Art is an almost universal human creative expression and a common way of decorating our environment. However, the history of art can be traced back to the dawn of civilization and has evolved considerably throughout the years. The use of frames within art dates back over 4,000 years ago and has been utilized by many great artists and civilizations in history. Art as we know it is a product of human thought, creativity, and innovation. This process is a constant effort to improve upon previous works and invent new artistic techniques that will enrich our lives.
The history of art is quite extensive but for the purpose of this article we will focus on the history of frame design as it relates to the progression of art over time.
Figure 1 – The Lion Hunt – Ary Scheffer (1851) – Oil on Canvas – The Met
Figure 2 – Woman at Her Toilette – Jean Honore Fragonard (1770) – Oil on Canvas – The Louvre
Figure 3 – Portrait of an unknown man – Domenico Ghirlandaio (1485) – Tempera on panel – Galleria degli Uffizi
Figure 4 – Portrait of a Lady with her Maidserv
The history of art is full of frames.
There are many different kinds of frames, and they have been used for many different purposes. Some frames have been made of wood, some of metal, some of glass. Some are plain rectangles, and some are more elaborate shapes. Some have been painted black or gold or white, and some have not been painted at all.
The purpose of a frame is to make the thing inside look good. A frame may be an ornament in itself, but if it is too fancy, then it will distract from the painting or photo it contains; the frame should not compete with what it encloses. In general frames should be as simple as possible while still doing their job of drawing attention to the object inside them.
The oldest surviving picture frame is from Egypt and dates to the 1st century BC. Frames have existed in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia since that time. The exact origin of frames is unknown.
It is believed that frames were not used to protect art but rather as a means of displaying it in public places. The earliest frames were made of carved wood and intricately decorated.
Throughout history frames have served many purposes such as being used to display religious symbols or to protect the art from insects or fire. Today there are many kinds of frames including, wood, glass, metal and even plastic.
Color has always played an important role in framing. Colorful paintings have been framed with gold, silver or colored trim around them for centuries. In the past white was used as a background on some artwork and black was used on others. Black was typically used on portraits while white was preferred for landscapes and still-life paintings. Today color is used by all artists regardless of the subject matter they paint .
The frame is the backbone of the Western Art tradition. Without it, art would be confused and fragmented, unable to hold its own against science and technology. It is a vital tool in the advancement of Art.
The development of frames over time has helped define the growth of Western art. The earliest frames used were not only simple, but had a closed shape, often rectangular or circular. These frames were used to distinguish religious works from those created for the secular world.
These frames have been further modified over time to include gilded edges, decorative carving and other embellishments. This allowed for religious paintings to be displayed in homes without being overt about their religious nature.
Later works included more complex ornamentation around the picture plane including carved elements within the frame itself. As time progressed, ornate frames took on a more significant role in defining not just the subject matter but also the style of a painting, as well as its value.
The frame is the visual art equivalent of the written word. And just as words are used to communicate thoughts from one person to another, the frame is used to communicate thoughts from an artist (and their patron) to a viewer.
The earliest frames were less about communication and more about providing structural support for large works like murals and frescos. Like its cousin, the book-binding, which was invented about the same time in both China and Europe, frames were originally a way of keeping things together rather than an invitation to bend down and peer inside.
The craft of making frames slowly became an art form in itself, with new techniques being developed for new purposes: not just to support or decorate but to emphasize.
Frames have always been seen as a way of drawing attention to the picture inside, but they can do much more than that. They can tie it into a larger picture – literally by using a larger frame or metaphorically by placing it in a context that helps us interpret it. A good frame can be so subtle that you don’t even notice it until you no longer need it – until the picture has become so familiar that we no longer need to question what we’re seeing.
Although framing may seem like nothing more than an interesting bit of trivia
“Perspective” is a word that we often use when talking about visual art. It comes from the Italian “pietra” or “stone”, and means literally “a way of seeing”. The art critic Sir Kenneth Clark defined it as “the perfect fusion of drawing and mathematics”, but whatever the definition, it’s clear that in the middle ages there was no such thing as ‘perspective’.
Yet today this is one of the main reasons why people go to museums: to see paintings which, even though they were made hundreds of years ago, appear to be three-dimensional. In fact, pictures in those days were not at all like that. They were generally just flat pieces of art, painted on flat boards or canvas stretched over wooden frames.
There were two ways of looking at a picture. You could stand in front of it, like this, or you could walk around it, like this. This was probably how most people looked at pictures for about eight hundred years. And then people started to invent different kinds of frames for their pictures.
The frame, not the painting, was the thing. The painting was there to be seen in the light of the frame.
The frame set up a space – a room, a chapel – and therefore defined the painting’s characteristics. It also could leave room for other paintings to be seen in that setting: if you were wealthy enough to have several paintings, you could show them off in different rooms.
What I’m trying to get at here is that paintings are not just physical objects; they are also statements about how we want our lives to appear to us, and perhaps even about how we want ourselves to appear to others. It seems clear that frames were originally intended as non-functional decorative elements (and still are); it seems likely that they became functional elements because they helped people live their lives more successfully. But it also seems possible that they have become so entirely functional that we no longer notice them as art at all.