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The Picture Frames of Stanford White (1853 - 1906)
Magazine Antiques, March, 1997 by William Adair
The architect Stanford White has been called the greatest designer America has ever produced.(1) In addition to buildings he delighted in designing picture flames for many of his clients and friends, including the painters Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. White's frame designs were not only influential in the art world of his time but continue to be The chief role of the picture frame is to be an adroit mediator between the illusionary painting and the environment in which the painting is placed, and it is most successful when it is not noticed. White understood this basic prerequisite. His genius was to combine disparate elements of the many nineteenth-century revival styles to create a new vocabulary of frame design [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE IV OMITTED]. His frames fitted with restraint into the opulent interiors designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White (1879-1909) in which he was a partner.
With the growing middle class of immigrants in the 1850s came the demand for frames with Greek, Italian, Dutch, German, and Spanish elements in Gothic and rococo styles. The Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, which favored the tabernacle frame in the 1860s, planted the seed for the development of the Renaissance revival in the 1890s, championed by White and his associates.(2) This was paralleled by the vogue for the Japanese aesthetic, the Eastlake style, the artist-made frames of the secessionists, and the fluid designs of art nouveau. During this time the frame came to be considered an extension of the art it contained, replacing the Victorian concept of a painting as simply an excuse for an elaborate frame.
The 1890s was a time of experimentation with many unusual solutions to framing.(3) Understanding the important effect of a frame on a painting, White designed specific frames for specific paintings. As his reputation grew he began to design frames for lesser-known artists such as Arthur B. Frost (1851-1928), who wrote to White on May 20, 1904:
When you make the drawing for the frame, would you object to letting me have it after you are through with it? I would be very much obliged if you would let me use it. . . I have only frame makers frames and the giddy glittering things make me sick. . . . I have tried to design frames and they have been rather dingy failures.(4)
Five days later Frost wrote to White again:
I thank you for letting me have the drawing of the frame. I will be glad to get it made up and you can bet no one will get a copy of it. I will value it and try to paint things that will fit it.(5)
White did not charge for his distinctive, classically inspired frame designs, which he executed as a counterfoil to the poorly conceived and ill-proportioned commercial frames.(6) Those factory-made frames, used by an earlier generation of American artists, had a tendency to overpower the pictures.(7) By 1900 the austere approach of the arts and crafts movement, coupled with James McNeill Whistlers profound influence,(8) created an environment receptive to change.
The catalogue to a Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston exhibition in 1907 sums up the reactionary mood:
It is true that pressed and stamped ornament has been used in cheap factory made wood work, . . . but the manifest ugliness and hopeless vulgarity of this tawdry and insipid ornament has prevented the use of such methods in wood work making any pretensions to quality, and of late, the growth of a better taste is tending, at least in some quarters, to the elimination of this cheap stamped ornament.(9)
White's background in frame design most probably began with his apprenticeship to the Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) from 1872 to 1878, during which tune he often dealt with the ornamental elements of Richardson's projects. The ornament focused on color, low-relief carving, and the harmony between the over-all design and the all-important surfaces, both inside and out.
In 1878, at the impressionable age of twenty-five, White embarked on a sketching trip through Belgium, Holland, Italy, and France with Augustus Saint-Gaudens(10) and his future partner Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909), both of whom he had met when all three were working on Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston. It was during this and other sketching trips to Italy that White became strongly influenced by the Italian masters. He even incorporated part of the design of the facade of the Florentine church Santa Maria Novella into one of his frame designs (see [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE VI OMITTED] and [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). It is the elaborate carved and inlaid calligraphic pattern in the architrave above the portal designed by Leon Battista Alberti. For Alberti beauty was the result of harmonious proportions, simplicity, and the skillful use of classical ornamentation - all admirable traits that must have also appealed to the young American architect
Artists such as Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Augustus St. Gaudens and Abbot Thayer had a preference for the classically styled frames designed by Stanford White. The prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White was a staunch champion of the Renaissance Revival style. Not only did they receive many important commissions (including re-decoration of The White House), but they also founded the American Academy in Rome, an organization dedicated to the study of Classical ideals. The revival of these aesthetics held sacred during the Renaissance, Ancient Rome and Greece, were openly pursued by White and his colleagues. The picture frames he designed were carefully conceived to blend into the environment created by the architecture. The interiors possessed classical ornamentation of elaborate cornices and rich detail. As a result, Whites frames were a logical choice for artists aspiring to similar ideals. Some of the patterns were inspired by the tabernacle style used by Piero della Francesca during the Renaissance (Fig. 1). The primary characteristic of the tabernacle style is an entablature supported by two pilasters flanking the perimeter of the painting. Other patterns he created resemble a Whistlerian profile, but instead of simple fluted reeds, White designed a variety of patterns with a Greek wave design, chevrons, twisted rope and ribbon, all combined into one flat profile (Fig. 2). Although White produced many designs (Fig. 3), the most innovative and distinctive pattern was the grille frame that resembles a gilded lattice or lace, suspended one inch over a brightly gilded panel. As a result of the panels reflection from below, it produces a dazzling effect with only small amounts of available light. An optical illusion is produced that makes it appear that light is emanating from within the frame. This halo is particularly effective when combined with the luminescent quality of Dewings paintings (Fig. 4). It may be for these reasons that Dewing preferred this style for many of his paintings. Unfortunately, these frames are extremely fragile and they are often found in a broken and deteriorated condition as a result of normal wear and tear for almost a century. Originally, these frames were well- constructed and the method used in gilding followed traditional techniques that are passed down from master craftsmen to apprentice among the gilding shops of Europe. There are several variations in manufacturing the grille pattern of these frames. One method consists of a wire mesh covered with a thick gesso (pastiglia) built up and dripped onto the thin metal wire to form an ornamental shape (Fig. 5). As this method must have been laborious, another type of grille appears
that is made from compo* reinforced with a paper backing (Fig. 6). This latter type is the subject of
the following conservation and fabrication discussion.
Brief Summary of the Conservation of Thomas Dewin Frame for The Lute Player (1905); Freer
Gallery of Art; Smithsonian Institution; Washington, D.C.
This Stanford White frame had been damaged from impact during shipping and handling. As a result,
the grille was broken and pieces were missing in numerous areas which required treatment. Another
problem was that the original surface had been covered with a bronze or radiator paint as a feeble
attempt to refurbish the gold. In order to bring the frame back to its original condition, the bronze paint
was removed using chemicals, to reveal traces of the original gilding. Prior to this stripping process, the
grille was lifted from the frame by carefully removing the small brads originally used to affix it to the
panel. By taking an impression with a rubber mold and pressing compo into the mold, the broken areas
of the grille were easily repaired. The surfaces were re-gilded, patinated and the object reassembled and
finished as the artist and, architect originally intended.
Fabrication of Stanford White Frame for Thomas Dewin s Self Portrait (1906); Freer Gallery;
Smithsonian Institution; Washington, D.C.
Dewings Self Portrait needed a frame. The challenge was to replicate a Stanford White grille frame.
The original design was re-created with exacting detail because the rubber mold made for the repair of
The Lute Player was already at hand. The first step was to take a profile measurement, or cross-sec-
tion drawing, of the frame and hire a local milling company to produce a quantity of running feet of each
shape (Fig. 7 drawing). Next, a method of producing the compo grille was the greatest obstacle, as the
existing formulas proved inadequate for this unique, free-floating pattern. The main problem was that the
compo would shrink and warp to unsuitable proportions. After some experimentation and consultation
with Stanley Robertson of the National Gallery of Art, the addition of balsam of fir, or burgundy pitch,
minimized shrinkage and produced the desired results. The bead design was obtained from a manufac-
turer and the gilding was done working with the traditional technique of water gilding. The frame was
then toned with pigments to create a patina resembling years of age. The gilder has to be careful when
toning the gold as the old adage holds true, one mans dirt is another mans patina.
After the Adam period (1760-1810), a substitute for the laborious method of carving a design into wood
and then covering the surface with gesso, bole and gold leaf was widely used in the form of a composi-
tion material, or mixture of chalk and resins. Compo, as the material came to be known, was pressed
into a mold of carved wood, and then was removed and applied to the structure of the frame, thus elimi-
nating the need to carve each frame individually. One fault in this method of construction is the dete-
rioration and eventual loss of compo ornaments due to changes in atmospheric conditions. While the
frames wood shrinks and expands with the climate, compo remains hard and brittle, causing fissures in
the frame and reduced adhesive qualities. Like wood, compo can be carved and gilded, but its longevity
is dependent on the life of the materials from which it
Papier mache (a pulp and glue mixture) and numerous other products are used as compo material. Re-
cent innovations in formulas for compo, such as the addition of asbestos fibers, have tended to increase
its flexibility and life; (asbestos, a recognized carcinogen, should be used only with the proper safety
precautions). Flexible polyester resin has also been used recently as a type of compo. This proved to be
unsatisfactory for the Stanford White grille as the synthetic materials have no proven record of stability.
150 grams rabbitskin glue (sheet form)
750 grams hide glue (granular form)
450 grams rosin (crushed)
400 mls. boiled linseed oil
Few drops venice turpentine
1100 mls. water
5 kilograms whiting (50/50 whiting and French chalk)
9 grams burgundy pitch (balsam of fir)
Break rabbitskin glue into small pieces. Put rabbitskin glue and hide glue into separate containers. Cover
rabbitskin glue completely with water. Use remaining water to cover hide glue. Soak glue until water
is absorbed. Mix rabbitskin glue and hide glue together. Add approx. 20 mls. water to this mixture. In
another container, melt down rosin completely, so no substance remains on bottom of container. Mix
melted rosin with warmed linseed oil, venice turpentine and burgundy pitch. Add rosin mixture to glue
mixture and mix thoroughly. Put whiting in large container. Add liquid mixture to whiting. Knead mix-
ture until dough-like consistency (mixture should not stick to hands). Wrap unused compo in plastic and
refrigerate. When needed, warm compo over steam heat to soften. (For further information see Jonathan
Thorntons paper on compo; AIC Preprints, 1985).