What's in a frame?

Why do people visit art museums? That’s easy: to see art. But all too often when strolling through our favorite galleries, we forget to take notice of those unsung objects that surround and support the hallowed masterpieces that we flock to venerate. I’m talking about frames—they set the tone for, and ultimately, make or break our perception of the works they hold. How much of a difference can a frame make in the appearance of a work? You tell me.  For example, let’s look at one of NMWA’s most treasured works, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580, by Bolognese artist Lavinia Fontana. But first, as NMWA’s chief curator, I’d like to share some information with you about the artist and the work in question.

Lavinia Fontana, "Portrait of a Noblewoman", ca. 1580, Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay - OLD FRAME

Lavinia Fontana, "Portrait of a Noblewoman", ca. 1580, Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay - OLD FRAME

The Artist: Born in 1552 in Bologna, Lavinia Fontana was taught to paint by her father, a prosperous local artist aptly named Prospero. While Lavinia was most likely not allowed to work in her father’s studio among his apprentices, she pursued her training by drawing members of her entourage. By the mid-1580s, her reputation and social connections had attracted a wealthy clientele delighted with her sophisticated portraits. Around 1603, Fontana moved her large family (she had 11 children) to Rome to become a painter for Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII. There, she worked on commissions for cardinals, ambassadors and princes, and executed some large-scale altarpieces–a rarity for a woman artist.

The Portrait: As a pre-eminent painter of the Bolognese elite, Lavinia portrayed noble wives, daughters, and widows. Portrait of  Noblewoman likely depicts a young bride as suggested by her over-dress of embossed red velvet and satin yellow bodice underneath. Other clues about the young woman’s status include her chaste and disciplined demeanor as well as the curious item hanging from her waist: a bejeweled pelt of a marten.  A slender, minklike creature, martens were associated with fertility.  Finally, the fashionable and costly lap dog known as “cane Bolognese” (present in many of Fontana’s portraits), was a well-known symbol of a spouse’s fidelity to her husband.

The Frame Project: From the time NMWA acquired the Fontana painting in 1986 up until 2007, the work was held in a 19th-century reproduction of an 18th-century French frame. The dark, unattractive moulding was neither from the correct period nor geographically appropriate, and failed to show this painting—considered one of the museum’s “signature” works—to its best advantage. In 2007, the Texas State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts generously offered to fund the creation of a new frame for the painting through NMWA’s Adopt-a-Work program (see below for more information).

New frame by Richard Ford, unpainted

New frame by Richard Ford, carved from Basswood

Who could NMWA commission to create a frame that could flaunt Fontana’s strokes and colors to their highest potential? None other than Richard Ford, one of Washington, DC’s premier frame conservators and frame scholars from the National Gallery of Art (NGA). From 2008 to 2009, Richard expertly designed and painstakingly hand-crafted a “Titian style” frame for the painting. Its color, size, and style are appropriate to the period of the painting as well as to the proud, local tradition of Bolognese frame production. The wealthiest Italian nobility such as Fontana’s sitter would have expected great craftsmanship in the service of this lovely portrait—an expectation that, we are proud to boast, has finally been met.

New "Titian-style" frame by Richard Ford, unpainted

New "Titian-style" frame by Richard Ford; the application of gold leaf had just been burnished, resulting in the frame's lustrous appearance

The Final Product: Framed by Richard’s masterpiece, Fontana’s masterpiece beams like a new work. The new moulding comprises a raised, hollow, convex ornament accentuated by two rows of smaller, stylized leaf ornaments on the inside. The dramatic red beneath the gilt decoration beautifully complements the color of the noblewoman’s dress, the traditional color of most Bolognese wedding dresses.

Thanks to the generosity of NMWA’s Texas State Committee and the expertise of Richard Ford, the Fontana frame has been returned to its former glory. Compare the before and after pictures, and please let me know what you think!

Lavinia Fontana, "Portrait of a Noblewoman", ca. 1580, Oil on canvas, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, Frame courtesy of NMWA's Texas State Committee;  shown here after the final toning and patination, lending the frame its aged appearance

Lavinia Fontana, "Portrait of a Noblewoman", ca. 1580, Oil on canvas, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, Frame courtesy of NMWA's Texas State Committee; shown here after the final toning and patination, lending the frame its aged appearance

About the author: Jordana Pomeroy is chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from Columbia University. In 2008 she was a fellow at the Center for Curatorial Leadership. Pomeroy has organized many exhibitions at NMWA, including Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle and Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque.

About the conservator: Richard Ford has held the title of conservator of frames at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, D.C. since 1989. DC’s premier frame conservator and frame scholar, Ford received his M.F.A. from the University of Maryland in 1985 and exhibited paintings from 1986 – 1998. He received the Maryland State Arts Council Grant in 1992, and in 1995 built a Ripple molding machine. Ford specializes in creating, restoring, and studying Dutch 17th-century, Northern Gothic, Italian Baroque, and Modernist frames.

2 thoughts on “What's in a frame?

  1. What a fascinating article! I worked my way through college at one of those “frame-it-yourself” places and learned to have an appreciation for well-framed artwork but this article really brought home the fact of how important the frame is for the piece of art itself! Thanks for the information! Next time I visit any art gallery, I’m going to make it a point to note the frames as well, and remember all the thought and knowledge that goes on behind the scenes in choosing the frames to better present the works of art!

  2. Beautiful, how the new frame picks up the shimmer of gold in her sleeves. Nicely done.

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