Re-framing Art

One of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of being a picture framer is the fact that when we frame pictures we face head-on the much larger and profound question of how we frame the whole matter, the whole idea, of Art with a capital “A.” In other words, the concrete problem of framing a picture is inextricable from the abstract problem of what we think of Art and what role we want for it in our lives.

We address this larger problem at the very outset of a framing project when we choose what to frame and ask ourselves whether something is really worth framing. Once we arrive at the frame shop, we delve deeper into the matter with questions like, How elaborate and decorative should the frame be? Do we want to visually separate the picture from or connect it to its surroundings (considering how neutral the framing should be and what would be the most desirable and appropriate width of the mat, for example)? Does it really matter if the frame’s made well as long as it’s got the look I want? Even the price of the frame job, a seemingly mundane question, in fact goes directly to the problem of the item’s value—Art's value, and how much we feel we should sacrifice to have this piece hanging on our wall, becoming an intimate fixture in our lives. How much does the picture reflect our greatest values and ideals—those things we would greatly sacrifice for? How much does it express who we are? Because the things we hang on our walls are not just things we frame; they’re things that frame us—the material settings and surroundings of our lives.

Unless, of course, we reject that idea of Art and insist on Art-for-Art’s sake—something we deliberately separate from the vulgar and mundane affairs of everyday life. Then the question becomes, is the home the rightful place of Art at all, or should Art be kept strictly in museums and other exhibition spaces dedicated to nothing else? To go beyond the edge of the painted canvas, the one absolutely agreed-upon place of Art (at least in the modern western world), does it have any place in things we use—things that directly satisfy our most basic needs, like shelter, clothing, food, our tables and chairs and cabinets, our tools and utensils? (The inverse of this question isn't asked often enough: Are the ideals and values represented by our pictures not useful?) Does it have any business coming in contact with that one absolutely agreed-upon, even sacred place of Art, the painting, as the picture frame does? Is the picture frame itself a worthy place of Art, worthy of the sacrifice of materials, thought and effort we expect to make for Art and its ideals? Is the true place of Art in the pure genius and inspiration of individuals? If so, can something ordinary mortals make, or have made, touch real Art without corrupting it?

This phenomenon of the actual, physical place of Art being inextricable from our understanding of the place of Art in our lives, in relation to ordinary folks and how we live, cuts both ways: it's unconsciously reflected in, and also consciously informs how we frame pictures. An example of the former is the very decision to frame a picture for our home indicates we believe the home is an appropriate place for art—not, as many of the quotes below make clear, an inconsequential decision, but one whose implications many probably haven't really explored. A harder issue for most people is whether or how to use the framing to connect the picture to our homes, and on this question I've found many unexamined assumptions. On the other hand, how we frame Art in the abstract, how we understand what Art is, may inform and shape deliberate decisions in how we design and make frames. A good example of the latter point is the first quote, Ruskin’s “All true art is praise,” an understanding seen directly in the aedicule or tabernacle frame, which is a small architectural setting very much like a small chapel—a place of worship—originally made to house religious images. To some extent, every frame is a place for expressed devotion—a place for, if not worship, giving praise. But it's only in being consciously aware of that fact that we might explore, as we frame our pictures, this legitimate but often repressed, role of the frame in indicating the meaning the picture holds for us.

The problem of the place of Art has troubled western civilization for the past 200 years or more. This page mainly features perspectives from leading figures of the nineteenth century —mostly from what we call today the Arts and Crafts Movement—who were engaged in the struggle against what the scholar Larry Shiner, in The Invention of Art, has called The Great Division: the split between art and craft and between art and life that took place in the West starting in the late eighteenth century. It's at that time there emerged the strange new phenomenon called “fine art”—art meant for isolated, aesthetic contemplation in buildings designed and set apart for fine art to take place. In revolt against this debasing and redefinition—reframing—of the place of Art, figures like John Ruskin, William Morris, Walter Crane, and WR Lethaby, stood up passionately against new art institutions like the Royal Academy which they felt arrogated the place of art, and against the destruction of ancient crafts and their places: workshops, buildings, and rural communities, and the natural landscape itself—sites where hard-earned skill and know-how, materials, inspiration and lore had been nurtured continually since time immemorial, creating vital traditions fully integrated with ordinary work and daily life. The mission of this movement—not so much an art movement as a great social movement—was to win back Art from its corrupted, isolated and separate place and revive the old and humbler understanding of art as rooted in, informing and giving joy to, our daily work, our homes and "the life of the whole people."

Thus, these reformers, reacting to the reframing of Art by commercial industrialization, answered with their own reframing effort—and, again, it was expressed in the most literal way. Painters influenced by reform ideals began letting their curiosity stray beyond the edge of the canvas to architecture—the all-encompassing, unifying "mother of the arts"—and utilitarian objects, fixing on them with renewed vigor as things worthy of artistic effort. The place of Art once again began to open up and embrace within the framework of what we mean by Art not just painting and sculpture—the “fine” arts—but anything people made and poured their effort and humanity into regardless of how utilitarian those things were. But even more important than the idea that all the arts were worthy was the ideal of the unity of the arts—that the arts had once been, and naturally were, practiced together and informed and adapted to each other. This new understanding was a unifying framework, embracing all the arts together and connecting them to ordinary life, and the life of the whole people. This multidimensional unity, was, in fact, key to the vitality of the arts. As Walter Crane, first president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, said, "It is certain that painting and sculpture…cannot be in a good state, cannot reach any perfection where the multitudinous arts that surround and culminate in them—that frame them in, in short—are not also in vigorous health and life." His word choice had literal as well as figurative meaning: reform-minded painters’ first encounter in their straying away from the easel picture was with the nearly forgotten art of the picture frame. The frame was rediscovered as an art form, but more importantly an art form that could connect rather than separate painting from architecture and the other arts. In this sense, the picture frame was literally the front line of the reform cause to restore the unity of the arts, and the unity of arts and life. Reformers' efforts in reviving the art in fact changed forever how we view the immediate setting of pictures—and the place of Art.

The term I’d propose for this great disruption to the old place of Art and the struggle to restore that place is The Great Reframing—a story of what happened to art that’s fully manifested in what happened to the framing of pictures. This deep disruption is far from settled or resolved, a story that's still being told, that we're all participating in, that our culture is struggling through today every bit as much as it was in the nineteenth century—as proved by any encounter with "cutting edge" art. As a framer, I'm naturally interested in where such exhibits and events take place—how they're physically, architecturally framed—because the prejudices and beliefs about art that that one fact reflects often says more than the content of the event. Indeed, for much of the art of our time the framing is everything: a urinal, a disheveled bed, a dead shark, a can of feces, a deliberately "low art" porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp—the fact that each has been placed in a museum, a building anointed as the highest, the ultimate place of art in our culture, is the entire point. When the cultural leaders who run these museums began to jettison picture frames altogether several decades ago, it was seen as removing boundaries—a ringing statement of freedom and liberation for art. Few seemed to recognize the fact that the pictures were still framed by the imposing and insular vaults that are museum walls. Taken as radically liberal proponents of Art, these curators, by ignoring the larger place they gave art were acting in fact as deeply conservative defenders of the eighteenth century ideal of "fine art"—art as something to be kept separate. No matter what you believe about art, you can't escape the question of how to frame it—what place it should occupy in our lives. Art is always framed somehow; framing is always re-framing.

This is true for individuals framing pictures as well: The picture always has a place, regardless of whether that’s in an unsuitable, unserviceable or unattractive frame; a closet, a folder, an attic; or in the artist's studio or a shop or gallery. The problem the customer presents to the framer is how to give it a new place—how to join it to the customer’s wall, to the home, to give it a place in everyday life. Again, framing is always re-framing.

In other words, we're all reframing art; we're all frame-makers. While my job as a frame-maker is to provide actual, tangible picture settings, working with an eye to unity and harmony between picture, frame, and the walls of my customer's home, these figures quoted below—truly heroes, given the ambition and nobility of their mission to reconstitute a fracturing world—were frame-makers in the greatest sense, striving to restore the lost unity and harmony once shared between the arts, and between art and life. My hope is that their words will inspire you, as they have me, to think deeply about your own role in The Great Reframing and its fundamental question for us all—one of the great questions of our time:

How do you frame art?

Please note, this is a work in progress. I will be adding quotes and blog entries expanding on them. And I welcome your suggestions. Click links to read blog entries.


John Ruskin

 "All great art is Praise."
John Ruskin's statement is among his most quoted and is takes us right to a central motive for why painters paint—a motive that fundamentally shapes our idea of art and its place and role in our lives. Art holds up to us things we admire, love, and find praise-worthy. More...

Jan Van Eyck, William Morris and Gustav Stickley
"Als Ik Kan"
If the Arts and Crafts Movement can be said to have a motto, it is surely "Als Ik Kan." First assumed by William Morris—more famously in its French form, "Si Je Puis"—it was further popularized by Gustav Stickley through the marks on his furniture and in his magazine The Craftsman. What does the motto mean, where did it originate, and why did these re-framers of art find it so significant? More...

William Morris

“One day we shall win back art again to our daily labor; win back art, this to say, the pleasure of life, to the people.”

"Art is the expression of man's pleasure in labor."

"It is indeed in...the belief in the beneficent progress of civilisation, that I venture to face you and to entreat you to strive to enter into the real meaning of the arts, which are surely the expression of reverence for nature, and the crown of nature, the life of man upon the earth." More...

Walter Crane

On frames as a worthy place of art, and the origin of the English Design Reform Movement:
“To trace the genesis of our English revival we must go back to the days of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood... The very marked character of their pictures, standing out with almost startling effect from among the works of the older Academic School, demanded at least a special architecture in the frames of their pictures, and this led to the practice of painters designing their own frames, at least those who were concerned for unity and decorative effect.”

John Ruskin

(From lecture, “The Relation of Engraving to the Other Arts in Florence”, 1872) on significance of frames to the primal unity of all the arts
“In 1300 the arts were all united and duly led by architecture; in 1400 sculpture began to assume too separate a power to herself; in 1500, painting arrogated all, and, at last, betrayed all. From which, with much other collateral evidence, you may justly conclude that the three arts ought to be practised together, and that they naturally are so...
    “I made a little sketch when last in Florence, of a subject which will fix the idea of this unity of the arts in your minds. At the base of the tower of Giotto are two rows of hexagonal panels, filled with bas-reliefs.... two [of these are] by Giotto himself; of these I sketched the panel representing the art of Painting.
     “You have in that bas-relief one of the foundation stones of the most perfectly built tower in Europe; you have that stone carved by its architect’s own hand; you find, further, that this architect and sculptor was the greatest painter of his time, and the friend of the greatest poet [Dante]; and you have represented by him a painter in his symbolic of the entire art of painting.
    “In which representation, please note how carefully Giotto shows you the tabernacles or niches, in which the paintings are to be placed. Not independent of their frames, these panels of his, you see!
    “Have you considered, in the early history of painting, how important also is the history of the frame-maker? It is a matter, I assure you, needing your very best consideration. For the frame was made before the picture. The painted window is much, but the aperture it fills was thought of before it. The fresco by Giotto is much, but the vault it adorns was planned first. ...
    “And in pointing out to you this fact, I may once for all prove to you the essential unity of the arts, and show you how impossible it is to understand one without reference to another.”

William Morris

(From lecture, “Art: a Serious Thing”) — 
“[W]hat I mean by art is not the prevalence of this or that style, not the laying on the public taste whether it will or not a law that such or such a thing must be done in art; …but rather a general love of beauty, partly for its own sake, and because it is natural and right for the dweller on the beautiful earth to help and not to mar its beauty, and partly, yes and chiefly, because that external beauty is a symbol of a decent and reasonable life, is above all the token of what chiefly makes life good and not evil, of joy in labour, in creation that is: and this joy in labour, this evidence of man helping in the work of creation, is I feel sure the thing which from the first all progress in civilization has been aiming at: feed this inspiration and you feed the flame of civilization throughout the world; extinguish it, and civilization will die also…"

(Lecture, The Decorative Arts, 1877)
On the unity of the arts—
“Now as to the scope and nature of these Decorative Arts I have to say, that though when I come more into the details of my subject I shall not meddle much with the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Sculpture and Painting, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser, so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about: it is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether: the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practised for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.”

On architecture as the place of the arts in unity—
Architecture is “the union of the arts mutually helpful and harmoniously subordinated to one another.”

(From lecture, "The Lesser Arts of Life," 1882) On craft traditions as the root of meaningful work and of art— 
"From father to son, from generation to generation, has grown up a body of almost mysterious skill, which has exercised itself in making the tools for carrying on the occupation of living; so that a very large part of the audience of the masters of the greater arts have been engaged like them in making things; only the higher men were making things wholly to satisfy men's spiritual wants; the lower, things whose first intention was to satisfy their bodily wants. But though, in theory, all these could be satisfied without any expression of the imagination, any practice of art, yet history tells us what we might well have guessed would be the case, that the thing could not stop there. Men whose hands were skilled in fashioning things could not help thinking the while, and soon found out that their deft fingers could express some part of the tangle of their thoughts, and that this new pleasure hindered not their daily work, for in their very labour that they lived by lay the material in which their thought could be embodied; and thus though they laboured, they laboured somewhat for their pleasure and uncompelled, and had conquered the curse of toil, and were men."

(From lecture, "Art, Wealth, and Riches") On "the whole people" as the place of art—
"Is art to be limited to a narrow class who only care for it in a very languid way, or is it to be the solace and pleasure of the whole people?"

(From lecture, "The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization") On a healthy earth as the true place and inspiration of art—
"Until...we have clear sky above our heads and green grass beneath our feet; until the great drama of the seasons can touch our workmen with other feelings than the misery of winter and the weariness of summer; till all this happens our museums and art schools will be but amusements of the rich...unless they make up their minds that they will do their best to give us back the fairness of the earth"

(From lecture, "The Lesser Arts", 1877) On nature as the place of art—
"[W]hen we can get beyond that smoky world, there, out in the country we may still see the works of our fathers yet alive amidst the very nature they were wrought into, and of which they are so completely a part: for there indeed if anywhere, in the English country, in the days when people cared about such things, was there a full sympathy between the works of man, and the land they were made for..."

(From lecture, "Art and the Beauty of the Earth") On a decent home and natural surroundings as the place of art—
There is no square mile of earth's inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty; and it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour; a decent house with decent surroundings for every honest and industrious family; that is the claim which I make of you in the name of art. Is it such an exorbitant claim to make of civilization? of a civilization that is too apt to boast in after-dinner speeches; too apt to thrust her blessings on far-off peoples at the cannon's mouth before she has improved the quality of those blessings so far that they are worth having at any price, even the smallest.

W.R. Lethaby
(From "Art and Workmanship")
Art is the humanity put into workmanship, the rest is slavery.

(More) Walter Crane

Table of contents to Walter Crane’s The Bases of Design (i.e., places where design and art are rooted) –
I.    Of the Architectural Basis
II.    Of the Utility Basis and Influence
III.    Of the Influence of Material and Method
IV.    Of the Influence of Conditions in Design
V.    Of the Climatic Influence in Design – Chiefly in Regard to Colour and Pattern
VI.    Of the Racial Influence in Design
VII.    Of the Symbolic Influence, or Emblematic Element in Design
VIII.    Of the Graphic Influence, or Naturalism in Design
IX.    Of the Individual Influence in Design
X.    Of the Collective influence in Design

On framing and hanging pictures to restore their unity with architecture—
“[T]he easel picture, properly considered and placed in its right relationship to its surroundings, by judicious treatment and hanging, and above all by a certain mural feeling [my emphasis], may be the acme of decoration.”

“The frame, which separates a picture from its surroundings, also helps to unite it again to its original home.”

On the unity of the arts and overcoming the separation of the "fine arts"—
“It is certain that painting and sculpture…cannot be in a good state, cannot reach any perfection where the multitudinous arts that surround and culminate in them – that frame them in, in short – are not also in vigorous health and life.”

“Painters will find again the lost thread, the golden link of connection and intimate association with the sister arts and handicrafts, whereof none is before or after another, none is greater or less than the other.”

Phillip Webb (British architect, 1831-1915), on the place of art in the life of the whole people—
"[Art] is folk instinct bubbling up from deep, natural wells."

MH Baillie Scott (from Houses and Gardens)—

On frames and the unity of the arts

“It would be interesting to inquire how far the art of picture painting is coincident with the decline of Art in its widest interpretation, representing the last stronghold of the artist driven from the service of life behind the gilded pale of the picture frame, where he dreams in a little shadow world all his own.”

“[I]t must be our aim to make the picture merge into the wall surface and appear a part of it. The frame thus becomes the connecting link between it. On a wall panelled in dark oak, for instance, dark oak becomes the best material for the picture frame in most cases.”

Edward Prior (British architect, 1857-1932), on the home as the rightful place of art

"Art being the monopoly of painting, and having nothing to do with such vulgar matters as furniture, commercialism has been able to advance a standard of beauty of its own, with one canon, that of speedy profits...When we care for art sufficiently to summon her from her state-prison-house of exhibitions and galleries, to live again a free life among us in our homes, she will appear as a controlling power, using painting, and sculpture, and all the decorative arts to shape room and furniture under one purpose of design."

Gustav Stickley (1858-1942)

On tradition as a place of art
"…[A]rt must be regarded as a great tree with its roots firmly fixed in antiquity, from which, at each successive period of growth, it derives its green and living foliage."

On everyday life as a place of art
“[Ruskin's] art ideals lay in the Middle Ages, when the great monuments rose, not, as now largely from personal luxury, but rather from the encouragement and enthusiasm of combined aesthetic effort, when, as in all truly organic periods, the artistic support came not from the treasure of a Maecenas,- but from the small purses of the common people. [As a result, art is not] something apart from common and everyday existence, but rather...the very means of realizing life.” 

Eugene Neuhaus (California artist and art teacher, 1879-1963)—

On role of the pretentious gold frame in separating painting from the world (review,1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition catalog)—
“Most modern paintings are simply painted on a gambler's chance of finding suitable surroundings afterwards. Nowadays a picture is produced with the one idea of separating it from the rest of the world by a more or less hideous gold frame, the design of which in many cases is out of all relation to the picture as well as to the wall. In fact, most frames impress one as nothing but attempts to make them as costly as possible.”

(More) John Ruskin –

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.”

“The great lesson of history is, that all the fine arts [since the Renaissance] – having been supported by the selfish power of the noblesse… and never having extended their range to the comfort or the relief of the mass of the people … have only accelerated the ruin of the States they adorned... Another course lies open to us. We may...disdain the temptation, of the pomp and grace of [the Italian High Renaissance and its legacy]. For us there can be no more the throne of marble – for us no more the vault of gold – but for us there is the loftier and lovelier privilege of bringing the power and charm of art within the reach of the humble and the poor; and as the magnificence of past ages failed by its narrowness and its pride, ours may prevail and continue, by its universality and its lowliness.”

Charles Keeler (from The Simple Home)—

(opening words)—
“All the arts are modes of expressing the One Ideal; but the ideal must be rooted in the soil of the real, the practical, the utilitarian. Thus it happens that architecture, the most utilitarian of the arts, underlies all other expressions of the ideal; and of all architecture, the designing of the home brings the artist into closest touch with the life of man.”

“In such a home [as his book describes], inspiring in its touch with art and books, glorified by mother love and child sunshine, may the human spirit grow in strength and grace to the fullness of years.”

"Gradually the dweller in the simple home will come to ponder upon the meaning of art, and will awaken to that illuminating insight that all art is a form of service inspired by love. It will then become apparent how truly the home is the real art center."

“Pictures…serve no useful purpose and have no meaning except as they bring before us something of the ideal.”

“Many of our artists are now looking toward decorative work as a field of activity, instead of confining their attention to easel pictures, and this is a most wholesome change. A decorative frieze or a set piece designed to occupy a given space in a room, and conceived in harmony with its setting, is apt to be far more effective than a number of small detached pictures scattered at random about the walls.
    “A word on framing pictures… The old-fashioned idea seemed to be that a picture was merely an excuse for displaying an elaborate frame. Now people have come to realize that the frame is nothing but the border of the picture. Here again a simple form is always safe. A plain, finely finished surface without ornamentation is never out of place. In choosing the color of a frame, the middle tone of the picture is the best guide. Thus in framing a brown photograph, a brown mat intermediate in tone between the high lights and the deepest shadows will probably be found most effective. The wood is least obtrusive if toned to match the mat or just a shade darker. Photographs look well framed in wood without a mat, but with a fine line of gold next to the picture. Gold frames are scarcely in keeping with a simple home, but if used should be of the finest workmanship and the most chaste design. They are, as a rule, inappropriate except on oil paintings, although a gold mat with simple gold border occasionally looks well on a water color.”


John Ruskin—
“The Nature of Gothic,” in Stones of Venice.
The Seven Lamps of Architecture
John D. Rosenberg, The Genius of John Ruskin, 1963
Lecture, “the Relation of Engraving to the Other Arts in Florence,” 1872.

MH Baillie Scott, Houses and Gardens, 1906

WR Lethaby, Form in Civilization

Walter Crane—
Bases of Design
Ideals in Art
The Claims of Decorative Art

William Morris—
Hopes and Fears for Art
The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, edited by Eugene D. LeMire,1969
Art and Socialism, lectures edited by Norman Kelvin, 1999

Charles Keeler, The Simple Home, 1906

Eva Mendgen, In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame, 1850 – 1920 (A history of frames designed and made by painters, as they explored the frame as a worthy place of art.)

Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, 2001

William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization, 2005

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