Re-framing Hanson Puthuff

The landscape paintings of Hanson Puthoff (1875-1972) made a major contribution to California’s rich heritage of landscape painting. Unfortunately, his pieces did not always find their way into frames that do them justice. Here’s one example we had the honor of re-framing this week, taking it out of a machine-made, gold painted compo setting and putting it in a handcrafted, carved quartersawn oak frame. Here it is before and after:

 A well-made, simple home. A 3″ bevel profile (canvas is 11-1/2″ x 15″) with a 45 degree carved chamfer sight edge. Close-ups:

Here’s a profile view of the frame:

Re-framing a New—and Much Larger—Rosa Bonheur

Last year we re-framed a couple of paintings of stags, both by premiere nineteenth century French wildlife painter Rosa Bonheur, which I blogged about here. We just did another one, and at 48″ x 36″ it’s considerably bigger than the first two. First, here it is in the compo exhibition frame that we were to replace:

And here it is now:

Given the log house setting it’s going in, our solution leans more to the rustic than it might have considering the highly formal (I generally use the term in reference to form, not sophistication and refinement) treatment of the subject matter. But having the frame come out of the same appreciation of the beauty of nature and handcraft that the painting does—especially in contrast to the original frame—more than makes up for whatever formal refinement we left out of the profile. (For a more formal profile on a similar painting, see the earlier entry on re-framing Bonheur stags, here.) I stand by it as a far more sympathetic setting than was the old frame, and far more successful at the primary job of a frame, which is to help us see the picture. Any rejection of pretentiousness and false luxury in art is a step in the right direction! Taking a picture from an exhibitionist presentation to one in harmony and sympathy with the picture is fulfilling one of my favorite William Morris phrases: “for beauty’s sake and not for show.”

This is a compound frame with a mortise-and-tenon flat, a carved cap-molding and carved and gilt liner. After that wonderful reward of the framer—the moment when you finish fitting the picture and turn over the completed piece to see it—Trevor and I were struck by how the highlights were enhanced. Is it the gilt liner, the darker frame, or the combination? Beyond that, I can’t add anything that I didn’t say in the previous Bonheur re-framing example.

Here’s a corner detail:

Trevor Davis gets credit for making it. Here’s the proud craftsman—giving you a sense of the scale of the piece, too.

Framing J Bond Francisco

Recently framed this John Bond Francisco , designing the setting to echo playfully with the massive green frame at the center of the painting. This little oil, 12″ x 8″, depicts the artist’s San Francisco studio around the turn of the century. The frame profile’s a No. 16—a plain flat mitered frame with a chamfered (45 degree bevel) sight edge. Chose a flat profile to go with the relatively shallow depth of field and flat object—the painting—that’s the focus of the piece. But the angles and design of the stove suggested the chamfer. A bit wider than I normally would’ve used on a piece this size, but in keeping with the proportions of the depicted frame on its painting. Going as green as the frame in the painting would have sacrificed the harmony of painting and frame, but rubbed green paint in to the grain of the oak to resonate with the frame in the picture.The liner is oak with gold leaf. All is simple as the room depicted—simple, but fun!

Framing Ludmilla Welch

We’ve had the privilege of framing more and more historical work, and this past month got to re-frame this sweet oil painting, “Foggy Morning,” (10″ x 17″) by Ludmilla Welch, who with her husband Thaddeus Welch, worked in San Francisco at the turn of the century. It’s in a very low slope No. 248—3″ wide profile in stained quartersawn white oak.

Framing Kevin Courter’s “Cradled Moon”

Enjoyed framing this 12″ x 14″ oil for Kevin Courter, now at New Masters Gallery in Carmel. Chose walnut for its color (used a light stain to get the harmony just right) and because it’s good for carving. Chose a flat profile, since it’s a flat composition, but at the sight edge it’s got a very subtle convex, or ovolo, form echoing the form of the treetops cradling the moon. The frame similarly cradles the painting. The carved pattern takes its cue from the crescent moon and the branches. The narrow slip with lemon gold leaf matches the moon.

Framing Kevin Courter’s “Soaring Skies”

Just finished framing this wonderful Kevin Courter oil on linen, 20″ x 16″, titled “Soaring Skies.” I wanted the frame to extend the perspective with the right form and amount of line work, but keeping it simple and rustic in spirit. The color came out of the shadows in the grasses. Shadows are frequently a good source for frame color, helping the frame remain subordinate to the painting. The bright sunlight off the clouds suggested the gilt slip.

The painting is headed to New Masters Gallery in Carmel.

From Gold to Oak—II: 19th Century British Still Life

This is another re-framing job that we did maybe a year ago. It’s a still life, oil on canvas, by 19th century British painter Edward Liddell. Here’s how it was framed when it came in:

And how it looked after we re-framed it in stained quartersawn white oak to be more in sympathy with its rustic spirit:
Here’s the profile, fairly flat over all, but refined and with beads all keyed to the highly formal and finely drawn painting:

From Gold to Oak—I: Re-Framing Rosa Bonheur Stags

The theme of this post, replacing gilt frames with dark wood frames, has since been greatly expanded upon on a page created a couple years later, “Fixing ‘A Very Prevalent Error: The Cabinetmaker’s Answer to the Gold Frame Convention,” here.

Have you ever looked at a painting and realized that you were fighting to see past the frame, that the frame was actually inhibiting you from seeing the painting? Maybe you’ve held your hands up to one eye and used them to block out the frame. That was very much my reaction—and I suspect the reaction of the customer who brought it to me—when I first laid eyes on this sweet little oil by the great French painter Rosa Bonheur. The elaborate, swirly gold frame was so imperious, showy and unsympathetic to everything about the picture—the subject, palette, line work, forms and, above all, the rustic spirit—that it actually felt laborious to really study and appreciate the painting itself. (The owner was also seeking a frame that would be more suitable to the painting’s destination in a log home.) At just a little over 8″ x 6″, it was being eaten alive by some past owner’s or dealer’s insecurities (it didn’t help that a makeshift gold colored liner had been used to make the painting fit a 10″ x 8″ frame). The poor creature appears inexplicably displaced to some Parisian bank manager’s parlor, and seems to stare at us as if to say, “What the heck am I doing here?”

Relief finally came when I removed the work from its setting and could enjoy this stately fellow whom Mademoiselle Bonheur had distinguished so skillfully. Seeing past the significance of the painting and refusing to be awed by the signature in order to appreciate the work itself, I could craft no better solution than this plain and simple 2-5/8″ wide flattened scoop with a single bead at the sight edge. At last, we can see the painting without effort, and the stag is in his natural habitat, warily watching us as intruders of his home.

A larger Bonheur of similar subject matter came in about a year later, with a similarly overbearing frame. Damaged in transit, the composition—or “compo”—breaking off demonstrates the dubious

service of frames like this as protectors of paintings, not to mention the debased character of compo as fake carving. At 22″ x 18″, this canvas called for a larger and stronger frame, although with the same approach to line and form which we’d taken with framing the earlier painting.

The suitably rustic spirit of the quartersawn white oak frame molded to harmonize in line and form with this quiet but accomplished work, a dark stain to lead the eye to the lighter painting (the eye goes to light; frames are generally more successful when they’re darker than the picture), and a touch of pale gold leaf on oak at the sight edge to echo the painting’s contrasts and lend a note of honor to this noble beast all contribute to a setting that sustains and expands the spirit of this fine work and allows us at last to see and admire the painting.

Framing Paintings—I: Kevin Courter’s “Colusa Sunset”

“All true art is praise,” as John Ruskin said, getting right at the heart of picture-making (and blowing the top off a lot of pretentious blather about art, too). Last fall Kevin Courter brought in this work of praise, a 16″ x 20″ oil on linen, less than 2 weeks before our show, “A Heaven in the Eye” was to open. It’s a stunner, as you can see, and to a frame-maker an inspiration. My enthusiasm and the extra focus imposed by the deadline spurred me to produce one of my favorite recent pieces.

Kevin says this is near Gray Lodge Wildlife Area off I-5 in Colusa County — a place I haven’t been to but which a number of customers praised to the skies (how else to say it?) for the astonishingly huge flocks of geese and rare species to be seen there. It’s a place where you can feel as though bird life is as strong as ever; as if life everlasting still means something (as it surely does, after all); as if we can still witness nature’s eternal beauty (which we can). It’s some place to praise.

Most of the framing we do is more restrained, simple, frank. But one thing a frame legitimately does is sustain and amplify the praise the picture has started, and this praise can be as lavish as you like, so long as the frame remains subordinate to the picture and obeys the first law of the universe: the law of help. Or, to borrow William Morris’s words, “all this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty’s sake, and not for show.”

There’s a very important distinction between this use of decorative treatment to enhance a painting and the illegitimate praise the frame has frequently been enlisted to lavish on, not the subject of the picture but the picture itself—the picture as trophy, as symbol of status and wealth. In this role the frame is often oddly blind to the character of the picture. Is a slick gold frame ever well-suited to a painting of a cow or a weather-beaten barn—or a muddy river bank? That’s the frame as unflattering flatterer and sycophant, not as friendly home or accompanist.

The frame’s praise of nature begins with suitable materials, and this was a beautiful piece of American Black walnut, with rich native color (a little stain was used to get the color harmony just right) and a bit of interest in the grain but still even and workable for carving. I chose walnut for the cool brown native color and the tight grain which is better for detailed carving. Also, our most frequently used wood, quartersawn oak, has strong figure that can compete with this more refined kind of carving.

It’s hard to take frame designs to this level on smaller or more impressionistic or on tonally subdued paintings. But a work as strong as this one leaves room for the frame-maker to be more free. This piece was large enough, had enough tonal power, and was simply so reverential in spirit that it called for a more elaborate frame. It is also detailed and highly rendered enough to suggest more detail in the frame.

The key to having a frame be more elaborate without upstaging the painting is the harmony of the elements (line, form, material, color, texture) and economy in their use: every element and detail should have a reason for being—should be justified by the painting, and echo an element or detail in the painting. In other words, key to keeping the frame subordinate to the painting is having nothing in the frame that isn’t a complement to, or echo of, something in picture. In this case, the primary form in the painting is the cloud. This frame’s response to that form is obvious (the carved bead with rounded stops at the corners, the scallop stops on the flat). The amount and strength of line in the frame must be economical as well—constrained by what suits the painting. I had fun picking up the fine grasses in the foreground with fine carved lines at the frame’s sight edge.

I don’t expect to ever make another frame exactly like this, because there’ll never be another painting exactly like this. That’s one of the tests of a truly living art form: it’s alive to the other arts—and to the world—-in specific ways. But it’s not hard to do. It just requires taking the time to truly see and appreciate the adjacent arts. And it demands that we work with both freedom and humility in our service to the other arts.

It helps, too, to have inspiration, which in this case was provided by Kevin Courter and the landscape of Colusa County, California.