American Picture Frames: Choices by Artists and Collectors


According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website, “Carrie Rebora Barratt is Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Last night, however, she was the speaker at the latest edition of the museum’s Collectors’ Roundtable series: American Picture Frames: Choices by Artists and Collectors. She spent a good portion of her time discussing the renovations they have just completed or are starting at the Met, but she did go into some detail about choices that have been made regarding the frame of a very high profile Met painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The painting was acquired by the Met in 1897. A picture from 1910 shows the painting in a great old frame, but in pictures from 1917, that frame is already gone. That said, the curators weren’t satisfied with just their own archival photos and they decided to do some more research.

Further archival research was done to determine the sort of frame that the artist would have preferred to see on the work. The Met turned up pictures from the New York Historical Society that showed the painting the same year it was painted (just after the Civil War) and the wild Federal Revival frame the artist had commissioned for it in a fit of mid-19th century nostalgia. They have commissioned a reproduction of that frame to show in their new galleries starting in 2011. Keep your eyes peeled for this because it’s truly something else—gilded with a huge carved rampant eagle on the top. Here’s a brief story about it from the New York Times that doesn’t have nearly enough pictures.

Though Barratt touched briefly on the craftsmanship required to create such a frame and professed to appreciate frames as works of art in themselves, it seemed clear that at heart, she truly is a paintings person and not so much a craft person. After all, her focus was what the artist would have wanted to see on their picture and not what the framer would have considered most appropriate. And she was fairly dismissive of collectors who change frames to suit their interior design.

This was underscored in a conversation I had with an American Art Museum docent during the reception after the lecture. Apparently getting docents for the American Art portion of the museum is much easier than getting docents for the Renwick. I had been under the perhaps mistaken impression that craft had gained more respect in museum-world than it appears that it has, at least among scholars and docents.

The final lecture of the spring series takes place Tuesday, May 19th when Dr. Walter O. Evans, major collector of African American art will discuss Collecting Outside the Canon.

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