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

From Period Frames to No Frames

Given the frequent changes in ownership of paintings over time, as well as the destruction and displacements caused by economic crisis and even warfare, it is not surprising that the majority of frames on old master paintings in the National Gallery were made and added long after the pictures were painted. The Gallery sometimes replaces frames on pictures that have been donated or purchased as part of a continuing effort to display the paintings to their best advantage. Most often, Gallery curators try to surround paintings with frames from the same historical time as the pictures, known as period frames. For example, we have a number of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish works that show one or two paintings hanging in private interiors. Johannes Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664) is a good example that illustrates how actual paintings of the time were framed.

Works such as this have helped us to find or construct frames for our pictures in keeping with the period in which they were painted. Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait of a young Florentine lady, Ginevra de' Benci, presents a different case: the painting is not in its original frame, and we have no record of what that frame may have looked like. As the result of damage to the lower areas, the painting was probably cut down; the original frame was undoubtedly larger and may have been damaged as well. The current frame is the second to surround the picture at the National Gallery—it replaced an earlier one whose profile cast an unattractive shadow on the painted surface.

Ginevra de' Benci is now displayed in an early 16th-century detached frame most likely made in Venice. It is a type of frame that was extremely popular in Italy called a cassetta, or "little box," consisting on all sides of the same distinctive inner and outer moldings around a rather flat frieze. Here the frieze area is ornamented with applied pieces of parchment that have been painted with a polychromed design.

In cases where an actual period frame of the correct size is not available, a frame is made in the appropriate period style. One marvelous example is the sumptuous frame now surrounding The Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi in Gallery 4. The picture belonged to the ruling Medici family of Florence and is listed in a 1492 inventory of their possessions as having a gilded frame. But as far as we know, that Medici cornice has not survived. The tondo's later owners have had different frames made for it. The present frame is the painting's second since entering the Gallery. It was made in 1955 as a suitably ornate complement to this very extraordinary painting, and was inspired by the late 15th-century frame on Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranate, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.

Some of the Gallery's very greatest works pose unique challenges in terms of providing them with a suitable frame. Considering that Jan van Eyck's magnificent Annunciation possibly was painted for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, for a church or chapel in Dijon, the picture must originally have had an elaborate engaged frame of a more Gothic architectural style. In addition, the painting undoubtedly was part of a more complicated, multipart altarpiece, perhaps as the left wing of a triptych.

At some point the splendid ensemble was taken apart and the individual panels dispersed, with the Annunciation ultimately landing in the Imperial Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg before arriving at the National Gallery of Art. Furthermore, while in Russia the painting was transferred from its original wood support to canvas. Given its actual and probable history, and the challenges that it has survived, the Annunciation still communicates the physical marvel of Van Eyck's oil technique and the sophistication of his iconographic program within the relatively simple moldings of the frame made for it in the last century.

Many 20th-century and contemporary artists have eliminated frames altogether, but those works that do have them pose many of the same problems encountered in works by earlier masters. Rather than retaining the original frame that the painter may have initially used or selected, many modern paintings coming to the National Gallery of Art have frames that have been chosen by subsequent owners, including the Gallery and our expert staff.

Image: Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664 Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas, Widener Collection
Image: Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478 Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
Image: Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460 Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Image: Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436 Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436, oil on canvas transferred from panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection