Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician
While preparing paintings for the BMA’s newly installed American Wing, I’ve come to appreciate some decorative styles in frames in which I hadn’t previously been as interested. I have a great attraction to frames from the 19th and 20th centuries, and frames made by artists, and wood frames from the 17th century in Northern Europe. Honestly, I couldn’t choose a favorite. But the beautifully refined and carved frames for some of our late 18th American portraiture have recently caught my eye, in part because I needed to treat one.
The frame for the portrait of John Hanson by John Hesselius was made c. 1760. The frame seems to be original to the painting, fits it well, and is stylistically contemporary. Prior to installing the framed work in the gallery, both the painting and its frame needed some attention. As I focus on frames primarily, that’s what I will talk about.
The frame had not been examined until recently, and it was discovered that its surface was covered with a layer of soot and grime. There were splits near the site edge of the frame at the mitres, and numerous missing pieces of ornament and losses to the gilding.
Gilding is usually topped with shellacs and tonal coatings that over time can be difficult to clean, as the dirt becomes imbedded. It’s a careful task to undertake: gold leaf is very sensitive to many solvents and also to excessive rubbing or handling. The entire frame is carved wood that’s been gilded (more than once). There are no composition ornaments which have been sculpted separately and then added on. The workmanship in the carving of the frames of this period is exquisite, with moments of angularity. This frame is actually quite delicate. There are pierce-carved center and corner cartouche ornaments with leaves. The swept top edge of the profile consists of a gentle serpentine ribbon which is burnished and water-gilded, and terminates in c-scrolls at center ornaments. The rest of the gilding scheme is matte. The site edge of the frame exhibits a gadroon pattern, which radiates directionally from the centers of the rails, drawing the viewer’s eye into the picture plane. There are three large leaves which adorn the center ornaments as well, splayed out in symmetrical fashion. The quiet areas of the profile are adorned with gentle and delicate garlands of small leaves and flowers. Another beautiful feature is the way that the pierced carved negative voids echo the oval format of the portrait on its rectangular ground.
It is a very fine example of mid to late 18th-century American frames, which closely resemble their contemporary English counterparts. Sometimes they are called American Rococo. I have seen these frames referred to as George III (although in this case, that appellation would NOT have gone over well, situated on the portrait of John Hanson. In 1781, John Hanson of Charles County of Maryland became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, under the Articles of Confederation and was a great patriot. Part of Maryland’s Route 50 is even named for him.)
The treatment performed consisted of dusting, consolidation of gilding, structural repairs, loss compensations and ornament casting and replication, gesso recutting, in addition to surface cleaning and ingilding.
The framed painting is now hanging in “Salon style” in the newly installed Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing, in Gallery 8, along with a large group of portraits in the BMA’s collection.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.