In the nineteenth century, reflecting the great turmoil that the arts were going through, many painters protested what could be called “the gold frame convention”—not only a prevailing taste but an actual rule among exhibitions that paintings must receive gilded settings. “[A] very prevalent error is to set almost all pictures in frames gilded all over,” complained a London art critic in the pages of the trade magazine The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher in 1883. “Few pictures are of such brilliance as to be able to bear such a mass of bright gold without detriment to their effect.” Fortunately, the critic observed, “some artists are taking a healthy departure” and turning to dark wood frames—cabinetmaker’s frames, as they’re called—as a superior enhancement, and cited a work by George Clausen, shown at London’s reform-minded Grosvenor Gallery, that was framed in dark walnut. Clausen was just one example of countless painters of the age who were searching for “a way out of the gilded frame.”
The significance of such expressions of protest against artistic conventions is a fascinating and vast topic (one I hope to write about eventually), but at the end of the day what matters is which type of setting helps the picture better—which approach serves, that is, the whole reason for pictures which is to help us see the world. (This concern was, in the end, the underlying concern of reformist painters turning to unconventional frames.) To answer that question (guess where I come down!) I’ve just made a new webpage of “before” and “after” pictures of paintings that came to us in gold frames and how they look in the dark hardwood frames we re-framed them in. Below are five of the most recent such examples.
Learn more and see more examples on the new webpage, Fixing a “Very Prevalent Error”: The Cabinetmaker’s Answer to the Gold Frame Convention.
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