A Brief History of Picture Frames

Written by Mark Rogers

Nowadays, picture frames are used merely to “frame” beautiful pieces of art, photography, archival documents and treasured mementos. However, when they were first developed, frames were included in the art and even considered a piece of art themselves. In fact, according to “A Survey of Frame History” in Picture Framing Magazine, historically “more attention was paid to making frames fit into an architectural setting” rather than the frames being created to “complement the paintings they surrounded.”

Quite a big difference exists between the use of frames in the past and the way we use frames today. Here’s a quick look at the history of picture frames, including when they were first made, what they were made out of and where they were first developed.

When Picture Frames Were First Created

Frames for pictures as a concept have been around since the times of the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks, where “framing borders” were used in paintings on pottery and walls to create sections of scenes. One of the earliest physical frames dates back to AD 50-70; the wooden frame and the portrait within was found in an Egyptian tomb and was almost perfectly preserved.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought about the hand-carved, wooden frames that we recognize today. These frames were used as part of a church’s decor, and provided borders to separate the different paintings and sections within the sanctuary—much like the concept of framing borders introduced centuries earlier.

Frames used within homes were only introduced after the “mobile frame” movement, according to “A Survey of Frame History.” Originally, artwork was made frame first—in other words, the area in which the artwork was to be painted was demarcated by the carved frame, and the artwork was later added; these pieces were largely immobile, as they were generally part of a church’s structure.

When people began to realize that there were more individuals interested in art outside of the church, these “moveable, independent painted units” became more common and new framing methods were developed.

Where Frames Were First Developed

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where frames were first created, though the oldest discovered frame seems to have come from Egypt, as stated above. The development of free-standing mobile pieces—similar to frames as we know them today—began in Europe; these pieces were mainly used in churches, until displaying artwork in private homes became fashionable.

What Were the Original Frames Made Out of?

The frame found in Egypt was made out of wood, and the practice of using wood has continued up to l today. In the 16th century, frames were made out of oak, until pine became popular in the 17th century because it was lighter and easier to work with. It was fairly time consuming to carve the intricate details and patterns that were expected in frames then, so the frame makers had to devise another way. This is why papier-mâché was first used in the 17th century, which allowed for a more decorative look by simply pressing patterns onto the frame.

Larger framed pieces that would be included on a church altar were made out of heavier wood. The frame was not only used for decoration, but as structural supports, because these frames were “made from several pieces of wood glued together,” according to “A Survey of Frame History.” During the Renaissance, particular care was taken in regards to wood choice, such as poplar, walnut, linden, chestnut, or elm, for frames, especially regarding their purposes—structural or decorative.

Additionally, when framing portraits of monarchs and other noble individuals, the types of frames and the materials used in the Renaissance were directly related to their wealth and power. In other words, the more bling and detail you had on your framed portrait, the more powerful and respected you were. These noble frames were typically made with walnut, ebony, tortoiseshell, ivory inlay, and other expensive materials.

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6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Picture Frames”

  • Kevin

    Really a handful of information on picture frames, its very much informative...

  • 37 Different Types of Picture Frames | Main Door Design Ideas August 20, 2018 at 4:07 am

    […] as such were first developed in the 12th to 13th centuries. Just like many frames today, the early versions were made of […]

  • Clarette D Kundrack
    Clarette D Kundrack May 6, 2019 at 7:40 am

    I have two metal picture frames with screw backs. Can you tell the time period that they would have been made?

  • Bill

    Is Elm still used for picture frames? do you have any?

    • Laura W

      I'm sure that there are some specialty manufacturers that still produce in Elm. Most are using a mixture of woods in furniture and framing to keep the cost down, and to help with the environmental impact of using one type of wood to create a full product. Our products are a mixture of woods.

  • Kristin

    I'm searching for someone to repair a pie-crust embellished picture frame, or better yet, I would love to learn how to do this myself. I haven't been able to find any info on the good old internet yet after many hours of hunting. Hoping you can point me in the right direction. Thank you!

    • Laura W

      Hi Kristin - Thank you for reaching out. In all honesty, that's a specialized skill and would most likely require contacting a custom framer instead of a large commercial operation. Sorry we couldn't be of more help!

  • Tom

    Did you ever hear of a torch ring on an old wooden frame??? Thanks!!!!

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