Weathered by Time: A Mystery of the Frame Collection

Through and

In addition to the frames on display in our galleries, the museum has hundreds of frames in reserve. We usually take a regular inventory of these frames, trying to identify as many specificities as possible: age, materials, country of origin, proportions, relationships with the works in our collection, etc. We also assess any problem or damage to the frames, including changes to its original shape. Our review is primarily visual, a quick assessment made for our inventory. When time permits, we’ll spend more time digging into the story, composition, and style.

Here is a framework which is a bit of a mystery to us. He arrived at the museum with our magnificent self-portrait of Van Gogh, acquired in 1954.

It’s not too hard to assume that someone decided to put a nice ornate frame on the self-portrait as Van Gogh’s value and collection began to rise and museums began to acquire his works.

While the self-portrait looked great in this setting, it had nothing to do with Van Gogh’s aesthetic. The frame was not even going well. If you look at the back, this frame has been enlarged, a bit roughly, to fit the self-portrait. We replaced the frame about 20 years ago with a period frame in a molding style that Van Gogh himself loved. Best of all, the replacement frame still had its original finish and was a nice paint color.


We think the setting in which the self-portrait arrived was taken at the end of the Renaissance, but where it was taken is another question. Unfortunately, with early images like this, there is often no documentation.

The setting is a bit odd and seems to be straddling two countries, somewhere between Italy and France, which would have made sense at the time, as there were a lot of small kingdoms, and the artisans may have -being traveled to work the same way artists do.

The frame is made up of three different components, which is typical of Italian frames made at that time. The central element, the base of the frame, is called a cassetta (small box, in Italian), a kind of rectangular box held together by glue and clamping nails, which are soft nails driven into wood and then folded to hold the pieces together. Cassettes are generally made with a softer, cheaper wood, such as poplar, although this is oak.

1. Damage caused by the beetle *

2. Cinch nail

3. Two sides of the cassette

4. Exterior leaf molding

* Powder beetle damage is common in old wooden frames and furniture. They dig in the wood to lay eggs, then the hatched pupae eat to get out.

Attached to the front of the cassette is a large torus, or round-shaped molding, of intricately carved walnut. And on the outer edge of the cassette, a smaller leaf-shaped molding has been added. These moldings are individual pieces that have been carved, mitered, and attached to the cassette, creating the four sides of the frame, what we call the legs.

1. Toroid molding

2. Sheet molding

3. One of the four legs

This type of construction was typical of Italian framers. In contrast, the French typically sculpted each entire leg, so the entire frame would be created with just four pieces instead of 12. One of the advantages of Italian cassette construction is that the overlapping pieces hold the frame longer. stable and solid.

This is where part of the mystery arises. Although the construction is Italian, the style is reminiscent of the early French frames Louis XIII (before they took their standardized form). The scroll is deep, centered, and beautifully sculpted. The level of detail is incredible. There are flowers and tufts of berries that look like blueberries. And if you look inside the scrolls, there’s a sculpted backdrop. Instead of just a flat surface, they included all of these lines, so it actually looks like a garland.

A closer look at the parchment and its amazing details


The finish adds to the riddle. The frames of the time were often painted or gilded, so they were carved with cheaper wood. This ornate face frame was carved from walnut, an expensive wood that would have been left bare or perhaps waxed. However, a close examination of the setting reveals what looks like traces of gesso, mostly in the small blueberry tops. Gesso, made from chalk powder, water, and rabbit skin glue, was used as a primer or sealer on bare wood before it was painted or gilded. This raises many questions. Had the whole been gesso at some point and then stripped? If so, why start with the walnut tree? And why weren’t there more traces of gesso hidden in the deep gashes and crevices?

Another thing: if it hadn’t been gilded or painted, why is the wood so light? You would expect the walnut finish to be darker and more oxidized.


For now, it remains a mystery, this strange little hybrid that we both love. As we said, this was only a cursory assessment for the inventory. Over time, we would like to dig deeper and talk to colleagues and try to understand the origin of the frame. Even though it suffers from beetle damage and has been grossly enlarged at the rear, it’s still a beautiful and intriguing setting.

All we need is a cute little mannerist portrait to put on it. So let’s go shopping.

—Christopher Brooks, Conservation Technician, Executives, and Kirk Vuillemot, Associate Conservator for Preparation and Coaching, Conservation and Science

The subjects

  • Preservation
  • Collection
  • Viewpoints

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