Text by Doris Athineos
Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno
Not many art lovers would be thrilled contemplating an empty frame. But when Leslie and Leigh Keno go antiquing, they keep their blue eyes peeled for the art around the art. The two favor handsome 17th-century Dutch ebonized frames like the one Leigh landed at a New Hampshire country auction for a three-digit figure. The missing portrait was replaced by silvered glass. "The frame is 400 years old, but it looks modern around a mirror," says Leigh. "It adds color and depth to a room."
High-profile Dutch ripple frames are impressive, but century-old American frames echo popular motifs prized by furniture fans (acanthus leaves, wheat stalks, rosettes) and are among the most undervalued antiques. "Dig around, and you can find 19th-century gilded wood frames for $200," says Leigh. They may be hand-carved or "composition" (a type of plaster over a wood base). "To buy that gilding today would cost a couple of thousand," he adds. Folksy, grain-painted frames also grab them. "The frames are painted dark red and decorated with black lines and swirls to look like mahogany," notes Leslie.
Of course, if a period frame still cradles its original painting, the Kenos and other art lovers prefer they stay together, especially when the artist himself designed the frame for a particular painting. "American Impressionist Childe Hassam designed his own frames and so did other artists," points out Leigh one sunny afternoon while gazing at an artful display of blank frames lining the walls at Gill & Lagodich, a downtown Manhattan period frame shop that feels like an artist's salon despite the missing pictures.
Founded by frame scholar Tracy Gill and restorer Simeon Lagodich, the shop contains some 3,000 frames, most a few centuries old. "Van Gogh, Degas, and Eakins all made their own frames," says Lagodicch, who is also a landscape painter. James McNeil Whistler called his own fluted-reed frames "as important a part as any of the rest of the work." Whistler even signed his frames (with a signature butterfly), hoping the two would never part. Even without the painting, a vintage Whistler-style frame can sell for more than $10,000.
American frame styles changed with the times and reflected regional differences. For instance, New Mexico's Taos School of painters favored frames with a Southwest patina (Roman gilding) and Native-American pottery designs. "The major American art movements, including the Hudson River School, American Impressionism, Social Realism, and Modernism, all influenced frame design," explains Gill, who has a soft spot for Aesthetic-style frames from the 1870s and '80s. "Aesthetic frames are eclectic, truly design overload," she says with a laugh. "They often look gold, but they're really burnished bronze. Some think they're too dark and Victorian, but I personally adore them." She recommends Aesthetic frames (on eBay or auctionzip.com for less than $100) for family photographs rather than paintings, where the wild patterns might compete.
Some of the earliest American frames "resemble plain window and door molding," adds Gill, a dog lover who once named a beloved Samoyed Sully, after American portrait painter Thomas Sull (1783-1872), who constructed his own bare-boned frames.
Like those early Yankees, mid-20th-century modernists shied away from curlicues and gilding. They preferred simple designs such as striations combed into gesso or wormy chestnut wood with a pale gray finish, Gill notes.
"Modernist frames from the 1940s and '50s are becoming popular," she says. The most prized were created by the Manhattan firm House of Heydenryk, founded in 1935 by framer Henry Heydenryk, who often collaborated with artists.
Many artists have designed, painted, or made their own frames. Stuyvesant High School Construction and World Trade Center is by artist Simeon Lagodich, who also made the frame.
This 17th-century Dutch baroque ebonized frame now fitted as a mirror sold for $3,000 at Sotheby's in 2008. Other ways to use old frames: as medicine-cabinet doors, serving trays, message boards, and room dividers as well as for children's drawings.
A notable framer of the early 20th century was Carrig-Rohane (Gaelic for "red cliff"). Founded by artists Hermann Murphy and Charles Prendergast (brother of artist Maurice) in Boston in 1903. (In 1911, the frame shop became Thulin-Murphy, then Vose Galleries in 1915.) Signature style? Hand-carved frames that harmonize with the painting. "The backs are painted terra-cotta color and are inscribed with the year and frame number," notes frames scholar Tracy Gill.
Another Boston framer was Foster Brothers, founded in 1875. Foster Brothers was known for ripple molding, elaborate hand-carving, and gilding.
Chicago-based framer Newcomb-Macklin was founded by John Newcomb and Charles Macklin in 1894. The firm was noted for its gilding and copies of frames made by Stanford White.
Aesthetic movement frames have super-stylized natural motifs that later morph into the whiplash lines of Art Nouveau. The design mashup appeals to romantics like Tracy Gill, a former senior editor at Victoria magazine.
Arts and Crafts frames are notable for their artisanal quality, with hand-carved and hand-rubbed patina. Favored by American Impressionists.
Modern frames exhibit subtle sophistication. Mid-century wormy chestnut frames (the frame shown here with ruffled edges) enhance without overpowering. Collectors prize Mod frames by the House of Heydenryk.
. Gold leaf. American Impressionists and architect Stanford White were gold bugs. Never tarnishes.
. Metal leaf. A mix of copper, tin, and zinc. Less formal; often used for Western scenes.
. Roman gilding. Bronze finish goes with grittier subjects. (Think Ash Can as well as Aesthetic and Taos schools.)
. Silver leaf. Cool look. "Good for snow and nocturnal scenes," says Gill. Tarnishes beautifully.
Framed (left to right): Leslie Keno, Tracy Gill, Simeon Lagodich, Leigh Keno.