Assessing Old Master artwork condition. Part III — frames

Essential guide to making right purchasing decisions when buying art online

I have briefly touched on the physical condition of an artwork in my article about investing in Old Master art. Let’s now have a closer look at this issue since it could become one of the major reasons to opt out of the deal if something is wrong on that side. So, what are the signs to look at to make sure you are not wasting money with a painting even buying art online? All the actions in this checklist for assessing painting condition could be easily performed by yourself — no special art expertise is required.

This is the third part of my guide dedicated to visual analysis of painting frames. In the first part we were talking about painting surface. Second part was related to backsides of paintings.

All that glitters is not gold

And here goes a very important note I have to start with. This section should not by no means be considered a guide to frames and their historical development. For this purpose, I suggest you check the amazing Frame Blog (google it!), for example. This guide here is about assessing the epoch of a frame in general as well as its relation to the artwork in question. In other words, here I am showing you what a frame (or its absence) can tell you about painting’s condition. And in some cases, it can even reveal important provenance details.

Another thing I urge you to remember — these patterns below are of course generalized to a certain extent. There are always various exceptions when it comes down to practice. However, these are quite common general principles that in combination with other important factors would help you make your own suggestion about an artwork you are looking at.

1. Absence of a frame. Let’s start simple — does a painting in question come with any frame at all? In many cases you will be notified that there is no frame accompanying the artwork — it’s just the canvas mounted onto stretcher bars that you get. It is not a bad sign by itself however not a good one either. Imagine what a life journey this artwork had if it happened to lose one of its major elements at the end of the day?

Some pictures were initially designed for altars or other compositions and were never meant to have a proper frame and be hung on a wall

It may well be a clear sign that the painting had trouble times and wasn’t properly taken care of by its previous owners. It should also give you a hint to pay special attention to other third-party interventions that may have taken place, like extensive restoration areas hiding damaged surface (read more about it here).

This pitiful loss of original frame may occur to painting in any price and quality categories — from the very low end to the most high level, like museum-quality masterpieces. Take this recently discovered Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait (now part of the National Gallery collection) as an example. And here comes another challenging quest of finding the frame that could fit the painting properly and this way bring back its initial glory.

The National Gallery video about choosing a new frame to Artemisia self-portrait

2. Integral or molding frame? This is the second guess you could take by just looking at the photos of the artwork in question when it goes for sale together with its frame. Proper frames from past centuries were always made to suit the particular painting. They are kind of integral in their essence and all the details have their proper places.

My suggestion for you here would be to look closely at the angles — do they have a unique ornament that looks like it perfectly fits this angle (no overlapping elements or missing parts)? If not, this is one of the things that may indicate that the frame you are looking at was actually made of cut molding parts.

Left & center — discrepancies in molding juncture; right — integral frame from another painting cut to fit a smaller canvas and this way compromised in original ornament

These molding frames were introduced in the second half of the 19th century and were widely used ever since as they are significantly cheaper, easier, and faster to produce. Various types of moldings, wooden or plastic, can now successfully (to a certain extent, of course) imitate original frames of previous centuries. However, they are still industrially made molding bars cut to fit the required size of a canvas.

This type of framing doesn’t add any value to the old master work of art simply because it doesn’t come from the same epoch as the painting itself.

From a collector standpoint, it practically equals the cases when a painting comes with no frame at all with a side note that it may have received more care and attention from its previous owners (at least for the sake of its future sale).

3. Original or imitation? This is the most interesting and multi-dimensional area of basic frame analysis. Without going deep into frame design history I give you a list of some general indications of the frame’s epoch:

  • Gilded ornament. As a rule of thumb, the more elaborated, skillful, and three-dimensional the ornament on the frame’s foreside the better it is in terms of its origin. These rich frames were produced in 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and reflected traditional baroque, rococo, and then neoclassical fashion in arts.
Rich and skillful baroque, rococo and neoclassical frames

Late 19th-century frame-makers often tried to imitate these framing patterns however had to compromise on the quality of the details and fancy 3-d effects. These later frames often lack genuine design and some kind of finesse in details. They look rougher though could still fit the painting well enough.

18th-century original VS 19th-century imitation

If a painting you are looking at is said to be of the 17th or 18th century though is accompanied by a 19th-century frame you may suggest the following two things:

1) either this painting has lost its original frame in the course of its lifetime and was given another one during later restoration or,

2) the painting is not as old as it is suggested by the seller and was made to look like an older one intentionally.

There are of course myriads of original 19th-century frames that were not attempting to imitate their predecessors. They were tailor-made to their contemporary paintings and are in line with their current fashion and trends.

Original minimalistic frames of the second half of the 19th century

This is always a good thing when all the parts of an artwork come from one epoch and this way enforce one another and significantly add to the overall value of a painting.

  • Gilt or not? Another tip to help you recognize the epoch of a gilded frame is to look at its sides. These original frames highlighted above are gilded not only on the foreside but on lateral sides too.

Well, frames at those times were quite robust and wide and masters of the past used to put on gold foils even at their side spaces, which are usually not visible if looking straight at the painting. Later centuries imitations of these frames often lack these side gilding due to economic reasons.

So, these are the main indicators of a frame coming from the 19th and later centuries:

1) sides of a gilded frame are left untouched by gold foils or

2) were later colored with simple golden paint (though this type of examination is not always doable with just photos available).

One more sign of a frame being quite old is this red paint re-emerging from underneath the layers of golden gilt. Actually, it comes to the surface in the places of extensive rubbing which happened, for example, in cases of constant removal of dust from the surface of a frame while the painting was hanging on the wall. Make sure these red patterns are not distributed evenly across entire frame (a clear sign of imitation of natural aging!) — there should be a visible concentration of them on the single side of the frame, which was initially attached to the bottom part of the painting and this way collected more dust in the course of a lifetime.

Left — red underpaint emerging on gilded frame surface; right — gilded lateral sides of the same frame

Many of the of “traditional” frames originally produced in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were left ungilded. In other words, they did not receive any further golden decoration.

Ungilded ornamented frame (source)

Future WWI and the general economic situation in the market put on numerous constraints and limits on frame production in those days. As a result, many half-ready ornamented frames never had a chance to be actually finished with gilt. Many impressionist and modern paintings have them as original frames.

So, when you spot such an interesting combination of a traditional wooden frame with no gold put on it be sure to date it to the 1890s or alternatively the first half of the 20th century.

  • Oval shape. These oval-shaped frames were extremely popular in the 18th century, although this trend end sharply with the arrival of a new era. Suddenly, all oval paintings were considered to be incredibly old-fashioned and unacceptable (to the extent that many portraits of previous epochs were intentionally relined onto new rectangular canvases in the 19th century!). So most of the time when you spot a painting in an oval frame there is a good chance that this frame has survived through times and is a genuine one.
Left — oval-shaped portrait in original frame; right (source) — oval-shaped portrait relined onto rectangular canvas and put into rectangular frame (taken from another painting)

Moreover, integral oval frames were significantly more challenging and expensive to produce, and way harder to imitate (or fake).

To sum it up, the best case scenario you could hope for while hunting for an old master is when an artwork comes to your hands with minimum alterations — keeping the original canvas and stretchers (or other support) in the original contemporary frame. That’s when the magic synergy comes into place and lets an artwork of an excellent quality really stand out.

Trust, but verify

This wraps my short series on assessing painting condition by just looking at its photographs.

By implementing this basic connoisseurship knowledge to your practice of looking at paintings you would feel way more safe and confident when buying some to your collection.

However, the story doesn’t end up when you finally buy the piece you were hunting for.

There are of course further ways of offline painting examination, like light test (surface details, angles, backside), Wood Lamp or even analysing pigments, fabric and wood for especially valuable and expensive artworks to assess their condition and prove the authenticity.

Art is a never ending journey of discovery. Good luck to those entering this path.

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art history writer and collecting advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website marinaviatkina.com.

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Marina Viatkina

Marina Viatkina

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → marinaviatkina.com | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app → getsmartart.com