Some of the most beautiful paintings in the world pale in comparison to the frame in which they are held. Carved, gilded, inlaid and at times emblazoned with the name of the artist, these holders of precious works deserve their own spotlight and the Musée du Louvre is doing just that.
In 1939 as the march of war neared Paris, Musée du Louvre curator of paintings Germain Bazin led the efforts to empty the Louvre before the vast collection could be taken by the art-loving Hitler. While many of the Louvre employees had been enlisted and sent to the front lines, it was a large group of volunteers that helped empty the frames of their precious works. 6000 crates of paintings, statues and treasures were packed and sent in trucks to abbeys and chateaux in the countryside surrounding Paris far from the view of potential looters. What remained in the Louvre was thousands of empty frames, hanging on the walls and leaning upon each other in the Grand Galerie. While the bare walls remained, Christiane Aulanier, assistant curator under Bazin began an inventory of the frames that were left behind. Aulanier’s detailed notes would aid in returning all the paintings to their rightful home when they returned to the Louvre in 1945.
The Musée du Louvre has more than 38,000 pieces on display at any given time and that is only fraction of their collection. In the archives among thousands of pieces of art is also a vast inventory of carved gilded frames that date back to the 16th century. Since 2018, for the first time a collection of these frames have been brought together in three rooms of the Sully wing on view to be admired in all their gilded glory.
Examples of frames, or cadres en français, cover all corners of Europe. Dutch frames dating to 1650 with its smooth ebony molding and just a hint of sheen that catches the light. Spanish frames with intricate mother of pearl inlaid with touches of red stained wood. German frames with lightly carved waves that match the Peter Gysels small painting Pêcheurs près d’une chaumière so perfectly you would think they meant to be together. Italian frames complete with carved heads of the recipient of the painting only adds to the prestige of the painting for who it was intended.
A frame can enhance a painting with its carved details and even reflect the theme far past the edges of the canvas. One such frame in the exhibit does just that. British artist John Martin painted Le Pandemonium in 1841 based on English poet John Milton’s Lost Paradise. It depicts the palace of demons, Pandemonium, with Satan himself presiding over and calling up the evil doers from the churning molten fire. Artist John Martin designed the frame to continue the theme of the painting, complete with gilt high relief demons and serpents crawling from the corners.
By far my favorite frames, bien sûr, are the French ones spanning from Louis XIII to Louis XVI. The Louis XIII style is reflected in a chic carved gold frame that is subdued in its gold glory. The over-the-top opulence of the Sun King did not always reflect that in the frames of that period. Elegant and somewhat understated, these frames are gilded with curved flourishes and egg and dart details fit for a king. Under Louis XV the style of the frames began to become more ornate with carved ornamental details including vines, fleur de lis, crests and elegant swirls. Louis XVI frames go from ornate frames that far outshine the art they protect to lovely delicate oval frames with flowers and a ribbon tied into a perfect bow at the top– as all the rage in the 1760s, no doubt the influence of Marie Antoinette.
The Musée du Louvre is working on a guide featuring the frames of the Louvre to be released later this year. The exhibit is slated to be on display through at least the end of 2019 and can be found in rooms 904 to 906 of the Sully wing. It should not be overlooked. Many people walk right past, but do make sure to stop and take a few moments reflecting on what is a work of art in its own right. Great thought is put into matching a frame to a painting and these details should be noticed, but maybe when you do not even notice the flawless grace of the two entwined, is when the real magic happens.
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