One of the highlights of the notable American paintings collection at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, is “The Old Mill” (1876), a monumental landscape painting by the Hudson River School painter Jasper Francis Cropsey. Noted for his luminous autumn landscapes of New York and New England, Cropsey captured in this painting a quintessential image of rural America. The mill depicted in the painting stood on the banks of the Wawayanda Creek near Warwick, New York, not far from Cropsey’s estate, “Aladdin.”
When Cropsey painted the picture, rural water mills, which were being replaced by steam-powered mills and factories, had become nostalgic symbols of America’s pre-industrial past. This romantic, picturesque quality contributed to the painting’s popularity at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where Cropsey received a medal for “excellence.” “The Old Mill” was such a success at the exposition that it spawned thousands of prints and photographic reproductions, making it one of the most familiar images in American art. “Because the image of the old mill has become so embedded in our collective unconscious, there is a danger, when looking at this painting, of not truly appreciating its exceptional skill,” says Jeff Harrison, chief curator at the Chrysler Museum. “It is so gloriously painted; Cropsey was a master of blazing fall foliage. The painting’s aesthetic accomplishment, with its precise, naturalistic detail and vibrant colors, combined with its large scale and nostalgic imagery, make it the most
important of Cropsey’s works from the 1870s.”
But despite its glowing attributes, “The Old Mill” was missing an essential element: a frame that complemented its grandeur. “When this painting arrived at the museum in 1963, it was tragically under-framed,” says Harrison. “The original frame was too thin, a bit worn and not grand enough for an exhibition picture of this quality and importance. It did not complete the painting but rather detracted from it.” That frame had been preoccupying Harrison for some time, until he finally decided to consult with Lowy, whose centennial exhibition, The Secret Lives of Frames, was on display at the Chrysler Museum. “I wanted a grand 19th-century American exhibition frame that would match the painting,” Harrison says. In the past, Lowy had framed many artworks from the collection of Walter P. Chrysler which were now at the museum.
Lowy consultants began the process by visiting the Chrysler Museum to view the Cropsey painting. Upon returning to New York, they selected several antique frames from Lowy’s extensive inventory as potential candidates. Digital images of these frames were “married” to digital images of the Cropsey painting and sent via Lowy’s SCAN system to the Chrysler Museum. Harrison reviewed the choices with his colleagues and then came to New York to see the final selections in person at Lowy’s showroom.
He selected a beautiful late 19th-century gilt composition frame with finely cast,
continuous acanthus-leaf and leaf-and-berry decoration. “The frame we chose has both a massive quality and delicate details that match both the monumentality and precise detail of the painting,” Harrison says. “It is muscular enough to hold the painting yet delicate enough to enhance the imagery. It was the perfect marriage of frame and painting.”