Mid-Victorian: Silver Gilt, American Ripple, Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival
Mid-19th Century taste in America was eclectic, and it looked to a number of sources for its inspiration. The Gothic Revival Movement harkens back to the Medieval Period. Massive neo-Classical frames, so important to the Hudson River School painters, display acanthus leaves, fluted coves, and other Classical ornament. Rococo Revival frames recall the frame styles of the 18th C. in France and England, and are embellished with ornament based on the natural world.
Early 19th Century American framemakers used gold to obtain the brilliant surfaces on their frames. But in the 1840's framemakers began to utilize silver, a less expensive material. They substituted thin leaves of silver for gold leaves, and then covered the silver with a golden-colored lacquer. Learning to distinguish between gold and silver leaf can be helpful in dating a frame. The telling signs of a silver-leafed frame are the small dark spots on the surface, where the lacquer has worn away and exposed the silver. Silver leaf tarnishes; gold leaf does not.
Silver leaf frames, or lemon golds as they are known in the trade, are particularly desirable and more readily found than their pricey goldleaf cousins. I try to stock as many as I can and I house them here, in the Mid-Victorian Room, although they are suitable for framing a wide spectrum of artwork, from folk to formal, and from 1840 to the 1870's.
Interest in Holland led to the popularity of the American Ripple frame, so-called because of the wavy nature of its gilded surface, which brilliantly reflected the gas lights of Victorian parlors. Ripple frames were also made with a dark finish, imitating the carved wood frames of 17th C. Holland. It is said that the dark surface was a symbol of mourning, popularized following the assassination of President Lincoln.
Renaissance Revival (a term referring less to a specific Italianate design than to a flowering of creativity) was an important movement in America from the 1860's into the next decade. Frames in this style are typically made of walnut, and they sometimes incorporate burl veneers. The more elaborate frames are accented with ebonized highlights and incised and gilded decoration. In his excellent catalogue The Frame in America 1700-1900, William Adair labels frames from this era "Civil War style." The fashion coincided with the tremendous growth in the art of photography, and many Civil War era photographs were displayed in these frames. Civil War style frames are shamefully ignored today. They are suitable for frames paintings and prints, as well as photographs, and are still to be had for reasonable prices.
My period corner sample wall illustrates the variety of molding styles of the Mid-19th Century, from the walnut frame at the top, with the Greek key-stenciled liner, to the rippled frames at the bottom.