What a dif­fer­ence a new frame can make for art

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY PAGE LEGGETT Arts cor­re­spon­dent

When Jonathan Stuhlman ar­rived at the Mint Mu­seum in 2006, one of his first or­ders of busi­ness was to as­sess all 175 paint­ings in the Amer­i­can col­lec­tion. He was look­ing specif­i­cally at one thing – some­thing you might as­sume would be of lit­tle con­se­quence to a cu­ra­tor: the frame each paint­ing was in.

Stuhlman, the Mint’s se­nior cu­ra­tor of Amer­i­can, mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art, needed to learn which frames weren’t per­form­ing well. A frame must en­hance the paint­ing it sur­rounds but never out­shine it. (Ev­ery good old sec­ond ba­nana – Ed McMa­hon, Paul Shaf­fer, Vi­vian Vance – knows his or her ev­ery move­ment or ut­ter­ance must be in ser­vice to Johnny Car­son, David Let­ter­man and Lu­cille Ball.)

When a work of art changes hands over time, it may be re­framed by an auc­tion house or new owner. And a newer frame doesn’t mean a bet­ter frame.

In look­ing at each work of art, Stuhlman said, he con­sid­ered:

Is the paint­ing in its orig­i­nal frame? (That’s the best-case sce­nario.)

Is the art not in its orig­i­nal frame – but in an­other frame from the same time pe­riod that suits it? (That’s ac­cept­able.)

Is the paint­ing in a re­pro­duc­tion frame that’s ap­pro­pri­ate? (Not ideal, but not an emer­gency.)

Is the art­work in a new frame that’s not suit- ed to it? (Alert Medic!)

He pri­or­i­tized 29 paint­ings in the fourth and least de­sir­able cat­e­gory. Then, he waited. Buy­ing pe­riod frames – which Stuhlman prefers to cus­tom-made re­pro­duc­tions – can cost big bucks. The project time­frame, he knew, would be mea­sured in years and not months.

Be­tween 2011 and 2015, four paint­ings (by Robert Henri, Thomas Cole, Max Kuehne and Wil­liam Mer­ritt Chase) from the Amer­i­can col­lec­tion got new frames.

Stuhlman is coy about the cost but said the au­then­ti­cated, pe­riod frames the Mint in­vests in are usu­ally in the $2,000 to $12,000 range. And that’s a bar­gain. “Some pe­riod frames can cost up to six fig­ures,” he said.

This sum­mer marked the lat­est phase in the on­go­ing re­fram­ing project. Seven more paint­ings were matched with new frames, thanks to fi­nan­cial help from long­time Mint sup­port­ers Betsy and Al­fred Brand.


A frame is more than an ac­ces­sory. The right one can make the paint­ing ap­pear to pop right off the wall; the wrong one can force it to fade into the back­ground.

Stuhlman went to premier fine art fram­ing com­pany Gill & Lagodich in New York to se­lect pe­riod frames for the paint­ings that had been suf­fer­ing, aes­thet­i­cally, as a re­sult of a bad matchup.

In this role, Stuhlman is sort of a hu­man ver­sion of match.com for frames and paint­ings. There’s schol­ar­ship be­hind what he does – but there’s a lit­tle mys- tery and magic, too.

While Stuhlman is the sole de­ci­sion maker, he gets a lit­tle guid­ance from the Great Be­yond. Notes from long-dead artists re­veal what frames they chose for their work. Stuhlman tries to choose what the artists them­selves may have cho­sen. And artists can be per­snick­ety about how their work is pre­sented. The Im­pres­sion­ists, for in­stance, pre­ferred frames that made their work look, Stuhlman said, “fancy and im­por­tant.”

Ge­orge Ben­jamin Luks liked Dutch-style, ebonized frames, and that’s ex­actly what Stuhlman gave his 18- x 22-inch “Car­ni­val Scene.” The pre­vi­ous or­nate, gilded frame was a spot­light stealer. The darker frame es­tab­lishes the right mood for the brood­ing work, says Stuhlman.

Some artists built their own frames. Theodoros Sta­mos (Amer­i­can, 192296) was both artist and frame maker. So was Max Kuehne (1880-1968). His “East River Har­bor” (1913) is worth seek­ing out – not just for the sake of the paint­ing, but for the white gold leaf frame, with sgraf­fito dec­o­ra­tion, that he made. (Sgraf­fito is the tech­nique in which the artist scratches through a top layer of paint to re­veal the base coat, of a dif­fer­ent color, un­der­neath.) The pre­vi­ous frame, a mod­ern re­pro­duc­tion of an or­nate gold French Louis XIV-style frame, threat­ened to over­shadow the work it was meant to sup­port.

A frame can be a work of art it­self. Par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the in­ter­na­tional Arts and Crafts move­ment (1880–1930), frame mak­ers signed their frames just as an artist signs a can­vas.

There’s more that goes into fram­ing de­ci­sions than you might ex­pect. Stuhlman said the ma­chine-pro­duced strip frame he found on Wil­liam Mer­ritt Chase’s “Beach at Shin­necock” (1891) was “killing the paint­ing.” (Think of An­gelina Jolie’s award-win­ning per­for­mance in “Girl, In­ter­rupted.” Au­di­ences hardly no­ticed the sup­posed star, Wi­nona Ry­der, was in the pic­ture.)

Stuhlman wanted the 6x 8-inch seascape “to sing.” When he found a gilded oak pe­riod frame, he knew he’d struck, well, gold.

“You can see the oak grain through the gold,” he said. “It mim­ics the ocean waves in the paint­ing. And the gold frame re­flects light back onto the paint­ing.”

The right frame, like a good sup­port­ing ac­tor, brings out the best in the lead.

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.


The Mint up­town isn’t the only mu­seum cel­e­brat­ing the oft-over­looked frame. Through Feb. 17, 2019, the Bechtler Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art’s sec­ond-floor gallery holds an ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to the art of fram­ing. “Fram­ing It!” demon­strates how the wrong frame can de­grade a mas­ter­piece while a care­fully cho­sen one can be­stow pres­tige on an av­er­age paint­ing.” www.bechtler.org

When you visit the Mint, how will you know which paint­ings are in Stuhlman-ap­proved frames? Look at the wall la­bels. In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing con­text about the work, the text will tell you about the frame.



BE­FORE: Ge­orge Ben­jamin Luks’ “Car­ni­val Scene” had an or­nate, gilded frame that didn’t work, says cu­ra­tor Jon Stuhlman.


AF­TER: The Luks work now re­sides in the kind of Dutch-style, ebonized frame the painter him­self pre­ferred.

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