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On Framing Pictures

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A picture is a convention—an illusion. We take a few crude materials, a square of canvas, some earthy pigments, and by a sort of artistic legerdemain we propose to make those materials disappear and to persuade the spectator that he is looking through the frame and out over the sunny landscape beyond. If the magician is clever enough, if he observes carefully the laws of color, of values, and of refraction, he may succeed fairly well. But the slightest thing will break the spell. A scratch across the sky, a little indentation, and the illusion disappears; for the observer has become conscious of the surface of the canvas. The rough edge of the stretcher has the same disillusioning effect, and for this reason no picture is really complete until it is enclosed within the sheltering protection of a frame. It is necessary to separate the real from the unreal, the hard reality of the back-ground of burlap or of wallpaper from the illusion of the picture.

Now the question at once arises as to the best form for this protecting barrier, the best material to use in its construction, and the best and most harmonious surface for its finish. Artists are all aware of the vital importance of this matter. They know that a frame can either make or mar their picture, and they give the subject constant thought and attention. At one period I devoted considerable time and study to the question and made voyages of discovery into many strange and untried fields.

Of course I tried frames of carved wood of various hues and varied design; I collected sea-shells and fishnets, poppy-stalks, ears of grain, and all sorts, of beautiful dried weeds out of the fields, which I glued to the flat surface of my frames, and gilded. I made experiments also with textile fabrics applied between narrow bands of gold. At one time I cut up a superb Turkish rug and made me a precious frame of this exquisite material. Barbarous vandalism, if you will, but all in the good cause of art. However, that was the most disastrous frame of all. The rug was so beautiful that the unfortunate picture was entirely annihilated. The surface texture of the rug was in itself so compelling that no picture could stand up against it. It was this frame, however, which first showed me that I was on the wrong track. All of my shells and nets and weeds, al-though gilded, were actual objects, with which the eye was familiar. The observer as a consequence saw the frame when it was essential that he should see only the picture. The frame, I perceived at last, must be something mid-way between the real and the unreal—conventional in form and intangible in surface. And I re-discovered the fact, which the old masters had discovered so many centuries ago, that there was no material in the whole range of nature so admirably fitted for the surface of a frame as gold or metal leaf. Next to the mirror, it presents the most elusive of all surfaces. Semi-reflecting, semi-solid, it is just the thing that fills all the requirements. So I came back home again and spent the rest of my time in a study of the best forms and the best tones of metal leaf to be employed. Fortunately, there is a large range of colors at our disposal, beginning with pure silver, and going through various tints of green, yellow, and orange gold to the deep red of copper—a gamut as extended as the most demanding painter could ask.

Here it soon became apparent that the law of complementaries reigned supreme. A picture whose dominant note was pink demanded a greenish gold frame, a blue picture called for a tone of pure yellow or orange gold, while a picture whose dominant tone was gold-en yellow could only be well clothed in silver. Fortunately, the dominant note of most landscapes is found in the blue or blue-gray sky, and thus the pure gold frame is its ideal casing. But there are pictures—often enchanting effects —which are killed by the juxtaposition of yellow gold ; and these pictures are barred out of our exhibitions by the barbaric rule which limits all frames to those of gold leaf. One of my own most successful canvases, representing the interior of a birch wood in autumn, was a solid mass of shimmering yellow foliage, relieved only by the silvery notes of the slender and graceful trees. I tried it, without success, in every possible tone of gold leaf ; but finally had to come to silver. The picture, of course, was "returned with thanks on account of the frame"; but it found an immediate purchaser in the first private exhibition at which it was seen. The price, moreover, had been doubled as a balm to my wounded feelings.

When it comes to the form and design of a frame, infinite latitude is allowable, but, in general, the law of contrast holds good here also. A very complicated picture which depends for its effect largely upon some graceful and intricate design will show to best advantage in a comparatively flat and simple frame. A simple picture, on the contrary, which is built up with a few broad and powerful masses, will frequently appear best in a rich and ornamental frame, the very richness of design accentuating the simple beauty of the canvas. f, however, the value-scale of a picture is extremely delicate, this must also be taken into account, and the frame, though ornamental in design, should be in low relief, in order to harmonize with the picture which it is to frame. The question of the mat surface and the burnished surface, or the proportion of each to be allowed in a given frame, must depend upon the special picture under consideration, and also upon the individual taste of the painter. The worst frame of all, the only inexcusable one, is the blatant, vulgar over-ornate, over-wide, over-burnished affair, which cries out, "look at me, I cost five hundred dollars, so this picture must be worth five thousand."



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