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Media Preview: Wednesday, November 19, 9 a.m., Freer Gallery of Art
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Mr. Whistler’s Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London
The Frames

For the 1884 exhibition at the Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells Gallery in London, James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) widened and flattened the profile of a gilded oak frame that he had designed for a previous exhibition in 1881. By standardizing his frames, and using relatively large frames for all but the smallest works, Whistler established a consistent visual element connecting the paintings and drawings to the surrounding walls, supporting his view that his works be appreciated as flat combinations of color and line, not as windows onto the real world. Whistler used the same frames for both oil paintings and works on paper, promoting his belief that works of art should be valued—both aesthetically and financially—not by media or size, but solely for their beauty of form.

Perhaps the most notable departure from conventional frame design was Whistler’s decision to vary the color of the gilding, thereby creating visual interest and complementing the color harmonies of particular paintings and drawings. This was described in contemporary press clippings as having a “particularly pleasing effect.” The “exquisite arrangement of colour,” said one reviewer, was “worthy to be adopted by the costumière of the period,” while another remarked on his “frames of strange metallic hues.”

Most of the Freer’s paintings from the 1884 exhibition still had original frames, many with old Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells Gallery paper labels on their backs. In keeping with common practice, however, all had been re-gilded and were now a standard yellow gold. The effect on the paintings was uniform and conventional—something that Whistler had tried to avoid.

Inspired by descriptions of the frames in Whistler’s correspondence and reviews of the original exhibition, curator Kenneth Myers and exhibition conservator Jane Norman began to investigate the physical evidence of the frames themselves. In collaboration with frame specialists William Lewin and Davida Kovner, of William A. Lewin, Conservator, in Baltimore, eight frames and the watercolors they contained were studied in depth. When these eight frames were disassembled, pencil notations were found on the inside liner edge. These notations gave dimensions that matched the opening size of the frame, and always gave a color: “red,” “green” or “yellow.” Luckily, the sections had not been taken apart when the frames were re-gilded in the mid 20th century, so investigators found remains of the original gilding layer in the narrow space between the frames’ inner linings and outer sections. In every case, the color of the surviving original gilding matched the pencil color directives. Colors varied from reddish gold to a color that was pale and almost greenish in tone. Dr. John Winter, the Freer’s senior conservation scientist, analyzed the remnants of the original gold gilding, and found that the reddish gilding contained a much higher copper content than average gilding, and that the greenish gilding contained higher amounts of silver. Modern gilding samples were analyzed and suitable products were selected for their metallic compositions and visual similarity. Lewin and Kovner stripped the eight re-gilded frames, protecting and preserving the original gilding left on the edges. The new gilding is a close match to the old, with variations in toner (the surface coating traditionally applied over gilding to lessen the brilliance and protect the gilding) added so that the surface of the restored frames closely matches their original appearance.

The end-result is a colored gilding that enhances the delicate tonal harmonies within the paintings, drawing them out beyond their borders. The Freer did not have original frames for fourteen of the small works to be included in its recreation of the 1884 Dowdeswell show. In addition to restoring eight of the original frames, Lewin and Kovner built, gilded, and toned fourteen frames to match the dimensions, profile, and gilding of the 1884 frames. Of the forty- one paintings and drawings in the Freer’s new version of Whistler’s 1884 exhibition, twenty-two are in frames that have the kind of gilding he intended. Nineteen remain in un-restored, old frames. The differences are visually striking.

None of the etching frames from the 1883 installation survive, but one exhibition reviewer described them as being “white, plain, square in section, with two light brown lines as their only relief.” The design of the frames in our version of the 1883 exhibition is based on a vintage Whistler etching frame matching that description that Myers found in a private collection. According to an inscription on the back of the vintage frame, Whistler gave it, together with the etching it still contains, to the famous theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyley Carte, in the mid 1880s. The etching frames were manufactured by Eli Wilner and Company, of New York City.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at