A (Not So) Recent History of Custom Framing

While frames separate pictures from their surrounding environment, they are more than just a physical fringe of an artwork. It is an embellishment, a cultural emblem, and a social statement, and often the picture frame is an artwork in itself. A frame embodies cultural contexts and symbolism by design and style, and it can generate and authoritative impression around an artwork and subtly influence the viewer’s perceptual experience. A frame should not only be viewed as a border to a work, but as a tool of cultural artistry that surrounds that work, skillfully encouraging the artist’s intended gaze for the onlooker. 

Although frames have existed since ancient times, the independent picture frame as we know it today was developed at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. It flourished as an art form in Italy during the 16th century, spread to neighboring European countries, and reached its zenith in 18th-century Paris. 

The independent picture frame, which is also referred to as the ‘applied’, ‘separated’, ‘moveable’ or ‘literal’ frame, is a relatively recent invention with its origins stemming from twelfth-century carved wooden frames designed to display, celebrate and enhance the altarpiece. These early altarpiece frames evolved between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries becoming more and more elaborate and ornamental, whilst often retaining much of their ecclesiastic and architectural character. Many of the earlier painted panels contained within these frames were formed from the same piece of timber as the frame: the panel being a carved recess, which was then sized in preparation for the painting, while the raised rim or bevel served to frame the painting.

The shift to a physically independent frame started to happen during the early Renaissance when the tools and carpentry techniques became more sophisticated and the output of paintings increased dramatically. Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (1423) is the first altarpiece made with panel and frame in two separate pieces. It was realized that ‘applied’ frames made from separate bits of wood could offer the painted wooden surface far more protection against warping and cracking, and it was hence that the independent frame was born. 

Gentile de Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (1423)        

 Gentile de Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (1423)


One of the key pragmatic functions of the independent frame is to offer protection for the artwork. It helps to prevent the surface and edges of a painted canvas or ‘work on paper’ from being damaged during display or storage. The frame also provides fixing points for the artwork to be attached to the wall and, as is the case with many traditional frames, the frame provides a surface on to which identifying plaques can be attached. Here the painting and independent frame - complete with attached plaque(s) bearing the painting’s title, date of production and artist’s name - attained a self-contained ‘moveability’ which characterized paintings from the Renaissance right up to the onset of modernism.

To dwell on such practical aspects of the frame such as protection, fixings and identification, though, is to deny the frame of its more dynamic and various functions. The frame as a material reinforcement of the edge functions first and foremost as a device for distinguishing or setting off a certain kind of space - aesthetic space - from the surrounding area. Constituting a limit or boundary between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of an art-form, it demarcates a perceptual field within which what is being looked at signifies differently. The ability of the frame to define or demarcate an area as significant is so deeply ingrained within Western visual culture that it is difficult to look at what a frame contains without first experiencing a feeling of heightened expectation and awareness. The mind engages differently - more analytically, more poetically and more critically - to what is inside the frame, than to what is outside the frame. No matter what its appearance, the frame is always a conventional sign indicating that what it surrounds is out of the ordinary.

(Adapted from Ian Geraghty's "The Reconfigured Frame", College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008)




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