Framing a Lucia Mathews Watercolor

Here’s a pretty special recent job: a watercolor by Lucia Kleinhans Mathews, “Portrait of a Young Girl Seated in a Meadow,” from about 1914. Measuring 14″ x 11, the painting is characteristic of Lucia and her husband Arthur Mathews’s distinctly harmonious vision. Harmony was sought chiefly through their tonalist palettes, their embrace of the unity of the arts led by architecture, and not least of all in a dream they held for their state as a place where civilization would restore its connections with nature. Here as in many of their images, a figure melds softly into the landscape and its features.

Arthur Frank Mathews (1860-1945) and Lucia Mathews (1870-1955) were two of San Francisco’s most influential, known and beloved early painters. (The Oakland Museum has the largest collection of their work, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento just obtained a nice collection.) The artistic couple, devoted to the decorative arts and the ideal of restoring the natural, original unity of the arts, also cared deeply about their frames and made frames for their paintings. After the 1906 earthquake, they opened The Furniture Shop, which produced many of their frames. So the provenance of this piece is rather interesting: the Mathewses’ business partner John Zeile present the painting as a wedding gift to the Furniture Shop’s accountant.

A carved and painted oak Mathews frame on an Arthur Mathews oil painting, “Afterglow at the Seashore”

Given the outstanding quality, character and significance of Mathews frames, the rare times I’ve had their work come in to the shop, I’ve found it impossible to design the frames without channeling the Mathewses’ sensibilities. This doesn’t mean reproducing their frames or lifting design motifs. Rather, it’s a matter of using their sense of proportion and their method of low relief carving, often painted. I especially love their oak frames. The Lucia Mathews watercolor we framed, available through California Historical Design, cried out for an oak setting not only because the Mathewses often favored that wood (as in the example at right), but also because of the oaks in the painting’s background, as well its palette. The 3″ frame is carved quartersawn white oak (grown in the midwest, not California, unfortunately, since our state’s oaks aren’t straight enough to be used for lumber). I fumed it, which means I enclosed it in a sealed box with dishes of concentrated ammonia, exposing it to the fumes for a day or so to darken the wood to this mellow, cool brown in perfect harmony with the painting. The frame was then varnished, and finally the carved corner patterns painted green to match the oaks in the painting that frame the girl’s head.

The goal wasn’t to imitate the Mathewses’ frames but to adopt their spirit of harmony—achieving too, I hope, a harmony with the past, not by copying it but by its lessons and vital inspiration.

Painting the frame’s corners—

The frame’s corners were tinted green by first painting them then rubbing them down with a rag to reveal wood coming through.

Again, Lucia Mathews’s “Portrait of a Young Girl Seated in a Meadow” is available through California Historical Design and acstickley.com, here. (Note that the painting was in a gold painted frame, at right, attributed to the Mathewses, and that the original frame will stay with the painting, and be included with its sale. It is not a characteristic Mathews frame, nor does it do justice to the painting. Not to slight its historical value, my own guess is that John Zeile, independent of Lucia Mathews, had The Furniture Shop make the frame as a merely serviceable presentation to the newlyweds.)

My wife, Stephanie McCoy, wrote a biography of Lucia Mathews, Brilliance In the Shadows, available while supplies last from the Arts and Crafts Press, which did a wonderful job designing, printing and binding the book. More here…

View more work by Arthur and Lucia Mathews…

Read about framing an Arthur Mathews oil painting…

My wife, Stephanie McCoy and me (a few years ago!) in front of a Mathews decorative door frame at the old Masonic Temple in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Old House Interiors)

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