Over the Edge with Martin Kotler

This Stanford White tabernacle-style frame was designed specifically for Abbott Thayer's Angel.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but doesn't the frame have an equally interesting story to tell? Martin Kotler, frames conservator at American Art, led an enthusiastic group through Frames 101 the other day in the Renwick Gallery's Grand Salon. Looking at art in museums, we sometimes (or at least I do) overlook the frame. Now, after Kotler's talk, I may be wondering, "What was the painting inside that elaborate Stanford White frame?"

Stanford White seems to take pride of place in the pantheon of American frame designers. He was known chiefly as a partner in the fabled late nineteenth-century architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, known for its Beaux-Arts architecture. White also designed picture frames, examples of which are at the Renwick and American Art. Based on Renaissance motifs and classical ornamentation such as Greek wave design, chevrons, twisted rope, and ribbons, they seem to have been a perfect match for the Gilded Age. Interestingly, at the time of White's murder in 1906 (a scandal for another blog post!), he owed $825,000—a huge sum, then or now. "Most likely some of that money was owed his framers," Kotler told us, adding that although White designed the frames, others were hired to execute the design.

Kotler spoke about another framer, a contemporary of White, Gregory Kirchner, in near-reverential tones. He compared his few, but exquisite works to the paintings of Vermeer. "We have six. There are nine known, all hand carved, and all mind blowers." Kirchner's Renaissance Revival frames can be found on Albert Pinkham Ryder's Jonah and Pastoral Study at American Art.

Looking around the Renwick's Grand Salon, we can see that when artists moved into the twentieth century, the frames reflected the artwork as well as the times. The painter Romaine Brooks, for example, wanted a "modernist frame" for Ida Rubinstein and found it in a steely-looking metal leaf over oak. Further into the century (and out of the Renwick's Grand Salon, I'm afraid), with the advent of abstract expressionism, the artists often left their works unframed or framed simply with lattice.

To better understand the vast resources of American Art, Kotler is beginning the museum's first survey of frames in its collection. It should prove to reveal an important part of the story of painting in this country.