The Art of the Frame | ART

Eli Wil­ner has been in pic­ture for four decades

Upscale Living Magazine - - Contents - | By Nancy A. Ruh­ling

“When the right frame is united with a paint­ing, it’s an ‘aha’ mo­ment that goes beyond words,” says Mas­ter Framer Eli Wil­ner. “It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Dur­ing the 40 years that Wil­ner’s epony­mous New York City gallery has been in busi­ness, he has had the priv­i­lege of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing thou­sands of such “aha” mo­ments.

In ad­di­tion to fram­ing the world’s master­works for prime pri­vate clients, Wil­ner has pro­vided an­tique frames or pro­duced repli­cas for The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion and the White House as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

It was his team that recre­ated the mam­moth ea­gle-crowned gilded frame for Emanuel Got­tlieb Leutze’s 1851 paint­ing Wash­ing­ton Cross­ing the Delaware, the star of the Met’s Amer­i­can Wing. And it was his gallery that pro­cured the an­tique frame for the por­trait of Sheik Zayed for his name­sake mu­seum in Dubai and two oth­ers for the new Lou­vre Abu Dhabi.

Wil­ner’s gallery, which sells an­tiques for $6,500 to over $1 mil­lion and hand-carved repli­cas for $2,500 to over $2 mil­lion, is the Rolls-Royce of the fram­ing field.

“I’ve al­ways been more ex­pen­sive than any other framer,” he says. “There are rea­sons for this – I’m ob­sessed with per­fec­tion, I of­fer a leg­endary level of ser­vice, and I’m dis­crete – I cre­ate pseu­do­nyms for my clients to pro­tect their con­fi­den­tial­ity, even, at times, from my own staff.”

Wil­ner’s frames are guar­an­teed against ac­ci­dents and wear and tear for life, and if they are not com­pleted on time – a sce­nario that has never hap­pened – clients are not charged.

Wil­ner goes to great lengths (and heights) to se­lect the proper frame for each art­work. Draw­ing from his col­lec­tion of 4,000 an­tique Amer­i­can and Eu­ro­pean frames dat­ing from the 15th to the 20th cen­turies as well as a global data­base col­lected over four decades, Wil­ner em­ploys a so­phis­ti­cated for­mula -- time pe­riod, artist’s in­tent and the aes­thet­ics of scale, form and color – to cre­ate the most ap­pro­pri­ate pair­ing.

“Each art­work, re­gard­less of when it was com­pleted, should ap­pear as if the artist just re­turned from the framer,” he says.

Re­cently, a pri­vate client com­mis­sioned Eli Wil­ner & Co. to cre­ate a replica frame for a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

“The client recre­ated the paint­ing as it was right when it came out of da Vinci’s stu­dio,” Wil­ner says. “It didn’t show its his­tory -- there was no wear and tear or faded pig­ments. In a mu­seum in Spain, we found a frame that da Vinci had used on one of his paint­ings and du­pli­cated it mi­nus its dis­col­oration. The re­sult when the new paint­ing and the new frame came to­gether was amaz­ing.”

In an­other case, Wil­ner framed a $20-mil­lion, 6-foot-long 19th-cen­tury stil­l­life with an an­tique from his col­lec­tion.

“The frame was iden­ti­cal to one the artist used in his life­time,” Wil­ner says. “I’ve never seen an­other one that sur­vived.” Wil­ner’s largest and most cel­e­brated fram­ing project, the Met’s Wash­ing­ton Cross­ing the Delaware, took more than two years to com­plete.

The paint­ing’s orig­i­nal frame had been lost to time, and all Wil­ner and his team had to go on was an 1864 black-and-white pho­to­graph taken by Mathew Brady.

“It was dif­fi­cult to dis­cern all the de­tails,” Wil­ner says, “so there was a lot of in­tel­lec­tual guess­ing and re­search that we

had to do. It took at least 10 times be­fore we were able to sat­isfy the cu­ra­tors and all agree that it was right.”

Wil­ner also does a lot of fram­ing projects for small mu­se­ums and his­tor­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions.

“It’s al­ways been my mis­sion to help them,” he says. “I re­duce the cost dras­ti­cally – that’s my char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tion to the art world.”

Aes­thet­ics aside, frames in­evitably en­hance the value of the art­work they bor­der.

“An ex­cel­lent frame will add 5 to 10 per­cent to the price,” Wil­ner says, adding that the world’s most ex­pen­sive an­tique frame, a 17th-cen­tury Rus­sian ex­am­ple hand-carved in am­ber, sold at auc­tion for nearly $1 mil­lion 20 years ago. “On master­works, this could mean mil­lions. The stakes are high – that’s why auc­tion houses ask me to pro­vide frames.”

In 1978, when Eli Wil­ner & Co. opened on the Up­per East Side, the art world didn’t rec­og­nize the art of an­tique frames. In fact, in a quest to be more con­tem­po­rary, ma­jor mu­se­ums rou­tinely dis­carded pe­riod frames, some of which were de­signed by the likes of iconic artists like James Ab­bott McNeill Whistler and Charles Pen­der­gast. To­day, the best ex­am­ples of these “name” frames sell for 10s, even hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars.

Wil­ner res­cued them from the trash bins of Man­hat­tan’s Mu­seum Mile – and ob­scu­rity. He started hang­ing them on the walls empty, one in­side the other, like ob­jets d’art, or turn­ing them into mir­rors and trays. In 1990, he spon­sored the Met’s first-ever ex­hi­bi­tion of empty frames.

Wil­ner re­mains pas­sion­ate about his work.

“I have a mas­ter’s de­gree in fine arts and al­ways thought that I would be a painter,” he says. “But fram­ing be­came my art, and it has made me a col­lab­o­ra­tor with great works of art.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, see Eli­

Mas­ter Framer Eli Wil­ner es­tab­lished his epony­mous gallery on New York City’s Up­per East Side in 1978.

Au­guste Renoir’s Land­scape at Cagnes, which is in the col­lec­tion of the Allen Me­mo­rial Mu­seum at Ober­lin Col­lege, was framed by Eli Wil­ner & Co.

Ael­bert Cuyp’s 17th-cen­tury The Valkhof at Ni­jmegen, in the col­lec­tion of the In­di­anapo­lis Mu­seum of Art at New­fields, was framed by Eli Wil­ner & Co.

Eli Wil­ner & Co. cre­ated a replica frame for Emanuel Got­tlieb Leutze’s 1851 paint­ing Wash­ing­ton Cross­ing the Delaware, which dom­i­nates the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art’s Amer­i­can Wing.

Eli Wil­ner & Co. made a carved and gilded replica of the artist-de­signed frame for Childe Has­sam’s Av­enue in the Rain that is in the col­lec­tion of the White House.

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