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Framed - A History of Frames in Visual Art


About 80 km southwest of Cairo lies Fayum. Located on the shores of a giant pseudo-oasis fed by the Nile, Fayum is one of the oldest cities in Egyptian history. The region has the earliest evidence of farming in Egypt and was a centre of royal pyramid and tomb-building in the twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom and during the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Representational art typified the conventions of Ancient Egyptian belief. Maintaining a delicate relationship between humankind and a pantheon of deities, Ancient Egyptian artists, who typically worked in anonymous groups, created art that depended on an entrenched belief in the permanency of a divinely ordained order.

However, the stylistic expression of Egyptian art fluctuated with political, social and environmental influences. After Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE, significant aesthetic shifts manifested in new painting styles and methods of presentation. By the first century CE, naturalistic portraits painted on wooden boards were often attached to upper-class mummies, exemplifying artwork during the Roman occupation of Egypt. It's estimated that during this period, a series of four stand-alone panels were produced in Fayum. Though the precise archaeological context of the find remains vague, the artworks survived in Fayum for centuries and were uncovered in the 1930s.

The panels rediscovered in Fayum are among the best-preserved examples of art produced in Egypt under the Roman Empire. However, the artworks possess another vital quality. The remaining three artworks (the fourth was destroyed in Berlin during WWII) are also part of a small handful of paintings from antiquity that are still nested in their original frames. Contained in simple eight-point enclosures, these artworks are some of the earliest known examples of the wooden frame format we are familiar with today.

Frames drawn or painted directly onto a surface have long been utilized as a visual tool. Ancient Roman and Greek artists painted intricate borders on walls and pottery to separate or section artworks into dynamic segments. Egyptians also applied drawn borders to over four-thousand-year-old tomb decorations for aesthetic, narrative and cultural purposes. The intricate carving of limestone slabs to create a sunken area for central motifs can also be seen in the Sela of the Observer of the Fortress Intef from around 2000–1988 BCE.

It's difficult to know exactly how long wooden components have been used as a framing material for art. Analysis of the Fayum-found depictions of Heron and Lycurgus [fig1] dates to around the late second century CE. The depiction of Heron [fig2] is dated from the late second to the third century CE.

Although it was only during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the use of hand-carved, wooden frames truly took hold, the study of these ancient objects can help draw parallels with our own contemporary execution of the same concept. Likely produced in sizable numbers lost to time [1], the Fayum framed paintings allow us, at the very least, to speculate on the motivating factors behind the fabrication of these objects.

Frames are devices used to activate a complex harmony of visual separation and consistency. When displayed in a sequence, similarly crafted frames operate cohesively to form, strengthen and balance the overall narrative or content in the series. In contrast, a suite of artworks displayed in a collection of considerably different frame designs cultivates a more frenetic reading as the eyes and brain work to draw out patterns.

It's not clear if these Fayum paintings were displayed together as they vary somewhat in artistic execution. If they were presented in a set, the similarity of the frames may have softened the differences in artistic technique. Furthermore, although only a few of the artworks have survived, it is unlikely the Fayum examples were the only framed panels in production [1]. Even though we don't know the specific context in which the artefacts were found, the similarities of the frames may suggest a trend in design. The consistency in the Fayum frames themselves may also be an exercise in cost-minimisation or a reflection of the crafting materials available at the time.

Another potential reason for the early use of these frames in Egyptian art is the attachment or indication of effort. Extra resources and energy must be diverted to the crafting of a frame, signalling that the artwork is valuable enough to be corralled within the investment of additional labour and cost.

Defined by highly decorative religious art, the Medieval era of fifth Century Western Europe was characterised by iconographic paintings predominantly depicting scenes from the bible. Perhaps known best for the illuminated manuscripts of the period, artists would prepare formal documents frequently supplemented with evocatively detailed borders as well as miniature illustrations. These borders were designed to emphasise and aggrandize the inner content, which included prayers, liturgical services and psalms as well as secular texts from the thirteenth century onward.

Another example of illustrated frames used in art can be seen in mandalas. Adopted by various spiritual traditions over history, mandalas have been used as a source of guidance since at least 500 BCE. First appearing within Hindu artworks, Indian mandalas are used to focus attention, aid meditation and establish sacred spaces. Usually intended to be read starting from the outside edge and working to the inner core, layers are delineated by meticulously decorated boundaries. By the thirteenth century, complex mandalas unique to Japan and China were being devised and used in sacred rites. Often, the entirety of a mandala is framed by at least one elaborately rendered border with the purpose of containing texts, patterns or icons to separate the artwork and elevate it from the surrounding interior.

Tibet, Four Mandalas of the Vajravali Series | Taizokai (womb realm) Mandala on a silk hanging scroll

Artists of East Asia have used traditional configurations and processes to pair paintings with hangable scrolls for display and storage for at least 2000 years. Unearthed at Mawangdui, an archaeological site located in Changsha, China, early hanging scrolls date back to the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). Written on silk banners, the earliest incarnations of hanging scrolls were likely hung to display decrees, prayers and edicts. During the early Song dynasty, the vertically hanging scrolls became a means to frame artworks. Originally introduced to Japan from China as a means of spreading Buddhism, hanging scrolls have also become a fixture in Japanese culture, playing an important role in the presentation of both traditional and contemporary art.

Also originating in China during the Han Dynasty and spreading to the rest of East Asia, folding screens are free-standing frames hinged together to display artworks. Consisting of several frames or panels, folding screens exhibit both practical and decorative uses. During the Tang dynasty, folding screens were considered the ideal canvases for artists to display paintings and calligraphy on. They became popular amongst European consumers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

During the European Gothic era, the drawn borders of the Medieval period expanded into physical frames. Like illustrated borders, frames were intended to aggrandize and separate artistic planes from one another. Some frames, like the Wilton Diptych, were hinged together so they could be closed to protect the inner painting. Painted on two panels of Baltic oak, the Wilton Diptych has the appearance of a luxury object, though its intended use was as a portable, private devotional device for King Richard II of England.

Most frames made during the European Gothic period were constructed from a single piece of wood with a central section carved out, leaving a raised border around the edge of the piece. The whole panel was then gessoed, gilded and occasionally embedded with gems. Finally, the prepared woodwork was painted in by an artist and exhibited as a whole.

Towards the end of the Gothic era, mitred strips of wood were attached to flat wooden panels, offering buyers more affordable framing options with greater scope for customization. By the early stages of the Renaissance, wealthy art patrons often paired privately commissioned artworks with more portable frame designs as a protraction of social status. When the art trade pivoted towards the middle-class market, carpenters began producing frames at all levels of cost and quality.

Frame-makers in the Renaissance were well-versed in the properties of various wood types for structural and decorative applications. In sixteenth-century Europe, frames were predominantly made out of oak. Pine, which was lighter and easier to shape, became a popular frame material in the seventeenth century. Low-grade poplar and spruce were reserved for secondary parts of frames and basswood was more compact and suited to fine detailing and carving.

Though lesser quality wooden frames were often covered with gold or gold-like finishes, rarer and more expensive walnut lumber was left ungilded. The rich colour of hard, dense walnut timber was highly prized and other woods were often stained to imitate it. Pear and plum woods were used as a substitute for walnut due to their colour, texture and availability. Ebony, chestnut and elm were also common framing materials - ebony was particularly used for fine profiles, often in conjunction with ivory inlays or semiprecious stones.

As woodcraft developed, many Renaissance painters experimented with unique frame designs. Once part of a larger, now-lost altarpiece, the extension of angelic wings on the left panel in Paolo Veneziano's The Annunciation is met with the sharply narrowed angle of a trapezoidal frame. Balanced by the richly patterned depiction of drapery on the right panel, the angled structure cultivates an expansive visual equilibrium. Then, in fifteenth-century Venice and Tuscany, a new architecturally-inspired frame emerged. Consisting of columns or pilasters supporting a frieze and pediment and resting on a stepped base, the frame was dubbed the Tabernacle frame. This new, free-standing frame style saw extensive use during the sixteenth century in a wealth of inventive and elaborate variations. It was also adapted into diptych and triptych designs with working doors or wings as a means to embellish, expand upon or section up artistic compositions.

As the Baroque period unfolded in the early seventeenth century, artists strove to instil awe in viewers through contrast, movement, exuberant detail, deep colours and intricate ornamentation. To complement the movement, dramatically decorated frames with carved foliage-like embellishments were common, and organic flourishes were often used to highlight the corners of frames. Rushed in with the flamboyance of eighteenth-century France, Italy and Central Europe, the frames of the Rococo art movement reflected the theatrical costuming, art, architecture, metalwork and furniture design of the period. Adorned with knotted waves, animal figures, foliate features and floral and shell motifs, Rococo frame-makers sought to match or even eclipse the lavish artwork contained within.

Lady in Front of a Mirror, Frans van Mieris the Elder, 1670 | Portrait of Elizabeth Bowes, Thomas Gainsborough

Art Nouveau was born from two distinct influences: the British Arts and Crafts movement - a reaction against the cluttered compositions and historicism of Victorian-era decorative art - and the popularity of Japanese woodblock prints that influenced many European artists in the 1880s to 1890s. So-called whiplash curves, as well as floral and annular forms were all adopted into the visuality of the Art Nouveau movement. Characterized by a spirited sense of motion paired with the use of modern materials, Art Nouveau spread over interior design, graphic arts, glass art, furniture design, ceramics, textiles, metalwork and jewellery making, resulting in a melding of artistic practices.

First Ball, Stefan Luchian, 1891 | Madame Johannès Gravier, Antonio de La Gándara, 1917 | Frühling, Otto Eckmann, 1895

Embracing the natural asymmetry of nature, Art Nouveau frames from this time often exhibited asymmetrically frondescent features. Artists during this movement also returned to illustrated frames as a way to structure and focus prints. Alphonse Mucha's drawings of frames, for example, tangled inextricably with curvilinear forms and robust designs to create creating compellingly illustrious artworks.

With the approach of the Modernism movement, the focus on nature began to shift. Modernists rejected the historically conservative depictions of objects and strove for innovation, function and experimentation. Framing evolved to reflect this new Modernist perspective, with many frames crafted with harsh metallic planes of little ornamentation and gessoed wood marking a departure from traditional stains.

Founded in France, Impressionism was formed by a number of painters who were exploring Plein-air painting. Until the late nineteenth century, artists were not typically involved in the framing process. However, Impressionists, who sought to reject the traditional conventions of framing, often favoured simpler painted frames. During this time, Mary Cassat exhibited portraits framed in red or green at the fourth Impressionist exhibition. Plain white wooden frames were also used by Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. Unfortunately, most of these examples were also subsequently replaced by dealers, collectors and sometimes the artists themselves [4]. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine what a profound effect these simple frames would have had on viewers who were so accustomed to the gilded and ornate offerings of previous art movements.

Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh had clear ideas regarding the importance of framing. In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh rejected the heavily ornate and gilded frames preferred by dealers and collectors at the time. Instead, the artist declared a preference for relatively austere designs and colours, saying to his brother Theo in 1884:

I prefer to see my work in a dark black frame...many blacks [look] grey, whereas they would show up too black [if presented within a lighter frame].

Van Gogh also discovered that a restrained application of gold could heighten the effect of the blue shadows in his painting. However, like many cases, these frames have been re-housed for exhibition. In the case of Van Gogh's Mountains at Saint-Rémy, the painting was enclosed in an original colonial provincial frame from the seventeenth or eighteenth century with silver gilding. This was later replaced by a regency eighteenth-century frame with decapé patina over original gilding and carving. Reassessed in 2007, Guggenheim curators determined that the configuration failed to add to the Van Gogh artwork stylistically or historically [5]. In looking for a replacement frame, curators discovered a seventeenth-century black Italian cassetta frame with gold sgraffito originally from an artwork by Miró. After some retrofitting and restoration, the casseta frame, a style that was prominent during the Renaissance and again in the seventeenth century, was successfully installed and hung.

Art Deco, a fusion of many art styles, focused on the purely decorative with little political agenda. Crafted in a style that merged traditional craft motifs with modern materials and machinery, the ornate infrastructure of Art Deco frames reflected a new level of modernity and visual expression that has fed into the Post Modernism of the present day.

Tea Kettle, Oleksandr Bogomazov, c.1914

Modernists felt a growing alienation from Victorian morality, optimism, and convention and strayed from conventional frames. In 1905, painter and printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, along with Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff founded Die Brücke or The Bridge, a movement now considered to be the birth of German Expressionism. One of the earliest examples of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s own frames is a plain, mitred moulding with a rectangular profile, made of softwood and finished with a thin coat of varnish - growth rings and knots in the wood remain clearly visible. The reverse of the frame is dated, titled and even signed by Kirchner and originally contained his 1905 painting Mondaufgang [6].

Stretching to the middle of the twentieth century, Modernism reached its peak in the 1960s. Yet the movement met its end at the hands of a body unified in its defiance of the ideas and values of Modernism itself. Swooping in with a keen instinct for scepticism, irony and philosophical critique, Post-Modernism sought to combine new ideas with old motifs, melding period designs with modern art and innovation. The period also marks a significant departure from predominant framing styles, guided instead by a conceptual, ethical or aesthetic preference over strict convention.

Photo byAntenna on Unsplash

With new technology and manufacturing techniques, endlessly unique frames can be designed and fabricated in a very short time. In a contemporary setting, art is often exhibited without a frame, mounted instead by hooks or pins. But when they are used, frames are frequently chosen (usually by the artist) for their visual or conceptual contribution to the overall artwork, selected with a nod to the long history of framing that originates in antiquity.




Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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