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Prado Museum, A Frame Fit for a King

May 27, 2007

4 minute read

Prado Museum A Frame Fit for a King

When the Prado Museum in Madrid recently requested an important painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an upcoming exhibition of works by the Spanish painter Juan Bautista Maino (1581-1641) it was missing a key element: a frame to match its baroque splendor.  The full-length portrait of Philip IV (1605-1665) in Parade Armor, believed to date from the mid-1620s, had been hanging unframed in the Metropolitan Museum’s arms and armor department.  But whether Maino, a follower of Caravaggio who is thought to have studied with El Greco, actually painted the portrait has long been debated, according to Keith Christiansen, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum.  Although Maino served as a drawing teacher to the young Philip (later Philip IV) and participated in the decoration of the royal palace Buen Retiro in Madrid, the portrait is currently attributed to the 17th-century Flemish artist Gaspard de Crayer, who worked at the court of Madrid under Philip IV.  

“We hope the Prado exhibition will shed more light on who the artist really is,” says Christiansen.  “But before we could loan the painting, it had to be enhanced with just the right frame, and we had to start from scratch.  Having worked closely with Lowy over the years, we knew they could create exactly what we wanted—a reproduction 17th-century Spanish frame that had substance, character and detail that both evoked the period and complemented the painting.”                

Christiansen and George Bisacca, a paintings conservator at the Metropolitan Museum, specifically wanted to replicate a 17th-century Spanish cassetta frame already in their collection—one that adorned Francisco de Zurbaran’s portrait of Saint Benedict.  Developed in Italy during the late 15th century, cassetta frames were used especially for domestic and secular paintings.  (The word cassetta means small box).  These frames consist of a central flat recessed band, or frieze, with applied inner and outer moldings.  Decoration on the moldings and frieze was often characterized by a Renaissance love of ornament.  The classic, timeless style of the cassetta frame has appealed to artists, collectors and framemakers for centuries throughout Europe and America.  

The Zurbaran cassetta frame, which is distinguished by a hand-shaped profile with gilded moldings and a flat red-painted frieze decorated with gold sgraffito, had the proportion and structure Christiansen and Bisacca wanted to replicate.  But instead of a red and gold frame, they wanted a black and gold version that mirrored the black and gold colors in the portrait.  “We wanted to accent the ornament in Philip IV’s armor without going overboard, because that ornament is already so rich and opulent,” says Bisacca.  Striving for even greater specificity and aesthetic appeal, Bisacca and Christiansen chose yet another antique cassetta frame in the museum’s collection to serve as a model for the reproduction frame’s gold sgraffito decoration, which is similar to the scrollwork motifs on the armor.   

Throughout the frame-making process they worked closely with Wayne Reynolds, head of Lowy’s gilding department.  Wayne began by making a profile drawing of the Zurbaran cassetta frame and then ground special knives to mill the molding.  Lowy’s artisans further shaped the frame by hand, then gessoed and surfaced it using a wet rag, which allows the hand to follow more closely the warp and wobble of the molding to achieve an aged, authentic look.  Dark red bole (clay) similar to that on the Zurbaran frame was applied to the moldings, which were then water gilded and burnished.  The corners and centers of the panels were also gilded before the black paint was applied.  “We created the sgraffito decoration by stenciling C-scroll and acanthus leaf motifs on the corners and centers of the four panels and then carefully scraped away the black paint layer, which revealed the gold leaf underneath,” Wayne says.  

The final stage was the antiquing process, which involved distressing the layers of gesso, gilding and paint with small chains, files and steel wool to create “natural-looking accidents,” according to Wayne.  “The combination of distressing techniques add up to an overall feeling of age,” he says.  “We then glazed the frame with earth-toned patinas to simulate the accumulation of dirt, which is another sign of age.  I was very pleased with the finished product.  The frame we created is a simple yet strong design that beautifully complements the overall painting and subject matter.”   

Christiansen and Bisacca viewed the frame at various stages and recommended additional distressing and toning to create an even older look based on several antique frames in Lowy’s extensive collection.  “Keith and I had seen thousands of Spanish frames, and we had a clear idea of what we wanted,” Bisacca says.  “We found it beneficial to refer to a variety of antique models to come up with a very specific look.  For example, we liked the type of distressing on one frame and the saturation of the black paint on another.  All in all, we loved the frame Lowy created.  They struck a wonderful restrained balance between the colors, tonal quality and amount of distressing so that it had the appropriate aged look.  It’s an excellent representative example of a 17th-century Spanish cassetta frame.”  Bisacca says he especially enjoyed the dynamic back-and-forth exchange that took place between Lowy and the museum  “We always appreciate Lowy’s high standards of craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail, no matter how long it takes to get the frame right.”        

Philip IV in Parade Armor attributed to Gaspard de Crayer recently framed in a 17th century Spanish style cassetta frame designed and crafted by Lowy for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail showing sgraffito corner decoration on the frame designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail showing placement of a sgraffito design on the frame as designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.