Arthur Mathews (1860–1945), “Bather with Mermaid and Pearls”

N.d. Oil on panel, 21″ x 18″ inches. Carved reverse ogee profile, 4″ wide, in fumed and painted quarter sawn white oak, with white gold and 23 kt gold leaf ogee liner.

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.

My sketch of the profile of the compound frame.

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 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. Rocky cliffs that frame the cove in which the scene is set are 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.

Read my full blog post on this piece, and see process photos…