Protection and Prospect, Part II: The Frame

In my last post I discussed the compositional strategy of “protection and prospect” that Paul Roehl explained in part of his February 25 lecture here at the Gallery—a strategy that’s extraordinarily compelling because it taps in to a primal psychological need we have for both shelter and a wider and longer view of the world. (Read the post here.) The idea is especially compelling to me as a framer because it helps us understand the unique power of the frame—that visceral satisfaction and sense of completeness produced by placing a picture* in the right frame.

Thomas Cole, “Home In the Woods,” 1847

In helping customers choose the right shade and color finish for the frame—and, more basically, appreciate the suitability of a dark wood frame—I often suggest the idea that they’re looking at the view portrayed in the picture from the vantage point of a cabin or house sitting on that spot on the land, and that the frame is a window in the house, cast in shadow but still colored by the ambient light outside spilling into the house through other windows and doors. With this idea, they see how the shadow tones in the painting suggest the right stain for the frame. But I’ve long noticed how it’s a wonderful “ah-ha” moment in another way: they now see themselves as part of the painting. It’s no longer just a picture of a landscape. The frame as a window makes it a picture that captures their relationship to the landscape.

Benjamin Williams Leader, 1901. Oil on canvas, 60″ x 48″.

But the “protection and prospect” idea adds still another dimension. Keep in mind that the sense of protection in the painting itself can be extremely subtle—the shade of a tree or rock, a level promontory in an otherwise treacherous and steep mountainous scene, or a fence in the near ground indicating we’re looking out from a private yard. If the view seems to open up from a fairly narrow, tame and domesticated vantage point to a broader, more varied and wild one, then it’s begun to appeal to the protection-and-prospect longing in us. But I’d propose that, because painters understand that the frame will have its role in the composition—even if they don’t fully appreciate the nature of that role as something very much like an architectural element, an element of shelter, in the picture—they are sensing the great contribution the frame makes in providing the viewer with the feeling of looking out at the pictured view from inside a shelter. The protection part of the “protection and prospect” strategy is fulfilled largely and sometimes entirely by the frame.

So the “ah-ha” moment I experienced when I heard Paul explain his concept of protection and prospect came when I put his point together with the understanding of the frame as a window. Because I saw that the notion of being in a cabin or house on the land was far more than just a technique for choosing the right stain. It meant that the right frame, as a window in the landscape depicted, actually represents the key element of “protection,” or shelter and so the viewer is now not only connected to the landscape by the frame but is so, due to the primal appeal of the “protection and prospect” principle, in a deeply affecting and satisfying way that makes the frame—again, if it’s the right frame—necessary to our full appreciation of the picture.

George Inness painting in a conventional gold setting that’s unconvincing as a window on the landscape.

Over these past 42 years of framing I’d come up with a few theories about what’s going on to produce that transformative effect the frame has on the picture in that moment when the picture’s installed in the frame. But it wasn’t until Paul’s illuminating talk that my understanding became complete. I’d understood the power of the frame as a window, giving a picture a place—and the significance of the place of art in our lives, of giving the landscape a place in our lives. But now I saw the frame’s full power of giving us a place in the landscape. Now I finally saw the frame—which is not a depiction but a real, three-dimensional architectural element of the room we are actually inside, and at the same time as a convincing bit of the architecture of human civilization on the depicted land—placing us in an immediate and compellingly harmonious relationship to the landscape, providing us both safety and promise. The frame that provides us a sense of shelter in the pictured landscape places us in the picture. It takes a picture we might idly contemplate and brings it in direct relation to the room where we’re standing. The painted view, seen from a real shelter, appears now as a real prospect and no longer an abstraction. We may stand and contemplate it, but we contemplate it as if we can enter it in a few steps. It is the land, not a pretty curiosity. And we must live in it, live with it, find our place in it, somehow or be left incomplete, in a state of separation from our home, the Earth. The right frame can make our relationship to the land itself not only more convincing and real to the imagination. Made to feel our own necessary shelter as a true part of the wide, unfathomable creation, we are made to feel whole.

* This does not apply to all pictures, as I’ll be the first to admit. As the post makes clear, it applies to pictorial representations of things in perspective and at a distance beyond the plane of the wall. This is not to say a frame doesn’t provide some other purpose to pictures that don’t fit that category, including protection and veneration.

Paul Roehl painting

Paul Roehl, “Sierra Foothills”, 22″ x 36″. $3,965. View large…


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