History of Picture Framing

Do you ever wonder who the very first person was to think about framing a picture? No!? I do!

Humans have been compelled to create visual art since at least the same time as we developed language, which was around 50,000 years ago. Early humans probably created art in sand or mud on the ground, just like people today draw giant pictures at the beach by dragging a bit of driftwood through the sand to create their image or message.

These kinds of creations were temporary by nature, but humans were compelled then as now, to create things of lasting beauty and value, that they could keep, enjoy, and treasure. We learned to make pigments and dyes, and with these, starting creating permanent artworks inside caves on the walls, where they would be protected from the elements, and last for more than the lifetime of the artist. In fact far longer…

The oldest known cave paintings are more than 44,000 years old, although the earliest known artistic creation made by a human hand is estimated at over 70,000 years old. Incredible.

Art began to be created on materials that could be moved from place to place, allowing the artist, or owner, to keep the artistic treasure with them.

The advent of the Bronze Age around 5,000 years ago (yes, named thus because the discovery and use of bronze led to an explosion in the creative fields). Relatively suddenly, thanks to the use of bronze tools, humans were creating and producing decorative items that served zero practical purpose – other than being beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, perhaps enhancing perceptions of wealth and status. This point in history marked the emergence of a purely artisan class. The Minoans (who made fresco paintings on walls) and of course the Egpytians, were among the most prolific (and astounding) artists of the era.

Paintings began to move off solid walls and on to wood panels – thus being able to be hung ‘anywhere’. Because of the nature of wood (which is prone to gradual decay and total disintegration), ancient wood panel paintings are vanishingly rare today. Large wood-panel paintings from the 5th century BCE are known to have existed from descriptions in texts of the time.

And now we see the emergence of the picture frame. Panel paintings began to have borders incorporated into their design – the whole panel and surrounding “frame”, carved from a single piece of timber. In doing so, for the first time, artists began to define and celebrate the edge of the artwork with a defined frame border. One of the earliest known examples is an Egyptian mummy wood panel dating from the 2nd century AD. Such artworks could be hung inside homes, moved to different walls, or even to different buildings altogether.

interestingly, the panel and frame edging were carved first, with the painting itself being done last. The painting area was carved out, leaving the raised frame border around the perimeter, much like a tray. So the picture frame has been a critical part of displaying art, since humans started creating hangable art!

Carving panels with incorporated wooden framing was by nature both difficult, and costly. By the twelfth century, a more efficient method was being employed: mitred moulding strips were attached to each edge of the flat wooden panel: the picture frame was born – as was the picture framer! The picture framer would paint and guild this “frame” after the completion of the painting itself.

With this approach to the framing of moveable, hangable art, the picture frame itself began to grow in importance, with frames becoming increasingly elaborate – and valuable.

Picture framers of the time were basically unknown craftsmen who belonged to workshops (much like today, perhaps!). Each craftsman had his own speciality (carving, guilding, painting etc) and several people might be involved in the work of creating a single finished frame.

As artists (and picture frames) rose in prominence, artists began having more influence on the framing design for their painting. By the Renaissance (15th century), there was little difference in status between artists and picture framers. even artists as renowned as Leonardo da Vinci were known to have gilded their picture frames (is there anything that guy couldn’t do?!).

During this period, the design of the frame and the materials used for portraiture painting were usually a direct reflection of the amount of bling and clout of the subject. This is why we see portraits of various historical royalty framed in utterly outrageous, decadent and over-the-top styles.

Picture frames now have gone much the same way as art itself: having beautiful things on your wall to enjoy stopped being in the realm of royalty and the mega rich; art is accessible to virtually everyone now, and completely ordinary people of all cultures can own and enjoy art on their walls the world over.