Frames are a fascinating aspect of a work of art, and by extension an exhibition. Vincent van Gogh believed a work was not finished until it was framed — the picture and the frame create an aesthetic whole.[i] National Gallery Curator of International Painting and Sculpture Simeran Maxwell offers insight into the framing you’ll find in Monet: Impression Sunrise.
At the time of the Impressionists, and near the end of the nineteenth century, Fritz Schumacher said that the frame ‘provided the work of art with a kind of shelter [heimatrecht]’. This idea leads us to imagine the frame as a protector from a hostile environment, a conduit of connection to the work of art and its surroundings. The frame can add another level of meaning to a work.[ii]
When works arrive to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra from lending collections, most often they have come to us already framed for exhibition — as is the case with the works in Monet: Impression Sunrise. Works on paper — watercolours, prints, drawings and photographs — often do not ‘live’ in frames and so will get framed especially for loan. If this is the case, we can sometimes negotiate with the lender regarding the style of frame, to ensure the work will sit seamlessly with the works accompanying it, and other times we may ask for period frames to suit the exhibition. Large watercolours are the exception, and the frames for many of these that you will see in Monet: Impression Sunrise are their permanent homes.
‘I must mention the frame… It stands in such close connection to the painting that it must be considered an integral part of it, particularly since without it the allegory would be incomprehensible, and the frame forms the connection to the alter.’ Basilius von Ramdohr[iii]
The permanent frames of these paintings are mostly period frames which they would originally have been sold in. In some cases where the works came directly from the artist and not through their dealers — dealers were often the ones that organised the framing unless the artist had a particular preference — the owner would get a frame maker to make one in the style most suited to the work.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler took a great interest in the framing of his work. He was very involved, and many of the frame designs were his own — he is a fantastic example of an artist who treated the frames as part of the work. The reeded edge of the frame of Harmony in blue and pearl: The Sands, Dieppe 1885 is iconic of his style, and influenced early twentieth-century frame design.
The frame of Johan Barthold Jongkind’s Sunset in Holland 1868 is fascinating. The ornament compo (composition) design and craftsmanship is stunning — it is quite rare to see such crisp yet fluid compo work. We are not sure if it is original to the painting or not, but it is clear that the frame is very old and in extremely good condition. The style is Rococo Louis XV. Many of the Monet works in the exhibition, including Impression, sunrise, are framed in Louis XIV style frames. However, Monet himself wasn’t particularly interested in framing, and the works found in his house and studio at his death were unframed.
Monet: Impression Sunrise is on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia until 1 September 2019. Remember to take in the special detail on each of the frames when exploring the show.
[i] In Perfect Harmony Picture + Frame 1850–1920, Eva Mendgen, Van Gogh Museum, introduction
[ii] In Perfect Harmony Picture + Frame 1850–1920, Eva Mendgen, Van Gogh Museum, p 15
[iii] In Perfect Harmony Picture + Frame 1850–1920, Eva Mendgen, Van Gogh Museum, p 15