Gilbert Stuart portraits were framed in a variety of frame styles: From left: the frame for Thomas Coffin Amory’s portrait featured oak leaf ornamentation (1810) considered appropriate for a masculine subject; Isaac Coffin’s portrait (1810) was framed with an even denser oak leaf ornamentation; Sarah Linzee’s portrait (1807) was reframed several decades later in a Greek Revival style frame; and Mrs. Thomas Amory’s portrait featured a frame with alternating anthemion and wreath ornamentation (1806).
During the eighteenth century in this country, the frames used to enhance the work of serious and aspiring American artists were generally imported from England and Europe and thus displayed traditional European designs. By comparison, paintings by itinerant American limner painters were often given modest frames of plain boards that could be made by American cabinetmakers or carpenters working in a vernacular idiom. The dull, black, painted finish on such frames, applied to a molding shaped by chisels and gouges, answered the needs of sitters who lived in rural areas and who were not tempted by the elaborate European designs seen in urban homes. Providing a simple setting for a painter’s own straightforward approach, the modestly profiled and painted frame stands as one of the first American contributions to the art of picture framing.
The tradition of frame making is best described as a blend of cabinetmaking, sculpture, and painting. Frames showing mastery of all three skills satisfy the demands of a sophisticated collector. Historically, the most valuable frames have been hand-carved and gilded in the traditional European manner with genuine gold leaf, with the wood first prepared with successive coats of gesso and clay mixed with hide glues in the great tradition of the Italian Renaissance. The English swept-corner reflects this great tradition and was typical of urban mid-eighteenth century American portraits of quality. Frames at that time typically cost a little less than half the value of the portrait, depending on the artist and frame maker. They were sometimes imported from London and sometimes carved in America "in the latest style."
William B. Adair received his B.F.A. in Studio Art from the University of Maryland in 1972. For the next 10 years he worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery as a museum conservator specializing in the treatment of picture frames. In 1982 he formed his own company, Gold Leaf Studios, for the making of frames and the conservation of gilded antiques. Over the years his clients have included the U.S. Department of State and the National Park Service. He is the founder of the International Institute for Frame Study, a non-profit archive dedicated to collecting and disseminating information on the history of frames.
He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.