Treating the Frames for Object Lessons

Haines carefully cleans grime and dirt from the gilt surface of the nineteenth-century frame. Photo: Jeffrey EvansA painting is a three-dimensional object. We often imagine these works as two-dimensional, perhaps because art history is taught from books and lecture slides. But an important aspect of the museum experience is to witness the painting’s physicality: to notice the paint’s application, and to stand in relation to the object as the painter did while creating it.

Equally important to me is to see how the painting is presented. The painting’s frame is the “setting” that translates a two-dimensional idea into a three-dimensional world. I conserved frames at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for thirty years and recently left the MFA to pursue a private practice. In 2022 Princeton hired me to inspect and treat the frames in Object Lessons in American Art before the exhibition could travel. In my four weeks at Princeton, I worked on fifteen frames, including the surrounds on John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Elkanah Watson (1782), Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Adams, Washington (1875), and Arthur Dove’s Sunrise, Northport Harbor (1929).

William T. Ranney (1813–1857; born Middletown, CT; died West Hoboken, NJ), Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton, 1848. Oil on canvas, 123 x 163 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Edward Wasserman in honor of his children, Jesse A., Renee H., and Edward Wasserman Jr. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteThe frame on Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton (1848) by William T. Ranney offered a challenge. Likely made sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, this frame is gilt with gold leaf over gesso, embellished with cast ornamentation, and topped with a crest depicting an eagle with flags, arrows, and an olive branch. When I inspected the frame, this grand surround was discolored, unstable, and not safe for travel. The gilt surface had suffered water damage, pieces of ornament were missing, and the crowning eagle was broken. The eagle’s wings and the items in its clutches had sustained serious damage. Past attempts at repair were clumsy and had discolored over time.

The eagle and the frame’s decorative borders were created with cast composition ornament. Also known as “compo,” this technique was invented at the end of the eighteenth century and allowed workers to embellish surfaces—such as picture frames—more economically.

Haines paints the restored frame ornamentation to match its surroundings. Photo: Jeffrey EvansHire the carver to create a mold, and that pattern could be cast as many times as necessary. Compo consists of rosin, chalk, animal glue, and linseed oil, which is formed into a dough, heated, and pressed into a mold. While still warm, the cast ornament is removed from the mold and applied to a surface, where it cools and dries into a hard, durable shape. With age, cast compo can dry out, crack, and fall off—a problem with which I am well acquainted.

In conservation, it is important to be able to distinguish my repairs from the original frame and, should it be necessary, to safely undo my work. With that in mind, I always use materials different from those found in traditional gilding. Using silicone putty developed for dentists, I made molds of the complete ornament found elsewhere compensated the areas of loss with new ornament cast in a two-part epoxy-putty applied over hide glue. Once the ornament was restored, and the original gilded surfaces cleaned, I inpainted my replacement areas with mica powders suspended in an acrylic medium. Not as lustrous as gold leaf, mica powders are nevertheless good at simulating an old gilt surface; unlike brass powders, the mica will not tarnish with time. I went on to fix that very broken eagle using similar techniques.

Andrew Haines
Frame conservator, Andrew Haines Paintings and Frames

Object Lessons in American Art: Selections from the Princeton University Art Museum

Featuring four centuries of works from Princeton’s collections that explore American history, culture, and society, Object Lessons in American Art is on view through September 10 at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and from September 29 to January 7 at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The exhibition is made possible by the leadership support of the Terra Foundation for American Art.