Albert Bierstadt’s monumental “The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove, California” (1875-76) is no ordinary painting. This breathtaking 10-foot by 5-foot view of Yosemite National Park, inspired by the great Hudson River School artist’s trips to the American West during the mid 19th century, is considered one of Bierstadt’s finest landscapes, boasting a long exhibition history and rich historical detail. (The small figure depicted at the base of the giant tree is said to be Galen Clark, the first official guardian of Yosemite and Bierstadt’s guide.) It is also distinguished by its massive scale. But when it was acquired in 1977 by a New Hampshire collector it was missing a significant element: a frame equal to its majesty.
“This painting originally had a huge gorgeous frame, as depicted in a photograph from the period,” says Jay Maroney, an art dealer from Vermont and consultant to the New Hampshire collector. “The original frame had been lost or destroyed over the years, and the painting wound up in a poor quality reproduction frame. I advised my client to have a new frame made that would show off the painting to optimal effect. And there was no firm better suited to the challenge than Lowy. They always deliver the highest quality products and service.”
The client asked Lowy to design a frame based on the proportions of the original frame shown in the archival photograph. The painstaking, seven-month process was led by R. Wayne Reynolds, Lowy’s director of business development and new product design, who drew upon his 25 years of knowledge and experience to tackle what he calls one of the most interesting projects of his career. Master carver Allan Webb and gilder and restorer Johan Johnston also contributed their considerable talents to the project.
Wayne began with a drawing of the proposed frame that matched the scale and style of the original. It was determined that the frame’s molding should be 14 inches wide. “We didn’t have any frames that size in our inventory,” Wayne says. “So I drew inspiration from various period American frames to design the molding profile and ornaments.” Those components, which came to life at the skilled hands of Allan Webb and Johan Johnston, included a cast fluted cove and molded string of pearls, egg and dart, leaf and berry and lamb’s tongue ornaments. In keeping with the frame’s large scale, crushed walnut shells were used instead of traditional sand for the sanded panel.
One of the greatest challenges in designing a frame of this size, according to Wayne, was to ensure that it would be easily transportable. It would not only have to be as light in weight as possible but also structurally stable and reversible so that it could be dismantled and reassembled without damage. “We milled high density urethane foam for the inside of the frame to reduce the overall weight,” Wayne says. “Basswood was used on the
outside. The foam comprised about 60 percent of the frame.” For stability, large reversible steel all-thread rods with captured nuts (a modern version of the bed bolts that joined large old frames) were used to join the frame at each corner. Additional structural support was provided by wood tenons that join the cove to the base of the frame, recessed metal plates that hold the upper miters together, right angle braces at the inside rabbet, and a hidden angle iron shelf at the frame bottom that allows the frame to be anchored to a wall.
Allan called upon many years of experience in making large frames to get the engineering just right. “We had to create a sturdy, non-visible joining system and great lightweight moldings that would stay straight,” Allan says. “The steel all-threads had to be bigger and sturdier than usual. We spread the metal fixings throughout the joint to stop any gaping or movement and to give the frame the appearance that it was joined permanently.”
Wayne and Allan created acanthus leaf corner ornaments with removable central veins to hide the miters. The veins were adhered to the ornament with a microcrystalline wax that is often used by museums in earthquake zones to keep artifacts in place. The corner leaves were adhered to the fluted cove with epoxy. “When you remove the veins and the leaf and berry caps at the corners you can take the frame apart,” Wayne says. “It was important that the frame have visual integrity yet also be reversible. So we had to come up with some creative solutions.” Once the frame was constructed it was ready for gilding and patination. In the tradition of 19th-century American frames, a combination of water and oil gilding were used, which produces both a burnished and matte finish, respectively. Oil gilding also allows for better coverage in tight and deep spots, according to Johan, who gilded the frame with 23-karat gold, which produced a warm glow in keeping with the period. The hybrid resin material from which the fluted cove and leaf and berry ornaments were cast posed a particular challenge. “This type of surface is usually painted and not gilded,” Wayne says. “I had to come up with a way to bond the gesso onto the resin layer so that water gilding would be possible.” For the crowning touch, a 19th-century patination was simulated with Japan colors to complement the light tones in the painting.
The entire project was an intensive team effort from start to finish. “There was no way to imagine what my drawing would look like in three dimensions in such a large scale until I saw it,” Wayne says. “But all the components eventually came together, and the finished frame was a dramatic addition to the painting. Together, they had a harmonious glow. Grand presentation was a significant part of displaying landscape paintings during Bierstadt’s time. And a painting of this stature needed a majestic frame.”
The client could not have been more pleased with the result. “Bierstadt was a showman,” says Maroney. “His paintings were intended to shock and wow. Thanks to Lowy, this spectacular painting now has a frame that wows, too. We were 100 percent satisfied.” Others will also have the opportunity to view and appreciate this newly framed masterpiece. The painting was subsequently sold and is currently on loan at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, where it will be on display through next year.