A California Frame-Maker’s Dream: Framing Arthur Mathews

For a frame-maker living and working in California, nothing beats getting to frame a painting by Arthur Frank Mathews (1860–1945). Mathews was not only one of the state’s preeminent painters, but he and his wife Lucia were unsurpassed in their concern for the other decorative arts—beginning, naturally, with the settings for their paintings. The Mathewses’s frames (browse the Oakland Museum’s premiere collection of the Mathewses’s work here) are admired by frame historians internationally. For at least 20 years I have studied and drawn inspiration from the work of these two seminal California artists. So when the Montgomery Gallery in San Francisco asked me to frame this undated (ca. 1900) Arthur Mathews oil of Aphrodite receiving a pearl of love from a mermaid I knew it would be a highlight of my career.


Arthur Frank Mathews, (American, 1860–1945), “Bather with Mermaid and Pearls,” n.d. Oil on panel, 21″ x 18″ inches (framed: 31 ½” x 28 ½”)

The challenge of framing this piece was to honor not only the painting but the extraordinary artistic legacy and standard of the Mathewses’s frames. But I knew that trying to make a “Mathews frame,” or even a “period style” frame, would result in a second rate affair. Mathews’s genius as a frame-maker rested above all on his treatment of it as a living art form, and so that had to be my aim as well. I took the Mathewses’s regard for the decorative possibilities of the frame and combined it with close study of the painting itself, and then trusted my understanding of what makes an effective frame.

The first choice in frame-making is the material, and revering nature, Mathews revered wood. I picked quartersawn white oak for my frame. Oak was not only a favorite of the artist, iconic of the state to which the artist was so totally devoted, but also full of ancient mythical power. Not least of all, it connotes strength, durability and permanence. Thus a painting in an oak frame is an artist’s vision given a firm, enduring and definite place.

Arthur Mathews, "California," in carved oak frame

Arthur Mathews, “California,” in carved oak frame

Mathews’s work consistently demonstrates equal reverence for the achievements of civilization and nature—reflecting his understanding that true civilization and its arts draw vitality by being firmly rooted in nature, and that California’s vast and dominating natural beauty would redeem and restore the debased and decadent state of civilization in Europe and the industrialized eastern U.S. Thus a painting like “California” (right) shows a woman, a beneficiary of and participant in the arts, clothed in a beautifully decorated poppy-colored robe and enjoying the companionship of literature—and elegantly enthroned in an oak tree. As the figure is framed by the oak, the painting resides in an oak frame. Nature and civilization are also balanced in the design of the frame, which decoratively embellishes the wood without overpowering its natural figure and beauty. Nature’s effect in revitalizing civilization and tradition is at play in this frame as well: although the decoration of the frame draws freely from architectural tradition, it’s made fresh in the innovative hands of a living artist.

The same instinct for balancing civilization and nature is at play, I believe, in the Aphrodite painting.

The form I chose for my frame is a reverse ogee—the “S” form, in section, of the ogee profile being the best suited to figurative work. But it also suggests waves of the sea framing the figure. So I rubbed green and blue into the oak grain, and used white gold at the crest of the wave. Framing the cove in which the scene is set are rocky cliffs painted in umbers, and so the outer cap is the natural fumed oak matching the cliffs.

Taking my cue from Mathews’s habit of playing with traditional frame design vocabulary, I used the convention of beaded molding, but made the beads pearls behaving like sea foam as it gathers and concentrates in the corners formed by rocks. I set this off with an ogee liner, the 23 kt gold leaf rubbed through to the wood.

Montgomery Gallery will be featuring the piece in this year’s San Francisco Art and Antiques Show October 27-30 at Fort Mason.

Process shots—

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