Ask-a-Librarian: Framing the Question

Ask-a-Librarian: Framing the Question

Prendergast frame on a Renoir painting

Judy Donovan referred this question to Barbara Buckley, our senior director of conservation.

Q: I am interested in finding out about the gilded frames in the collection. I noticed them as I was walking around and couldn’t help thinking that the frame changes the appearance of the painting. I noticed that a lot of them appear “aged” compared to others I have seen on paintings from a similar time period. Is the original gilding showing its age, or have they been regilded?


A: Several factors may be at play here. Gold doesn’t tarnish or corrode, so the gold itself won’t “show its age” with color change. That said, the frames can get dirty, the gilding can wear, and gold leaf can range in tone, even from new.

1.)   Surface

The gilded surface may become mottled and darker if dirt accumulates or if the gold leaf is abraded, so some frames may have looked brighter and more uniform when new. If a gilded frame starts looking darker, it may be a sign that it needs cleaning. It may also need restoration or conservation work if there’s wear or damage to the gold leaf, the underlying gesso, and/or the bole layer.

2.)   Color

Gold leaf comes in many tones—the variation in color comes from the composition of the gold leaf. The color can also be adjusted with a toning layer. The luster and depth of the gold differ with water- versus oil-gilding, and whether it is burnished or unburnished. It can also be influenced by the color of the bole layer, the thin clay layer that is applied over the gesso to provide a cushion for the gold leaf (French frames typically use a red bole layer). Frames also normally have a toning layer over the gilding. In the archives there is correspondence between frame-maker/artist (and brother of Maurice Prendergast) Charles Prendergast and Dr. Barnes, for example, that discusses the toning layer on frames that Prendergast had made for Barnes. 

So frames from the same time period don’t all start out the same color. They may have different types of gold leaf, different toning, or different colored bole layers.

Prendergast painting

Dr. Barnes agreed with your point that a frame has a big impact on the painting it houses—he was picky about the tone of the frames. In April 1915, Barnes requested that Charles Prendergast “send a bottle of color…with instructions how to apply it” so he could “fix” the toning on the frames Prendergast had recently made for him. Prendergast was not keen on sending the toning material to Barnes for fear that the frames could be easily spoiled. The correspondence went on through the summer and early fall, with Barnes repeatedly prompting Prendergast to visit and apply the toning color. Although the Prendergast frames in the collection do have a toning layer, it’s not clear whether Prendergast ever applied a new or second toning layer “of a slightly darker hue,” as Barnes requested.

(Click here to view the letters)

Many of the frames in the collection were restored during Albert Barnes’s lifetime, some even prior to their acquisition for the Foundation; many have also been restored since Barnes’s death. In more recent years, conservators who specialize in the treatment of frames have worked on them. The goal of our current conservation practice is to preserve original material, so it’s rare nowadays for a frame to be completely regilded. If there is damage to the gilding on a frame, the usual strategy is to either “ingild” or inpaint, limiting the addition of new gold or paint to the specific area of loss. 

Images: Pierre-Auguste RenoirLuncheon (Le Déjeuner)1875
Maurice Brazil Prendergast. Landscape with Figures, c. 1910–1912


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