AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Wooden Artifacts Session, May 10. “Ornamental Opulence: The French Régence Frame in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cynthia Moyer

It is not unusual to find extraordinary examples of the carver and gilder’s art surrounding important paintings in collections all over the world. And while the provenance, subject, and materials of the paintings have been considered by curators, art historians, and conservators, equal attention has not always accorded to the work of art surrounding the painting, and so I was delighted there were two papers considering picture frames in this session.

In this paper, Cynthia Moyer, the first designated picture frame conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shared her investigation of a French Régence frame, dated approximately 1720, which frames Atalanta and Meleagar by Peter Paul Rubens,c. 1616. Both painting and frame had been in storage for over 40 years as a result of their poor condition. As the painting was conserved, Cynthia studied the frame from a technical point of view, stabilized its damaged ornament, and repaired and compensated losses.

She observed that the frame had originally had a landscape orientation rather than its present portrait orientation based on the nature and position of the carvings, and suggests that it may have been a royal commission based on the quality of the ornament. As would be typical of the guild system in which such a frame would have been made, the frame was unsigned and its construction is typical of the period. Cynthia described the stylistic characteristics of frames of the period to help place where the ornament is situated within. The frame’s sight edge had been modified to accommodate the painting and had an added build-up on the back which obscured any marks that might have been found there.

Radiographs were taken to understand how the carving was applied. Although the resulting image was difficult to read, they did confirm that the frame had been enlarged along the sides. Cross sections of the gilding layers were examined under the microscope and using scanning electron microscopy. Microscopy revealed a simple glue layer over the water gilding. No toning was evident in the sections examined. Hematite and carbon black were identified in the bole layers in SEM, and the gold leaf was found to contain less than 1% each of silver and copper.

After describing the conservation treatment undertaken on the frame, Cynthia went on to consider how this frame, which most likely related to architectural moldings, came to be associated with the Rubens. The circumstances of this French Régence frame stands in contrast to the one presented in the talk given by MaryJo Lelyveld earlier in the same session, which was commissioned for the painting it contains. Although curatorial files for the Rubens record an extensive history in and out of private hands, dealers, and auction houses, Cynthia could find no images of the painting in its frame nor any descriptions. There were many opportunities to reframe the painting over its lifetime, and it was not unusual for frames to be replaced and thrown away on the whim of a collector. It remains unclear where this frame came from and when or how it came to be associated with the Rubens.

Museum docents report that visitors are often curious about frames on paintings. A study of frames helps flesh out the story of the people who owned the paintings and how they lived. Important frames, their history and the manner in which they were constructed need to be published more often so that their context can be better understood as well as any underlying messages that may be communicated when a painting is reframed.