Though they might seem like afterthoughts, picture frames can be works of art unto themselves. In fact, the earliest frames were often integral parts of a piece. Carved from the same stone or plank of wood as the large relief sculptures they were designed accentuate, frames divided scenes in an overall image, focusing the eye on one panel and then another.

Portable wooden frames as we recognize them today come from 12th-century Europe. At first they were sculpted from the same piece of wood that backed the paintings they surrounded, but eventually it became clear that building a frame separately would be cheaper and more efficient. Soon, furniture craftsmen were attaching mitered wooden strips to artworks after they were complete.

Ornate picture frames from the Renaissance period were often decorated with gold or silver foil and carved to suggest the elaborate scrollwork and details of architecture. During this era, aristocratic families had their own court frames designed with unique figures and motifs.

During the Baroque and Rococo periods, excessively detailed gold-leaf frames surged in popularity. Some frames were carved entirely into decorative forms so that one could see through their shapes to the wall behind, such as with the scrolls, leaves, and masks of the Italian auricular style.

Certain styles became associated with specific regions or rulers: For example, Louis the XIII style frames often have three bands of molding carved with oak or laurel leaf patterns, while those of Louis the XIV typically feature a single band engraved with C-scroll designs and extended, oval-shaped cartouches at the center and corners.

For portraits of royalty or wealthy individuals, a frame might also include a crest, shield, or a scroll with particular family emblems. Certain expensive materials, like ebony or tortoiseshell, also indicated the status of a frame’s owner.

In the United States, the first picture frames were made from simple pieces of wood made like generic wall moldings, known today as the Early American Empire style. Eventually, A...

During the mid-19th century, many artists recognized the importance of the frame for viewers of their work, and began taking control over the frame’s construction, too. Some were influenced by Asian aesthetics and the Arts and Crafts movement, creating forms that emphasized cleaner geometric lines, such as Edgar Degas’ reeded frames, whose depth gradually recedes inward towards the painting.

The growing number of amateur photographers in the mid-19th century also created a boom in homemade frames. Besides the basic forms made from mitered molding, frames were also produced in the elaborate style of Art Nouveau, with asymmetrical natural imagery, and the stripped-down geometric lines of Art Deco. By the mid-1930s, contemporary artists working in abstract genres simplified their frames to a plain black band, or even did away with frames altogether.

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