At Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Some Picture Frames Tell Their Own Stories

Jul 14, 2017

Visitors to art galleries usually aren't there to look at picture frames. But frames at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art recently got some unusual attention, and one independent art specialist says they should get even more.

Steve Waterman, the Nelson’s director of design and experience, says the museum recently encountered a “pickle" involving frames. Longtime trustee Henry Bloch had donated his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. However, to keep his home looking the same, Bloch wanted copies mounted in the original frames. Modern cameras made reproducing decent copies of the paintings relatively easy.

The Nelson-Atkin's Steve Waterman holds a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s 'Restaurant Rispal at Asnières' in a new frame next to the original painting mounted in the Bloch Galleries that’s still in its old one.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

“The frames however, turned out to be much more difficult,” says Waterman.

It wasn’t feasible to exactly match 30 frames that were more than a century old. So the Nelson-Atkins settled for similar, new ones instead.

“You can see the difference here is incredible,” Waterman says as he holds a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s "Restaurant Rispal at Asnières" in a new frame next to the original painting still in its old one. “The one that (Bloch) had in house is just spectacular and the one that we’ve put on the reproduction has a sort of fancy-ish feel to it but it’s a fairly common frame.”

Impressionist painters used the same standard-sized canvases artists use today so, after a Kansas City frame shop made final adjustments, the modern frames were often good fits.

As they explore the Bloch Galleries, few visitors would suspect that many of these original works were so recently re-framed. Even the museum guards who watch over the paintings are surprised. 

“They look wonderful to me," says Michael Chapman. "I never figured that they would be anything but the original frames.”

Independent Italian Renaissance art specialist Stratton Green hopes to publish a guide to some of the frames on old master paintings in the Nelson-Atkins.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

Generally, museum visitors aren’t used to giving frames much thought. Stratton Green, an independent Italian Renaissance art specialist, says until fairly recently, curators didn’t focus much on frames, either.

“They would just chuck them,” he says. “Then all of a sudden curators said, ‘Oh! Maybe they’re valuable and we shouldn’t be doing this!’ So there’s been a renaissance.”

In the late 1980s, he says, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam staged the first major exhibition devoted entirely to frames.

“They did a detailed study of more than 90 frames, identifying 20 styles in minute detail,” says Green.

Frame exhibitions followed at the National Gallery in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There’s a lot to cover, says the Italian Renaissance art specialist.

“They’re decorative arts, they’re considered furniture so there’s furniture terminology, things like cavetto and cove. Then there’s types of frames like the Cassetta frame, the Louis XIII frame, Louis XIV frame. Then there’s the ornament.”

Green has spent more than a year researching the frames on the old master paintings at the Nelson-Atkins. He hopes to one-day publish a guidebook highlighting important frames in the collection. The National Gallery in London already has such a guide, written by its former director Nicholas Penny, called Frames.

“When a visitor comes to the Nelson they need to think of how does the frame look at the picture,” he says.

A Nelson spokesperson says a guide to frames isn’t a priority, because so few of the frames are original to the works of art, or reflect the taste of the artists. The museum does note on wall labels when a frame is original to the painting.

Knowing more about frames in general can add what feels like valuable context to the experience of viewing the art. In the European galleries, Green points out French artist Nicolas Poussin's "The Triumph of Bacchus," a large, early 17th century painting in an elaborate gold frame.

“It’s what’s called a late Louis XIV frame and it’s just rampant,” he says. “It’s got these cartouches on either end. It’s got what’s called strap work, it’s just very busy. It really clashes in some sense with the picture.”

Poussin made the painting for a cardinal’s castle. It was initially in a plain frame, but when the cardinal died the painting was sold and reframed late in the 17th century by a Parisian art collector.

“The one thing about frames: it was kind of a splash of who you are were as a person, that you were rich," Green explains. "You could afford this stuff and people would come in and they would say, ‘Wow!’”

Green says the frames on most of the pre-20th century works in the Nelson-Atkins reveal much about the marketing techniques of art dealers and the tastes of their buyers.

Things started to change in the mid-19th century when artists, including Degas and Monet, began to choose their own frames. American artist James McNeill Whistler even designed, painted and signed them.

The rare walnut frame on this 16th century religious portrait by Joos van Cleve is one of Stratton Green's favorites in the Nelson-Atkins.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

One of Green’s favorite frames in the Nelson-Atkins is among a handful of older frames that are original to their paintings. It wasn’t designed to market the artwork or stroke the ego of its owner. 

“It was by Joos van Cleve, that’s the artist, it is original to the picture, it’s the Madonna and Child with Carnation, it’s walnut,” Green says as he stands in the museum’s medieval cloister opposite this religious portrait.

He says the brown frame with its beautifully carved little flowers is rare, and curves to redirect the viewer's gaze back to the early 16th century Flemish painting.

“It’s a contrast with the bright blue of the Madonna’s gown. It pops! This is an example of a frame meant for the picture!”

The frame is like a window encouraging your eyes to rest on the artwork’s striking colors and gentle gestures.

Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.

Correction: The first name of artist James McNeill Whistler was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.