Frequently Asked Questions about Frames in the National Gallery of Art
Frequently Asked Questions about Frames in the National Gallery of Art

From Wood to Canvas: Attached Frames and Artists' Choices

Canvas never completely replaced wooden panels and other firm surfaces as a support for paintings, but by the later 15th century its use for this purpose had become more common. Lighter in weight, more portable, and much less vulnerable to warping from environmental factors than wood, canvas became the preferred support in the 16th century for the easel pictures that princely and ecclesiastical collectors began to display on the walls of their private galleries. As a result, rather than continuing the earlier practice of framing before painting, frames increasingly were attached to pictures after they had been painted—often to harmonize with the decorative setting of a domestic interior. Intended to both protect the paintings they surrounded and to enhance their visual impact, separately attached frames could now be replaced much more easily to meet changes in taste, or because of wear or other damage.

The vast majority of frames on pictures in the National Gallery of Art from the 16th century onward are examples of these attached or detachable frames, added after the paintings were completed. It was quite common for individual owners to have their own frame design surrounding their paintings, thus unifying the collection in harmony with the overall domestic design. Canaletto's two views of Venice from the early 1740s in Gallery 31, The Square of Saint Mark's, Venice and Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice, are splendid examples. The works are the same size and have been together since the 18th century when Henry Howard, the fourth earl of Carlisle, probably purchased them for Castle Howard, his country seat in Yorkshire, England. Both have the same style of frame, which has nothing to do with Canaletto; instead the frames were provided for them once they arrived in England. With their projecting square corners the frames are good examples of the type inspired by the architect William Kent, and hence called a Kent frame, popular in mid-18th-century Britain.

It is quite rare for post-Renaissance paintings to retain the frame that the artist designed or intended for them. The National Gallery of Art is fortunate to have a number of such paintings, particularly in its American collection. The frames on Thomas Cole's four paintings in his Voyage of Life series are original, although their surfaces have been altered. Thomas Wilmer Dewing's Lady with a Lute (1886) has the frame that was designed for it by the artist's architect friend Stanford White. The frame on Edmund Charles Tarbell's Mother and Mary (1922) was designed by the talented wood carver and frame maker Walfred Thulin. George Bellows' Club Night (1907) also retains its original frame.

Because of the ease of changing attached frames, the history of framing on a given picture can become quite complicated. For instance, the frame now surrounding James McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl of 1862 was selected and painted by the artist and includes his signature butterfly symbol on the right vertical member. We might thus call it an original frame. Yet there is some evidence that the present frame was placed on the picture only in the 1870s, and that the famous painting had been in a different frame when Whistler first exhibited it in 1862. We thus might also consider that earlier frame, now lost, as being original to the picture.

Winslow Homer's Hound and Hunter of 1892 provides another intriguing example, because it is in a frame made to Homer's design and is thus original. Yet when the painting first came to the Gallery it had a different frame, one that probably had no direct connection to Homer himself. It turns out that the Homer-designed frame now on Hound and Hunter had earlier surrounded the artist's Right and Left, also in the National Gallery. In the 1990s Gallery curators discovered that the frame was actually too small for Right and Left and slightly obscured important parts of the painted surface. They also found that the frame fit the slightly smaller Hound and Hunter perfectly. As a result, the “original” Homer frame was put on Hound and Hunter, and a slightly larger duplicate was made for Right and Left. We know from Homer's correspondence with his New York dealer, Knoedler & Company, that he could be flexible about his frames, telling his dealers on one occasion that they should take off the frame from one of his pictures they already had and put it on a new picture he was then sending to them.

Image: Canaletto, The Square of Saint Mark's, Venice, 1742/1744 Canaletto, The Square of Saint Mark's, Venice, 1742/1744, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Barbara Hutton
Image: Canaletto, Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice, 1742/1744 Canaletto, Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice, 1742/1744, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Barbara Hutton
Image: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842 Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
Image: Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady with a Lute, 1886 Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady with a Lute, 1886, oil on wood, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Walter Timme
Image: Detail of frame. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady with a Lute, 1886 Detail of frame. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady with a Lute, 1886, oil on wood, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Walter Timme
Image: Detail of frame. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady with a Lute, 1886 George Bellows, Club Night, 1907, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection
Image: James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, Harris Whittemore Collection
Detail: The artist's Butterfly on frame. Image: James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 Detail: The artist's butterfly on frame. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, Harris Whittemore Collection
Image: Winslow Homer, Hound and Hunter, 1892 Winslow Homer, Hound and Hunter, 1892, oil on canvas, Gift of Stephen C. Clark
Image: Winslow Homer, Hound and Hunter, 1892 Winslow Homer, Right and Left, 1909, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation