Over the years, picture frames have evolved in design just like the art they contain. The earliest picture frames—dating back to AD 50–70 —were simple, unadorned wood frames that served only as a functional way to display artwork. Hundreds of years later, the frames became pieces of art themselves.
The level of detail and decoration in picture frames has fluctuated, becoming more or less ornate depending on the time period’s architecture and art movements. Some styles of picture frames reverted back to their former status as purely functional objects rather than decorative. These days, picture frames can be both.
Frames of Medieval Europe
When customers think of antique frames, the intricately decorated and gilded frames of Europe most often come to mind. Wood such as pine, poplar or oak was the material of choice, with more elaborate frames using more expensive wood such as walnut or ebony.
In the 12th and 13th century, the first carved wooden frames introduced decorative elements, modeled after the architecture of the time, to the once-plain frames. Tabernacle frames—architecturally-inspired frames that housed religious icons—were styled according to Gothic architecture, whose pointed arches and elaborate accents dominated frames until the Renaissance. More classical forms of architecture, characterized by simpler designs, columns and crown elements, took over by the 16th century.
Early American Picture Frames
The early history of picture frames is largely centered on Europe, but American picture frames have their own. American Empire style frames—the earliest known American-made picture frames—were simple and functional, but later incorporated carved details like their European counterparts. Unlike European frames, these carved details highlighted American agricultural goods such as tobacco, corn and wheat.
Though the specific motifs changed, hand-carved wooden picture frames flourished for hundreds of years, continuing well into the 19th century when imitations of Louis XIV-style frames were in vogue. By the late 19th century, however, framing took a turn as Impressionism emerged.
A Shift in Style: Simplicity in Framing
The founding Impressionist artists rejected the ornate frames just as they rejected the realism celebrated by society at the time. Impressionists’ preferred frames, according to The Art and History of Frames by famed frame maker and historian Henry Heydenryk, were simple and white—a large departure from the gilded frames that had dominated the past hundreds of years. It was around this time that Edgar Degas, a founder of Impressionism who had taken to speckling mats with color, said to fellow artist Moise Kisling, “The frame is the reward of the artist.”
Post-Impressionist artists such as Georges Seurat reintroduced colors other than white; his piece “Evening, Honfleur” features a wooden picture frame painted in the same style as the artwork itself.
A Shift in Picture Frame Materials
Wood was the material of choice for years until metal became more accessible, which happened to coincide with the popularization of photography. French architect Hector Guimard, one of the best-known Art Nouveau craftsmen, began creating small metal picture frames in the early 1900s, some of which are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as works of art themselves.
It was only in the 1950s that metal truly usurped wood as the leading framing material. The Museum of Modern Art commissioned artist and framer Robert Kulicke to develop a frame that could be used in traveling exhibitions; the result was the now-famous welded aluminum frame. Just a few years later, Kulicke came out with a frame made of Lucite, or acrylic, for the museum’s photography collection.
The invention of the metal section frame, which can be assembled and dissembled easily and quickly, is often attributed solely to Kulicke, but it was originally patented by Donald P. Herbert. Herbert worked for Kulicke Frames Inc., and soon after he came to Kulicke with the concept, the company began manufacturing the frames—and they were a hit.
Through a series of patent and company sales, the sectional metal picture frames popularized by Kulicke Frames Inc. are now manufactured by respected framing company Nielsen Bainbridge.
Though metal picture frames have become the go-to for their ease of use, affordability and light weight, wood picture frames are still prized for their tradition and long, storied history.