A frame is essentially constructed and therefore fragile: such would be the essence or truth of the frame.

(Jacques Derrida)

When we are lucky enough to take a painting or a photograph home, before we even select the best place for it on one of our walls, we probably consider adding a frame to complement the artwork, but also to make it stand out. Defining, enclosing, directing the gaze—the role and function of the frame is essential in the creation of the visual space as well as in the control of the viewer’s experience.

Since the earliest paintings, like the ones discovered at Pompeii, the need to limit the images is evident: the frescos are framed by the walls of the room and by a painted border. Byzantine mosaics are framed by friezes which follow the architectural lines; portraits are surrounded by ornate frames that confirm the sitter’s wealth and status.

Framing is achieved in two layers. First, the painter creates a visual frame within the composition to ensure the viewer focuses on the important element of the painting. Secondly, a frame is installed around the canvas to separate the artwork from its environment or to help integrate it. The two layers are not inevitable: they could melt into one, or the second stage could be abandoned, and the artist (painter) and the craftsman (framer) could work together or apart.

Setting the stage

An essential element of composition, framing is the artist’s way of guiding the viewer into and around the painting. Using colour, light, objects, characters, the painter builds the desired structure and draws the viewer into and around the painting.

In outdoor scenes, nature often provides a frame: a tree or a brunch, the seashore, a mountain or the curl of a wave. En plein air painters like Cezanne, Sisley, Monet, and other impressionists made full use of elements found in nature to create a frame and guide the gaze. In one of Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, the iconic image of the mountain which he painted 36 times, the trunk and the horizontal branch of a pine in the foreground direct the viewer towards the undulating contour of the mountain in the distance.

Painters use colour and light to provide a frame within the composition. Jaques-Louis David surrounded the naked body of Patroclus with two shades of curving darkness; a red cloth at the base of the painting continues to guide in a circular movement, framing the lighted back and leg of the nude.

The symbolic value of doors and windows, dividing the world into ‘in’ and ‘out’, inviting or prohibiting entrance, has been used by painters to create that demarcation in their artworks. Windows, in particular, provide a ready-made frame when the painter wants to focus on a section of the composition. Despite the title, it is the urban scene below—not the young man whose back we see in the foreground—towards which the viewer is directed in Gustave Caillebotte’s Young Man at His Window. From the comfort of an elegant high-level apartment we, like the young man, observe a Haussemanian street in a bourgeois neighbourhood of Paris, the real subject of this painting.

In Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window, the visual pull of the blue and green beyond the window is so strong, the observer takes some time to find the black cat and the woman resting on the chair, in the orange and pink interior.

As well as windows and doors, architectural structures like loggias, gates, porches, and arches, real or fictional, provided a convenient tool for framing and were used by many painters from the Renaissance to the 21st century. In a series of twelve paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, Claude Monet depicted the steamy, smoky interior of a busy train station. The pointed roof of the station appears like an arch, a triumphant entry (or departure?) of the steam locomotive. It can be read as a metaphor for the triumph of modernism and industrialisation that marked a turning point in the history of Europe.

The rise and fall of the frame

Although working side by side, often in the same workshop, the status of the painter became distinguished from that of the craftsman, especially during and after the Renaissance. The frame was the job of the cabinet maker, the sculptor, or the architect, but many painters continued to be involved in the framing process (Dürer, Van Gogh and Delauny among others). Some artists were so uncertain of leaving such important task to another craftsman, they went as far as painting the frame onto the canvas. In A Miracle of Saint Zenobius Domenico Veneziano has painted a pink inner frame, the top and one side darker to suggest its depth and the direction of the light. The viewer is observing the narrative through a window that he has dared open.

From the end of the 15th century, not content with being mere accessories, picture frames took on full aesthetic and semantic value, contributing to the visual message. The frames of Rococo family portraits convey luxury, power, order, and heritage values. Ornate with vegetation, animated figures, architectural elements, embellished with marble or glitter, the heavy frames risked of becoming too visible.

Not surprisingly, modern painters reversed the trend by changing the role of the frame and including it into the subject. The title, the inscription, the image and the frame form a coherent decorative ensemble in Klimt’s Nuda Veritas. Howard Hodgkin paints onto the frame, while others, like abstract artists Malevich, Mondrian and Frank Stella refuse frames altogether.

Fluid boundaries

Would the painting be diminished by the absence of a frame? The role of the frame may be to create a barrier between a painting and its environment, but it often acts as a gateway into the artwork, an invitation to the spectator to join the action in the picture.

And, on occasion, the characters in the painting will step outside the frame to join the viewer. With a little help from trompe l’oeil, the boy in Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso puts one foot on the frame and steps out of the painting into our world, his eyes bright and wide with wonder like a baby’s on his first outing.

It was a painting by Max Ernst that made me consider the role of the frame. In the dreamlike (nightmarish?) setting of Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale, dominated by a blue sky, a small female figure runs waving a knife; another has fallen on the ground. A man on the roof of an orange house without windows or doors carries out a third (is he rescuing or kidnapping the girl?). He is reaching for a large doorknob fastened onto the old-fashioned wooden frame. On the other side of the painting there is a red wooden gate, open over the frame. Compromised, the frame cannot fulfil its function of separating fiction from reality, picture from viewer. It is unclear who opened the gate and why. The children may want to escape, or they may want to remain enclosed, safe. The world outside the painting may be more threatening or safer. Such is the ambiguous role of the picture frame.