You will notice that my frames I have designed as carefully as my pictures," wrote the painter and aesthete James McNeill Whistler in 1872. "And thus they form as important a part as any of the rest of the work—carrying on the particular harmony throughout."
Despite Whistler’s observation, remarkably scant attention was paid to picture frames during much of the 20th century. And whether their taste ran to Rubens or Rothko, relatively few connoisseurs concerned themselves with the artistic value of frames. During the past decade or more, however, this attitude has changed radically—and with it the market.
"The levels of sophistication and interest in antique frames and their proper usage has increased exponentially," says Larry Shar, president of the celebrated New York framers and restorers Julius Lowy. The firm, which produced frames for local galleries in the twilight of America’s Belle Epoque and had relationships with such prominent American artists as Childe Hassam and George Bellows, is marking its centenary this year with the publication of a lavishly illustrated book, The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry (Filipacchi Publishing), and a retrospective exhibition at its Upper East Side premises through April 13.
After that the show travels to the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio (June 10 through August 12), and the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Virginia (October 18 through January 6, 2008).
Among the exhibition highlights is an exquisitely carved gilt Louis XV frame by the 18th-century Parisian maker Jean Chérin, ornamented with shell centers and acanthus-fan corners. Examples from America’s Gilded Age include one designed by architect Stanford White with continuous leaf ornament and acanthus-leaf corners. Although many of White’s frame designs were reproduced after his death, this piece is rare for its sharp detail and near-perfect condition. Also of note is a diminutive (6-by-9 inch) Art Nouveau example, crested with a female mask and designed by the french architect, Hector Guimard—best known as the designer of the distinctive entrances to the Paris metro.
In today’s market, fine period frames such as these can rival actual paintings in value, with prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. Shar—who with his son Brad presides over Lowy’s inventory of more than 4,000 period frames from the late 15th through the mid-20th centuries—notes that a 17th-century Italian cassetta (box-shaped) frame can command $25,000 to $50,000, compared with $5,000 or $10,000 a decade ago.
Similarly, an awakened concern with stylistic compatibility has encouraged many collectors and curators to reframe early 20th-century American paintings in American Arts and Crafts frames, replacing the French Rococo-style "Louis" ones widely used during the mid-20th century. As a result, values have risen in this category: A 25-by-30-inch frame by the turn-of-the-century New York and Chicago firm Newcomb-Macklin that might have fetched $5,000 to $10,000 five years ago could bring $20,000 to $35,000 today. (At Sotheby’s London in 1991, a 17th-century carved amber mirror frame brought the record price for a frame to date: $898,359.)
Although Christie’s and Sotheby’s occasionally include some choice period frames in their Old Masters and other sales, they more often borrow fine frames to enhance the visual appeal of important lots on the block. Last year, for instance, a number of major paintings brought down the hammer wearing frames lent by Eli Wilner & Co., another leading New York framer. Among these were Frida Kahlo’s 1943 self-portrait Roots and Pablo Picasso’s 1941 painting Dora Maar With Cat, both at Sotheby’s in May, and Mary Cassatt’s Katherine Kelso Cassatt, at Christie’s in November. The three winning bidders subsequently bought Wilner’s frames, which were priced from $20,000 to $125,000. "When one considers that the paintings ranged in price from $3 million to $95 million, you realize that while the cost of the frame is but a mere fraction of the entirety, the aesthetic value is immense," Wilner says.
Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin frequently made and gilded their own frames; they painted on panels with integrated frames, whose moldings were not just firmly attached but were carved out of the thick edges of the panel itself. In some cases, such as van Eyck’s famous 1433 portrait of a man in a turban (a possible self-portrait), now in London’s National Gallery, the artist fashioned the frame before applying his first brushstroke, then inscribed his name, the date and a motto on it.
During the Renaissance, the switch from painting on panels to painting on canvas allowed frames to be attached after the work was complete. As detachable frames became the norm, frame-making increasingly became the province not of the artists themselves but of specialist craftsmen skilled at wood carving and gilding. Frames were often conceived as part of the overall decoration of a room, with moldings and carving inspired by the carved motifs of the paneling, and with styles closely following the progress of fashion. Wealthy collectors began to see frames themselves as works of art, and according to the frame historian Claus Grimm, Leonardo da Vinci was obliged to wait to begin one of his Madonna of the Rock paintings until the master woodcarver Giacomo del Maino had finished carving the frame intended for it.
The language of frames has regional dialects, from the pomp and circumstance of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish carving to the handsome sobriety of 17th-century Flemish and Dutch frames of ebony, walnut and other dark woods, to the delectable gilded fantasy of French frames during the successive eras of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. The 19th century, with its mingling of historical revival styles and consummate showmanship, produced its own legacy, among them Whistler’s delicate creations, the frames designed by Pre-Raphaelite painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti for their own works, the restrained designs of Hassam and the elaborate procenium-like surrounds created for the oversized masterpieces of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and other exponents of the Hudson River School.
In the wave of Modernism that followed World War I, however, heavy, gilded frames were derided along with everything else representing the Victorian era. This lamentable situation only worsened with time. Simon Edsor, director of London’s venerable Fine Art Society, says that during the first half of the 20th century, it was typical for almost every painting passing through dealers’ hands to be reframed. Thus "a common sight through the end of the 1960s was the Old Gold Man, who regularly visited picture dealers collecting old gilt frames. Once he’d gathered his fill, he would head off to his furnace, where the frames—often magnificently carved—were broken up and consigned to the flames. Some weeks later a very small check would arrive, representing the value of the gold collected from the ashes."
Wilner recalls trolling the Upper East Side during the ‘80s, when he was fresh out of school, and "finding great frames alongside garbage cans." Posh-gallery owners would usher him into their basements, indicate their moldering cast-offs and blithely tell him, "Eli, just take them." He did. Today Wilner’s firm caters to an exclusive clientele of private collectors and museums, not to mention the White House.
One reason that antique frames and handmade reproductions have returned to fashion, Wilner observes, is that "recent art-historical scholarship has ignited tremendous interest in framing paintings in the manner the artist himself would have chosen during his lifetime." He adds that the market for particular frame types tends to correspond to that for paintings. Thus gilt Hudson-River–style frames, often massive and dramatic, are currently popular even for smaller works by Church, Thomas Moran and their colleagues. There is also demand for the stark designs favored by German Expressionist painters; for dark-wood Flemish styles, which harmonize with darker Picasso canvases; and for French, often curvaceous, frames, to complement works by Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.
Shar, who calls the revitalized interest in frames "an infectious ideology," also credits commercial experts and dealers who "have been framing many of their paintings in appropriate period frames and encouraging their clients to do the same."
Even Jared Bark, whose New York firm, Bark Frameworks, specializes in contemporary designs, has expanded into antique reproductions. "We began pursuing 19th century–style frames about a dozen years ago, when I first became aware of Edgar Degas’s numerous and inventive frame sketches," he says. (Degas had a mania about frames, filling notebooks with designs in unusual colors and, on one occasion, angrily taking back a work of his from a collector who had replaced the artist’s own painted frame with an elaborate gilt one.) After viewing Degas’s notebooks firsthand at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris, and examining some of the few extant Degas frames at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, Bark Frameworks began creating examples from his sketches, some of which had never before been translated into three-dimensional objects. Since then the firm has made several frames for pictures by Degas, Monet, Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte, mostly for the Brooklyn Museum.
Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum, offers a prime example of the power of the right frame. "After the Met purchased John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, in 1916, it arrived from Europe without Sargent’s own magnificent frame, which was documented in archival photographs. So for nearly eight decades, it languished on our walls in a very slender, underwhelming frame," she says. "During the 1990s, we were able to match it to a wonderful American 1890s frame similar in drama to Sargent’s original and from our own collection." Because the opening wasn’t an exact match with Sargent’s canvas, the museum engaged Wilner’s firm to make necessary alterations. "We very rarely expand a frame because that affects its value," notes Wilner. "But in this instance we had to expand the Madame X frame along the vertical sides and reduce it along the horizontal."
Frames have even inspired some collectors to acquire them for their own sake. One Wilner client, Justine Simoni, of Pensacola, Florida, has assembled a collection of around 200 period frames, which she displays mainly empty, some nested one within another, on the walls and ceilings of her home. "Each is a vessel of intrinsic beauty able to command attention to itself," she says, "Like a vase in a showcase, there is no notion of emptiness."
Although period frames often enhance paintings from their own epochs, mixing and matching also has benefits. "Seventeenth- and 18th-century frames complement not only Old Master paintings but Picassos, Dalís and even Dubuffets as well," notes Shar. Auguste Renoir himself felt that 18th-century Rococo frames best suited his art.
"An inappropriate frame, however expensive, could reduce the salability of any work of art," says Edsor. "However, to spend $5,000—not a particularly expensive frame—on a $2,000 picture may raise the selling price by only $1,000. An ideal would be to add at least 200 to 300 percent of the cost of the frame to the selling price of the picture."
With such considerations now in play, matching antique frames to works of art has evolved into something of a science. Style, color, gilding, size and texture of the carved, painted or molded ornament all play a part, and leading dealers offer consulting services that include computer imagery, allowing clients to view a painting in many frames to help them choose the perfect one.
As with all fine antiques, condition is of tremendous importance. A rare hand-carved piece in pristine shape will command far more money than a similar one that has been resized, regilded or altered in some other way. Frames by artists like Whistler, Degas and Hassam, by designers such as architect Stanford White or by such 18th-century makers as Chérin and Etienne-Louis Infroit carry their own premiums. So it is with the utmost seriousness that Wilner says, "It’s never OK to cut a signed frame." Frames have taken on a life of their own that even the debonair Edouard Manet could not have envisioned when he observed that, "without the proper frame, the artist loses all."
Sometimes a title actually tells the whole story. The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry from the Lowy Collection is a reliable indicator of what art enthusiasts can look forward to this month. In celebration of its centenary, Manhattan’s Julius Lowy Frame & Restoring Company ("Lowy") has gathered 100 important antique frames that have passed through its hands — or remain in its stockroom. On January 12, the firm unveils an exhibition o f these treasures at its Upper East Side headquarters. These and additional Lowy-related artifacts can also be found in the accompanying 224-page book released this month by Filipacchi. Written by Deborah Davis, who gave us Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2003), this is no mere exhibition catalogue. Rather, it succeeds in telescoping the complex history of art framing through the idiosyncratic lens of a single New York firm. Peppering her colorful pages with the pithy reminiscences and tips of Lowy president Larry Shar, Davis links a series of beautifully photographed frames into a revealing journey from late medieval Italy, where frames emerged out of altarpiece panels, into early 20th-century America, when handcarving slipped out of fashion. The cavalcade of styles, ornaments, and techniques touches down in Spain, Holland, France, and England, with special emphasis on the Hudson River School and American Renaissance phases that have so captivated collectors recently. It is ironic that we often know more about the fascinating owners of antique frames than we do about their makers, who seldom marked their products, unless they were artists housing their own images. Surely most of these talents would be shocked to learn how expensive their handiworks have become! Action shots taken recently in Lowy’s studios show readers how reproduction frames are carved and gilt, and one chapter demonstrates how to determine if a frame is an antique, reproduction, or both. Case studies of Lowy’s most complex framing successes shed light on just how many experts are sometimes required to achieve what seemed impossible. Voyeurs will enjoy seeing how reframed works of art look in the homes of Lowy’s prominent (and unnamed) clients. These have included David Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Hearst, Ralph Lauren, the White House, and a host of well-known curators, dealers, interior designers, architects, and artists.
When Julius Lowy established his framing and painting restoration shop in 1907, he could not possibly have imagined the full-blown fine art services company it would become under subsequent proprietors, none of them actually in his own family. By the 1960s, president Hilly Shar had accumulated more than 4,000 antique frames at minimal expense, just as such progressive curators as Stuart Feld of the Metropolitan Museum began rehousing historical paintings in frames made during the same period. Where museums led, collectors followed: Larry Shar’s homegrown indexing system allowed staff to pull frames quickly for clients’ inspection, and in the 1990s his son Brad computerized this service as Lowy ScanTM. By scanning photographs of every available frame, the Shars eliminated unnecessary handling of their fragile stock and empowered clients located anywhere to compare scans of their actual paintings rehoused in various framing options. (To make the point, numerous illustrations in the book underscore how very uncomfortable a great picture can look in the wrong frame.) Now, Larry Shar noted in a recent interview, he just seeks "what really looks good. I am trying to enhance the painting, and my role is to educate and guide clients. Fortunately, more than 95 percent of them trust our instincts on which frame is best, but of course clients have the right to do what they want." Scholars are busy churning up new information on how past generations framed their art, and Shar enjoys staying abreast of these developments through symposia convened by Initiatives in Art & Culture and other organizations. He regrets, however, the "mania" for overtheorizing that has swept the scene recently: Although he certainly employs his knowledge of historical tastes, he relies on his own "eyes and emotions" to choose his framing strategies. Larry Shar admits that the growing taste for historically accurate frames — triggered in part by Lowy itself — has made it more expensive to replenish stock. Bonhams now stages several frame sales in London every year, with many pieces selling above their estimates, and antique dealers everywhere are clearly more attuned. Shar doesn’t mind this competition because it "raises awareness" of frames generally, and he still enjoys scouring flea markets for them because he is by nature "a scavenger and collector. My rule in purchasing frames is that I never buy something I don’t like, because if I don’t like it, I can’t sell it."
Back at the office, Shar supervises a five-floor facility humming not only with framers, but also with painting and paper conservators accredited by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Lowy recently spent three months conserving L.C.A. Couder’s oil painting of 1836, The Siege of Yorktown, 1781, which arrived not only folded, wrinkled, and torn, but also measuring 14 x 17 feet. The project necessitated extending the laboratory’s largest "hot table," and the conservators had no choice but to walk across the canvas on a thick foam mat to remove dirt and varnish from its surface. Elsewhere at Lowy is a photography studio that can use infrared and ultraviolet light to detect underpainting invisible to the naked eye and regular cameras. Between January 12 and April 13, Lowy staff will welcome visitors to their Secret Lives of Frames exhibition, a portion of which will also be seen in Lowy’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show in the nearby Seventh Regiment Armory (January 19-28). A series of workshops and gallery talks is planned during the New York run, which will be followed by two further presentations. A segment of the checklist focusing on American frames and their European antecedents will be displayed at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, from June 10 through August 12, and the entire Secret Lives project will then appear at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk,Virginia, from October 18 through January 6, 2008. Although every large city now has at least one museum-quality frame workshop, few can match Lowy’s inventory of 4,500 antique pieces. Having helped foster Americans’ unprecedented passion for fine frames, the firm remains a leader in this evermore crowded — and intriguing — sector of the art world.
Beginning this January, Julius Lowy Frame & Restoring Company of New York, owner of the most extensive inventory of antique frames in the country, will celebrate its centennial year in 2007 with a traveling exhibition of around 100 period frames as well as an illustrated book featuring Lowy's frames. The exhibition, called "The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry from the Lowy Collection," will display antique frames of historic significance, ranging from early Italian works to twentieth century American designs. The book, (with the same title minus the reference to Lowy) will explore the history of framemaking in detail and will be accom¬panied by more than 200 quality photos of the Lowy collection. The exhibition will be on view at the Lowy galleries on East 80th Street in New York from January 12 through April 13. A segment will be shown at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH, from June 10 through August 12. And the entire exhibit will be at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA, from October 18 through January 6, 2008.
The book, written by Deborah Davis, is also being released by Filipacchi Publishing in January. It will offer a detailed look at the various periods and styles, present techniques used to produce period frames, and feature the story of Lowy and its rise to its position as a premier fine arts services atelier. The book is designed to offer material of interest to everyone from consumers to con¬noisseurs to framing professionals.
"In choosing frames for the exhibit," says Larry Shar, president of Lowy, "Lisa Wyer, senior frame con¬sultant at Lowy's for 20 years, along with my son Brad and myself, selected the finest examples of frames from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century to show the breadth and quality of our period frames. Echoing and, where available, actually showing frames illustrated in the book, we are representing the best we now have and have had in a number of categories." These include: • Italian Divas: Italian frames from the 16th to 18th centuries
"In some cases frames were selected for their histori¬cal significance, such as a fabulous little Art Nouveau frame by Hector Guimard, who also designed several buildings in Paris including the familiar Metro stations," says Shar. "There is also a grand, signed Jean Cherin frame in the transitional Louis XV style. Cherin was also the court framemaker for Louis XVI. But in most cases the frames were selected to show the highest quality and aesthetically beautiful examples of the various periods and nationalities represented."
The 224-page book will cover many facets of framemaking, from carving and mold-making to gilding and finishing. There will be sections on art conservation and restoration and advice to consumers on how to inspect frames to identify if they are antiques or repro¬ductions. Photographs of many frames with artwork in the homes and offices of prominent collectors will be included.
There will also be a handful of framed paintings in the exhibit. "We provided the artwork for some of these, such as a Klimt drawing in an Art Nouveau frame and a Sargent in an Italian cassetta frame," says Shar. "Other frames were original to the artwork, such as a Taos frame on a J.H Sharp Indian painting and an original Russell frame on a Charlie Russell.
Shar says that the exhibit consists of frames from the Lowy inventory or that at one time came from Lowy. "Some have been sold and are being loaned back for the exhibition," he says. "Others have been in the collection for many years, while others are more recent acquisi¬tions. Most of the frames required very little restoration as we try to purchase frames that are in a very good state of preservation. Some minor repairs were done as necessary."
Many of the frames in the exhibition will be for eventual sale, "although that is not the raison d'etre for the exhibition," Shar says. "After the exhibition returns here in late 2007 most of them will find their homes back on our showroom walls and bins where they will once again be looking for their next 'assignment,' that is, to properly adorn the perfect painting."
A number of special events will be held in New York to coincide with the Lowy centennial:
"We're all very excited and proud to be celebrating this milestone in our history," says Shar. "Our ability to combine a rich tradition with cutting-edge techniques and technology affords us the opportunity at this mile¬stone to share with an even larger audience the best of what we do. I hope that professional framers will be impressed by the richness of the Lowy collection and by the commit nient we are making to bring furthe awareness to the public of our nobl< profession by doing the exhibition and book as well as sharing our ideas, our showroom, and our studios."
Antique frames, in their seemingly infinite shapes and sizes, are beautiful mementos of bygone days. Intricate designs evoke a time when craftsmanship was an art in itself. Instead of being diminished by the passage of time, frames, like fine wines, are enhanced by maturity. Age seasons their color, adds character to their composition, and increases their value. Even tiny wormholes suggest that history has been at work, marking the passage of time. Yet the frame is the Cinderella of the art world; beautiful, hardworking, and frequently overlooked. The carefully-wrought creations of previous centuries are at the mercy of shifting tastes that can cause them to be replaced, condemned to storage, or, worst of all, destroyed. Few people, outside of a small circle of experts, are familiar with the long and very colorful history of frames. The wooden frame as we know it made its debut in the form of altarpieces in twelfthcentury Italian churches and private chapels.
These large wooden panels displayed images of religious figures and were architectural in that they often echoed the overall design of the church itself. Eventually, lighter and more versatile frames began to appear in royal and aristocratic households. The fifteenth-century tabernacle, or aedicular, frame kept the general shape of its architecture-inspired antecedents, but was smaller and more portable. The cassetta ("little box"), or plate frame, which was very popular in Italy, was shaped like a box and easily moved; it was decorated or left plain according to taste. The tondo frame was round and usually decorated with a wreath of carved leaves. Frame workshops flourished throughout Renaissance Italy and the successful framer was the equal of any artist. In fact, it was not unusual for a patron to engage a carver to build a substantial frame before an artist was retained to create a painting for it. Leonardo da Vinci had to wait patiently for Italian master woodcarver Giacomo del Maino to finish creating his masterpiece—a handcrafted frame—before the great painter could begin work on one of his famous paintings, Virgin of the Rocks.1 In Europe, frame designs varied according to their country of origin. The auricular frame, containing shapes resembling ears or earlobes (Fig. 1), was inspired by the distinctive creations of Dutch silversmith Paul de Lamerie, a seventeenth century craftsman who was so intrigued by a series of anatomy lectures he attended in Prague that he incorporated cartilaginous forms into his work. Auricular frames also featured marine shapes such as shells, making them a favorite choice of wealthy traders who lived in seaports. The auricular frame made its debut in Italy in the late seventeenth century, when Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici selected it for his diverse collections of paintings, including portraits by Rembrandt, Titian, and Caravaggio. In seventeenth-century Holland, simple, unadorned frames rendered in dark woods (Fig. 2) became increasingly popular as the country became more Protestant and its decorative styles became more subdued. In addition, houses in the Netherlands were taxed according to their frontage; the narrower the house, the lower the tax. Consequently, windows were oversized and walls and floors were pale to maximize natural light. Dark frames made of costly ebony and tortoiseshell looked ideal in this environment. In Spain, framemakers followed in the footsteps of their Italian neighbors. But even then Spanish frames had a drama and excitement all their own. Spain’s bold aesthetic was enhanced by influences from its South American colonies, which contributed a mixture of exotic influences that resulted in frames that were vigorous and varied. Masks, flower head and leaf carvings, faux-leather punchwork, and scrolling acanthus leaves are a few of the lively and dramatic designs displayed on Spanish frames. Spain reached its cultural peak in the seventeenth century and the country’s framemakers were at the height of their creativity at this time. Some of the most unusual Spanish frames were produced in the provinces, where designs were bold, colorful, and folksy (Fig. 3). Rarely understated or demure, antique Spanish frames could be counted on to announce themselves with flair and braggadocio. Europe’s golden age of frame-making commenced in France in the seventeenth century, when Paris became the artistic center of the world. During this time, the French Court dictated le dernier cri in all matters of style. The tastemakers responsible for establishing French supremacy were the "Louis," a succession of high-wattage kings who dominated international culture for over a hundred years. One of Louis XIII’s (reigned 1610–1643) principal concerns was to keep French artists in France when many traditionally went off to Italy, then the acknowledged capital of the arts. Louis XIII encouraged a new sense of nationalism among his people, and thanks to his efforts, French artists instead remained in situ. The frames made during his reign echoed the elaborate baroque details found in French architecture and interior design of the period. Highly ornamented, they had continuous carvings of foliage, including acanthus, oak, and laurel leaves, husks, and sprays of flowers, often accompanied by carved ribbons. Organic ornamentation remained in style when Louis XIV, the Sun King, ascended to the throne in 1643. He headquartered his court at Versailles, a sumptuous palace with baroque décor and frames—heavy, ornate, and boldly carved, with pronounced corner and center decoration—reflected the monarch’s pronounced appetite for opulence. As with other furnishings at Versailles, frame decorations often included carved and gilded fleur-de-lis and sunflowers in homage to the Sun King. With Louis XIV’s death in 1715, his successor, Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans, acted as regent for the young Louis XV until 1722.
During this period known as la Régence the taste in decorative arts was for a style that was lighter and more playful. While frames continued to emphasize corners and centers with cartouches, shells, and other decorative elements, they also incorporated empty spaces to balance the ornamentation. After Louis XV began his reign the Régence style was replaced by the rococo (derived from the French words rocaille, or rock, and coquille, meaning shell). This new style, rooted in asymmetrical naturalistic detailing, produced frames that suggested liveliness and motion and were decorated with panels scrolling or "sweeping" into corner and center ornaments. Framers charged separate fees for decorations, adding costs for festoons, ribbons, masks, and other "extras." One way to keep the cost down was to substitute molded composition ornaments for carved wood as the former could be produced quickly and inexpensively. The last Louis, Louis XVI (1754–1793), and his queen, Marie Antoinette, ruled at a time when neoclassicism, a style based on the aesthetic principles of ancient Greek and Roman art, was coming into fashion.
Archeological excavation of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy in the 1730s had generated a fascination for the ancient world. Frames produced in the second half of the eighteenth century were influenced by classical architecture and exhibited thinner, more geometric shapes and simpler decorations. Their designs emphasized symmetry, reflecting a larger desire among the French for balance and equality in every aspect of life. France’s finest frames were produced by master craftsmen who signed their work with stamps. In the Faubourg Saint- Antoine, the furniture-making district in Paris, carpenters (menuisiers) and cabinetmakers (ebenistes ) built the frames, and "sculpteurs" carved them. The process of becoming a frame maker was arduous because the profession was controlled by powerful guilds. Fees were high and the training was long and rigorous—it was not uncommon for an apprentice to spend eighteen years serving a master. Only Jean Chérin and Etienne-Louis Infroit, two of France’s greatest frame artisans, were registered as both menuisiers and sculpteurs, meaning they could build and carve their frames (Figs. 4– 4A) In the early nineteenth century, England was the first country to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution and the first place where artists rebelled against it. Woodworking machines mass-produced cheap, utilitarian moldings that could be quickly and easily embellished with composition ornaments. The carvers who once spent years perfecting their skills became a dying breed. The Arts and Crafts and the Pre-Raphaelite movements were born, in part, to protest the forced obsolescence of the craftsman. Artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris longed to go back to a time when objects were made by hand and promoted the art of craftsmanship in their work and in the work of others. They were fascinated by visions of the colorful medieval world and created special frames, often made of carved and gilded oak and rendered in the fifteenth-century tabernacle style, to surround the poetic and fanciful images these figures inspired. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American frame makers became prominent. In 1891, architect Stanford White designed his classic grille frame (Fig. 5), a perfect complement to the paintings of artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Talented frame makers such as Hermann Dudley Murphy, Charles Prendergast, and Frederick Harer created works that proved Old World craftsmanship was flourishing in the New World. In modern times, after WW I through the last quarter of the twentieth century, period frames fell out of fashion and endured decades of inattention and indignity. Many were stripped of their brilliant gold finishes, discarded, or relegated to the backrooms of antique stores. The prevailing trend among museums and collectors was to replace antique frames with sleek, minimalist edges. But in the 1970s, period frames began to emerge from the shadows. Collectors, paying record prices for paintings, became more selective in their choice of frames for their pricy acquisitions. Antique frames, considered ostentatious and old-fashioned in the 1950s and 1960s, were suddenly just right in the 1980s, partly because collectors knew enough to appreciate them, and partly because, in this greed-is-good moment, buyers were not averse to displaying their wealth on the wall. Frames continued to step out in high style in the 1990s when they were the subject of exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bagatelle in Paris. They became coveted at auction; one year, French antique frames commanded the highest prices, while the next year, Spanish frames moved into first place. Prices soared to a record high in 1991, when a seventeenth-century carved amber mirror frame sold for almost a million dollars at Sotheby’s in London. Today these neglected treasures of bygone days are back in all their splendor and once again in the spotlight (Fig. 6, 7). One of the early twentieth century connoisseurs of antique frames was Hilly Shar of Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company, Inc. in New York. Shar’s collection of frames ranged from Italian, French, and Spanish examples to Dutch and American masterworks. For the past 100 years, the firm has preserved and promoted antique and authentic reproduction frames, and in celebration of the company’s centennial, they have published The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry (Filipacchi, January 2007, $50.00). While the story of Lowy, the facets of frame making, proper fitting techniques, and even how to inspect for originality, are discussed, the majority of the book is devoted to a survey of the frame’s evolution.
Deborah Davis is author of The Secret Lives of Frames. She is known for her best-selling books Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X and Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball.
"Frames are really the Cinderellas of the art world," says Deborah Davis, author of the forthcoming book The Secret Lives of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry (Filipacchi Publishing, 2006). "They're hard-working and completely ignored, and most of us, except a small circle of professionals, have no means for appreciating them for what they are."
The Julius Lowy Frame & Restoring Co., a Manhattan gallery that stocks more than 4,500 antique frames from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries, will celebrate this unsung hero of the art world throughout 2007, the company's cen¬tennial. Davis' book is part of the festivities, and Lowy will host an exhibit, also called The Secret Lives of Frames, at its Upper East Side gallery from January 12 through April 13; selections from the display will appear at museums in Ohio and Virginia later in the year. Davis, who also has authored Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (Tarcher, 2003) and Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (Wiley, 2006), says she gained an appreciation for frames once she began researching the subject for the book. "As soon as I explored their history, I realized that they have really had a long and noble run," she says. "Then I started to look at them, and I didn't see the art inside."
If the frame is Cinderella, Lowy is its fairy godmother. Larry Shar, who has been president of the gallery since 1979, explains that pairing frames with paintings is not magic, but it is tricky. "There are aesthetic considerations, historic considerations, artistic considerations—where are you going to hang it, and what are you going to hang it with," he says. Finding a frame that complements and does not overwhelm the art is just part of the challenge; sometimes engineering skills are required. Such was the case with a 10-by-5-footYosemite scene painted by Albert Bier-stadt in 1876. The painting's owner asked the gallery, which also produces reproduction and custom frames, to replicate the frame that originally accompanied the painting. Instead of employing the heavy plaster that was used to make the 19th-century frame, Lowy's artisans produced a more prac¬tical facsimile that is light and easy to transport. They formed the frame from urethane foam and designed it as four separate pieces. The veins of leaves that decorate the corners conceal the joins when the pieces are attached.
While art is subject to fads and fashions, frames—as both furnishings and pieces of decorative art—are even more vul¬nerable to these forces. Lowy's ample inventory of antique frames testifies to this assertion: Each has been divorced from its original painting. However, Shar recognizes—and his business operates on this premise—that fashion is cyclical. Like Shar, the late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan, understood that frame designs that go out of style eventually will come back into vogue. When, in the late 1970s or early 1980s (Shar cannot recall the precise year), he heard that MoMA was removing the 17th- and 18th-century frames from several of its paintings, he asked Varnedoe to sell him some. "He said, 'I'm not that stupid,' and in 25 years, they were back on those paintings," Shar recalls. "Varnedoe understood that it was not a simple issue, that tastes and opinions, even his own, change over time."
If you think of frames when you think of Lowy, you're on your way to describing the oldest and largest fine arts services firm in the United States. Recognized for its extensive collection of quality period antique frames, Lowy is also known for its restoration and conservation of frames, paintings, and works on paper. "I would estimate," says Lowy president, Larry Shar, "that one third of our business is dedicated to conservation and restoration, one third to buying, selling, and restoring antique frames, and one third to creating reproductions of frames in-house."
The company had its beginnings when Julius Lowy opened a framing business in 1907. Larry's father, Hillard Shar, joined Lowy in the Depression years, but left in 1948 to open an art restoration studio with John Sisto. The two businesses merged in 1956. Larry's son, Brad, vice president of Lowy, represents the third generation of Shars in the company.
All services at Lowy are located at 223 East 80th Street in New York City, except for the carving and restoration facility, which is nearby on 75th Street. Clients have included museums (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Amon Carter Museum among them), art dealers, and private collectors from all over the world, many of whom take advantage of Lowy Scan™, a computer system Brad Shar helped to design. All of Lowy's frames have been scanned and downloaded into a database. When the image of a client's work of art is loaded into the system, it can be viewed, showing different framing options, and an appropriate frame can be selected. "The system is so accurate that people feel comfortable making a decision from afar," notes Larry. "And the process saves wear and tear on the frames, as no direct handling is necessary."
With a John Singer Sargent stacked in the restoration rack, a Jackson Pollock poised on an easel, and a Renoir trying on five different 18th-century frames through the magic of computer imagery, the Julius Lowy Frame & Restoring Company is hardly your little frame shop around the corner. Ensconced behind the carved mahogany doors of a six-story town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the Lowy company, established in 1907, offers not only museum-quality framing, but also world-class art conservation and frame restoration. A team of experts—art historians, artists, photographers, as well as woodworkers, carvers, restorers, and gilders—all ply their trades in well-lighted ateliers. Many of the Lowy team, such as Allan Webb, a master carver from the United Kingdom, and Yi Yi Chang, former sculptor and Lowy's frame restoration specialist from China, apprenticed in other countries before coming to New York. Larry Shar, Lowy's president and owner, is carrying on a family tradition that originated with his father, Hillard, who joined the firm in 1938 and eventually took over the company. Son Brad, vice-president and his father's right-hand man, rep- resents the third generation in the family business. Over the years, the Shars have attracted a stellar clientele that includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art (they reframed three large Tiepolos for the new Sackler Gallery) and the Museum of Modem Art (they reframed Cezanne's The Bathers). Other clients include the National Gallery of Art, Sotheby's, David Rockefeller, and Ralph Lauren.
Lowy is flourishing today not only because the art market is booming, but because, as Larry Shar points out, over the past fifteen years people have grown interested in the art of the picture frame. "Years ago," he says, "people chose frames without particular regard for the period or provenance. Today people are taking great care in choosing a frame that fits the period of the art. An antique frame that is proper historically and aesthetically, or an authentic handcrafted reproduction if an original is not available, enhances the art." The heart of the Lowy enterprise is its collection of more than 3,500 rare antique frames the largest in the country ranging in dates from the 1500s to the 1950s, in styles from Renaissance to American Classical Revival, and in price from about $5,000 to $250,000. The majority of these frames, many found at auctions here and in Europe, are opulently carved and gilded wood. But there are other styles as well, such as the gilt frames of molded plaster popular in the 19th century, some simple American Arts and Crafts wooden frames, and a few folk art frames from the turn of the century fashioned of peanut shells and tiny pinecones. The collection includes a prized group of early-2Oth-century American frames designed or commissioned by artists, such as those by the American Impressionists Childe Hassam, who specified gilt frames with his initials as a recurring motif, and Maurice Prendergast, who had his brother Charles create frames embellished with sgraffito, or scratched decorations. Antique frames such as these are as collectible as other kinds of antiques, and are considered works of art in their own right. In addition to offering rare antique originals, Lowy crafts superb line-for-line and technique-for-technique reproduction frames. They also design modern frames. The woodworkers' and carvers' workshop is located a few blocks away from the headquarters, where they have ample room to work. All other Lowy functions are performed at the town house on East 80th Street. In the painting restoration and conservation department on the bright and airy sixth floor, restorers working with delicate solutions, tiny brushes, cotton balls, Q-tips and infinite patience, bring cracked, yellowed, torn, or otherwise damaged canvases back to their original condition. An ominous sky slowly turns blue on a 17rh-century Dutch landscape recently sent in for cleaning; the jewels in the hair of a young woman in an unsigned French Realist portrait sparkle again. One floor down in the gilding and finishing department, new frames are coated with gesso and clay, then gilded with fragile sheets of 23-karat gold leaf, and the gilt on old damaged frames is spruced up. The fitting and matting department, where only archival materials are used, shares the fourth floor with the paper conservation lab, where drawings and water-colors are restored. Passing through here in recent days was a large pale Vargas drawing of a lissome blond nude, in to have a few wrinkles pressed out. The third floor holds much of Lowy's inventory of antique frames, neatly stacked by period and style. Next door is a high-tech digital scanning studio for documenting art submitted for restoration, conservation, framing, or evaluation. Elsewhere, another lab uses infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray photography to help pinpoint damage, faults, and previous restoration invisible to the naked eye. The fruits of all these labors can be viewed in the company's hushed and softly lighted ground-floor showroom, a small museum of rare and beautiful antique frames. Treasures abound, such as the imposing 16th-century Bolognese gilded frame with a wide border of floral sgraffito and intricate punch-work around the edges. Here hangs Larry Shar's piece de resistance—a majestic, elaborately carved wall-size French Régence gilt frame from the period between Louis XIV and Louis XV, with an asking price of $250,000. "There are several museums," confides Larry, "looking for art to fill this frame."