Materials & Techniques

European Mirrors and Frames

The history of the mobile picture frame begins in the 16th and 17th centuries with the emergence of easel painting. Mirrors have a much longer history. The Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans used polished bronze to admire their reflections. In 625 A.D., Pope Boniface IV gave a silver mirror to the Queen of Northumbria. In the middle ages polished metal or glass backed with thin sheets of metal was used. In 17th-century palaces and houses of the rich, mirrors were sometimes set into wainscoting, window openings, or ceilings, though by the turn of the century they were mostly free-hanging. Venetian glass makers were the first to develop glass mirrors commercially; they backed the glass with a mixture of tin and mercury. Louis XIV's minister, Colbert, owned a Venetian glass mirror almost 4' by 2'. Framed in silver, it was appraised at more than double the value of a painting by Raphael. Although they serve different artistic purposes, picture frames and mirror frames usually consist of the same three elements.

a. back frame: a structural base of local wood usually of poor quality.

b. profile: the forward surface of a trim piece which curves backwards or forwards.

c. decoration: consisting of carved, inlaid, applied or tooled wood, stucco, mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, ivory, or metal.

In large workshops there was a division of labor: joiners prepared the structure, carvers created the moldings and ornaments, and gilders finished the assembled product. Long treated merely as a convenient means to display paintings, picture frames have recently been recognized by some museums as independent works of art and have been exhibited as such.

Adapted from

Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), 170.