Collectible frames have a decorative history | Information about antiquities and teaching history

Until recently, museums and art galleries paid little attention to the design and history of the frames surrounding their art or wall mirrors. Neither art dealers nor collectors. Today, museums are realizing the importance of framing works in designs reflecting, or from, their periods.

Frames are also recognized as an important art form. Their many designs, styles and materials are clues to their age and history. Today, most museums seek to present art collections in settings that are faithful to the time when the works were originally created. One of the main styles is Baroque, identified with carved shells and leaves and dating from the 17th century. Another frame style is rococo, with its swirling patterns. There is also art nouveau, art deco and modern vintage.

A ‘tramp’ frame.

Historically, the use of the frame as we know it only began around the 12th and 13th centuries. However, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians used “framing borders” in paintings, as well as on walls and pottery, to create sections of scenes.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, most European frames were commissioned by churches and were heavy altarpieces inspired by religious architecture.

The first carved wooden frames were made for small paintings in 12th and 13th century Europe. They were made from a single piece of wood. It has been cut away, leaving a raised frame border like a tabletop. It was then covered with gesso and gilded.

During the Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, wealthy nobles commissioned artists, who designed ornate frames to display their work.

Frames rose to prominence during the reign of Louis XIII in France. Baroque has become the style.


An art deco frame made with different wood species.

Early American frames are known as the American Empire style. They are very simple.

From the 1800s, picture frames as decor became simpler. The average American could afford artwork and decorative hanging mirrors. Frames were mass-produced with straight lines.

The industrial revolution influenced the creation of the picture frame. Prior to 1860, frames were generally imported from Europe. By the end of the 19th century, there were working frame shops in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Frames were cheaply made with pre-finished, pre-cut parts. There were also tramp art frames made by itinerant craftsmen.

As the 20th century approached, artists began creating frames that were in fashionable designs of the time, such as art nouveau and arts and crafts. During the 1920s and 1930s, the art deco style with colorful mirrored frames was in demand.

HINTS: Needless to say, expensive reproductions are passed down. Keep in mind that old wood has a musty smell. There should be signs of deformation.

Obtain the letter of authenticity from the seller before spending too much.

Anne Gilbert is a private consultant who appraises antiques for a fee. She can be reached at 1811 Renaissance Commons Blvd., Unit 2310, Boynton Beach, FL 33426.