpiece of the Ten Commandments in Wittenburg probably stood originally upon a plinth, and was secured with nails through the upper moulding, possibly as an element of wainscoting.

Cranach also produced small double portraits in hinged frames; these could be opened like a book, at an angle of less than 180, and displayed on a surface; this was taken into account when the composition of the painting was worked out, so that the perspective is heightened if the two portraits are seen at an angle. An example of one of these diptychs in the original hinged frames can be seen in the National Gallery, London: the double Portrait of Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous. Other portraits were designed with protective covers fitting into the frame; one of Hieronymus II in Luxembourg still preserves its lid. And accounts reveal that in 1516 Cranach charged his client for leather to protect a finished panel whilst it was being transported; protective leather-covered cases were also manufactured to guard painting and frame.

Tradition and innovation are both ingredients in the framing of Cranach's pictures: his designs move from the Gothic of the Neustadt altarpiece to the Renaissance forms shown in a 1530 sketch of a round-arched aedicular frame; his use of black and coloured paint, as well as of gold leaf, may have been influenced by his journeys in the Netherlands.

Swedish frames

New ground was broken in Eva-Lena Karlsson's paper, 'Frames in Sweden: The Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century with Special Regard to Portraiture'. This was based on the holdings of the Swedish Royal collections which have rarely been subject to reframing; inventories usually mention either the painting or the frame but seldom both together. There are no surviving frames of an earlier date than the sixteenth century, when altarpieces were imported from the Netherlands and Germany. An early portrait of 1570 has a deep cassetta with a black frieze ornamented with gilt stars, and with lily-shaped brackets at the corners; but the common run of frame is of a simple type: a flat black border with a gilt sight edge, which continued to be made until the late nineteenth century and is therefore difficult to date.

An inventory of 1745 of the contents of Stromsholm Castle mentions both frames and paintings; this palace belonged to the Dowager Queen, who had great influence on the arts of her time. Some frames are described as carved and gilded, although many are still the 'gilt and black frames' common since the seventeenth century. More elaborate examples have carved ornament, and one frame on a portrait of the Dowager Queen is an oval with a crest. Gilded moulding frames with bunched leaves were also popular; they are occasionally referred to as 'Ehrenstrahl frames', after David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl (1628-98), the German-born artist with whom they are most associated.

In the late seventeenth century the carver Burchard Precht of Bremen (1651-1738) set up his workshop in Sweden. He produced looking-glass frames as well as church furniture, and the spectacular royal frame draped in a carved Nemean lionskin which may have been designed by the architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654-1728). In the eighteenth century Queen Ulrika Eleonora the Younger (1688-1741) and her consort Frederik I (1676-1751) commissioned frames from Martin van Meytens the Younger (1695-1770) for the portraits he painted of the royal couple. The carvers of these frames are unknown; they are Rococo in style, although unlike French Rococo frames they are not asymmetric. French frames were available in Sweden, and indeed French artists had been called to Stockholm to work after the fire of 1699 in the Royal Palace. However, the Swedish Rococo maintained its own integrity: frames in the style were austere and linear, and while the centres and corners were ornamented the rails were generally plain.
In the 1730s and 1740s panelled frames with foliate corners were popular, followed by Neoclassical and then by Gustavian frames (so-called after King Gustav III, reigned 1771-92). From the later eighteenth century a far larger group of people was commissioning portraits: the clergy, prosperous tradesmen and merchants; they tended to use the plainer Gustavian styles, while richly ornamented versions were produced for wealthier patrons. Neoclassical emblematic frames were common in the late eighteenth century; these might be oval or oblong, with small ornaments and a crest, often asymmetrical. One particularly notable frame was commissioned by Gustav III to frame a portrait by Per Krafft the Elder of the poet Carl Michael Bellman. Bellman was a member of parliament and in the King's power. His portrait, a reward for influencing parliament to agree to the King's wishes, was kept in the Royal Palace; the frame has a dramatic crest appropriate to the sitter, with the grapes of Bacchus and a theatrical mask, and is hung on a carved faux ribbon.

As in other countries, some Swedish frames formed part of an integrated architectural interior and were designed by, or in co-operation with, the architect of the building. For example, the French ornamental sculptor, Adrien Masreliez (1717-1806), working with the Swedish architect Jean Eric Rehn (1717-93), designed the interior decoration of Gustav III's galerie contemporain at Gripsholm Castle. Part of the decoration comprised a set of frames for the portraits displayed in the gallery. When Catherine the Great sent a portrait of herself in a spectacular frame to Gustav, he had it transferred to one of Masreliez's frames to fit its new setting. A copy of the portrait was produced to fill the original Russian frame.

Swedish frames of the nineteenth century were very similar to other European styles of the period: heavy Neoclassical fluted frames, hollow frames with palmettes in the 1800s to 1820s, plain hollow frames and spandrel frames. One interesting sidelight is shone on conservation problems by a pair of frames on portraits by Amalia Lindgren of the Crown Prince Karl (later Karl XV) and his wife Lovisa, dating from 1859. The portraits were separated in the 1870s after the death of the Prince; that of his wife entered the Swedish National Portrait Gallery in Gripsholm Castle where it was restored and cared for, while that of the Prince remained in private hands until recently. Its frame had become darkened, but although there was now a disparity in the appearance of the reunited pair of pictures, restoration of the Prince's frame was kept to a minimum in the belief that the patina, like the label on the bottom of the frame, formed part of the portrait's history.

Russian frames

Oksana Lysenko's paper, 'The History of the Frame in Russia: Research and Restoration', introduced territory which is even less known to frame scholars. Miss Lysenko's presence was an imaginative coup; her paper uncovered a swathe of information and was illustrated with fascinating pictures. She began with the first exhibition of picture frames to be held in Russia, in the State Museum during the summer of 2005, and touched on chronological styles and the problems of conservation. A catalogue in Russian, also by Oksana Lysenko, has been produced to accompany the exhibition: To Dress a Picture: Art and Frames in Russia from the Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Palace Editions, 2005, 167pp, 103 ills. It includes an introduction, chapters on each century covered, details of framemakers' stamps and labels, and a glossary.
Frames were not apparently in use in Russia before the last quarter of the seventeenth century, as walls were commonly painted overall; but then travellers began to bring back framed portraits, religious subjects and engravings from western Europe. Described as being gilded, silvered, black, painted or carved, unfortunately none of these frames has survived. In the eighteenth century, however, frames began to be produced in Russia in tandem with the new fashion for secular paintings, and also to frame imported foreign works which were more cheaply transported unframed. Peter the Great (Czar from 1682; Emperor 1721-25) ordered his courtiers to collect and commission paintings for their houses, and a Russian frame trade began.

At first the only designs were simple mouldings, centre-and-corner frames, or patterns with linear runs of foliate ornament. They could be gilded, black, and occasionally green or white. Gradually the various styles became more embellished; baroque frames were produced, echoing the magnificent interiors of the palaces and cathedrals constructed under the aegis of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (reigned 1741-61), and the repareur arrived to refine and elaborate the work of the carver. From 1756 to 1762 the Italian Pietro Rotari worked in St Petersburg, and was commissioned by Catherine the Great to paint 300 female portraits; these were set into the walls of the so-called ' Picture Hall ' in the Grand Palace in Peterhof, divided by a grid of gilded mouldings. Another Italian, the architect Antonio Rinaldi, may be responsible for a set of carved and painted portrait frames, also dating from the 1760s.
Eighteenth-century Russian frames have not, however, survived in great numbers, as they tended to be replaced with every change of fashion or interior; whilst the two world wars have resulted in the loss of many carved frames, particularly those on royal portraits. Nor are there paintings or drawings of eighteenth-century interiors, except for engravings from the age of Peter the Great; information on earlier frames is therefore mainly documentary. The woods used have been studied from what remains: lime and pine in the eighteenth century, and the same in the nineteenth century, along with oak, walnut, cypress, alder and fir.

Nineteenth-century frames generally followed European fashions, although always with an individual gloss. The Empire, Biedermeier and Art Nouveau styles were ubiquitous, but Russian craftsmen were inventive in their use of texturing materials and finishes; pulverized marble, semolina and buckwheat were used for texture, and metal leaf, bronze powder, wax, paint, veneers, or layers of paint glazes as finishes. Papier-mâché frames were also produced in the second half of the nineteenth century. Designs might be influenced by folk art, and by earlier Russian styles.
After 1917 few notable frames were produced, apart from those designed or chosen by the artists themselves. It is only quite recently that frames have been considered as objects of interest, aesthetics and historical information, or have begun to be conserved. Some of the conservation processes are themselves interesting, using pieces or crumbs of cork as a filler which moves along with the wood; or replicating old patinas with layers of watercolour.
These three last papers on relatively unknown subjects were revelatory and very rewarding. The conference also included good and interesting speakers from the Dresden Galleries themselves, as well as carvers, dealers and conservators.

See also Dresden Gallery Frames by Peter Schade


Gunnar Heydenreich received a PhD on the painting materials, techniques and workshop practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London in 2002. Articles by him include 'Herstellung, Grundierung und Rahmung der Holzbildträger in den Werkstätten Lucas Cranachs d. Ä.', in I. Sandner, Wartburg Stiftung, Unsichtbare Meisterzeichnungen auf dem Malgrund: Cranach und seine Zeitgenossen, Regensburg (1998), pp.181-200, and 'Artistic exchange and experimental variation: studies in the workshop practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder', in Ashok Roy and Perry Smith (eds.), Painting Techniques: History, Materials and Studio Practice, Contributions to the Dublin IIC Congress, London (1998), pp.217-22.


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