Five Things You Didn’t Know About Picture Frames

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Martin Kotler, a conservator of picture frames at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, will be leading a tour through the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon this Wednesday (at noon) to discuss not the artworks, but the frames that surround them. Surprisingly, American picture frames have a history all to their own. And museums face challenges in not only conserving the frames but understanding their origins. When artwork is shown in books or slide lectures, it is usually sans frame. Says Kotler: "How many people have taken an art history class? Now how many times have they seen a frame or discussed one in it?" Professors and writers of art books devote their attention to the painting, not the frame. While there are endless books on art, he adds, there are perhaps five to ten books on frames.

I caught up with Kotler in advance to get the low-down on the often-overlooked art form. Here is a list of  things I bet you never knew about pictures frames.

1. The earliest American frames, known as American Empire Style Frames, are very spare and utilitarian. They are similar to the simple cove or scoop in wall molding found in colonial architecture.

2. An American frame can be distinguished  from a European frame by its iconography. The acanthus leaf, for example, is a typically European design. But as America became an agricultural power, around 1850, images of tobacco, corn or wheat begin to appear on frames.

3. Frames change because of historic events. With the advent of photography in the mid 19th-century, a growing middle class began to fashion homemade frames. And by the 1930s, as a new art movement arose, Abstract Expressionism; the new painting style dictated the type of frame that was needed, or in this case was not needed. Abstract Expressionism required no frame or a strip of frame at most.

4. There is no copyright law on frames, so there is no stopping one maker from mimicking another. As a result, many frames were—and still are—designed and produced to look like earlier frames.

5. Artists sometimes also make their own frames for a work of art. Later, an owner of that painting might change the frame for his or her own aesthetic reasons. This displaces or disrupts the artwork’s history. (Kotler recommends if a painting has a frame on it, and you wish to change it, save it by boxing it properly and marking the box as the original frame for that painting.)

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