Bumpei Usui and his Frames

Bumpei Usui (1898-1994), like his more famous close friend Yasuo Kuniyoshi, was a Japanese-American framer and artist active during the first half of the 20th century. Usui started making frames and furniture when he arrived in New York City from Japan, opening a frame shop at 5 East 14th Street that became popular with Kuniyoshi and other contemporary artists.

Reacting against the heavy composition frames of the 19th century and the more ornate pieces of the very early 20th century, Usui was among the artists who favored simple, rustic frames that complimented the new modern style. These were often made by artists, including Frederick Harer, Bernard Badura, Max Kuehne, Charles Prendergast and Eugene Ludins, or in intimate frame shops. For a time Usui worked alongside Doris Lee and Milton Avery, who designed their own frames as well, at the Woodstock Art Colony.

Mid-20th century American carved and silver leafed frame with continuous gadroon ornament by Bumpei Usui
Mid-20th century American carved and silver leafed frame with continuous gadroon ornament by Bumpei Usui

Like many American artists, Bumpei Usui looked to European examples for inspiration. Notably, the above frame resembles a 17th-century Sienese carved and gilt frame (also in the Lowy inventory), which suggests that Usui was inspired by earlier Italian designs. Usui interpreted the Sienese gadrooned ornament in a considerably looser and more expressive fashion that conveys movement and fluidity in a particularly bold manner.

17th-century Sienese frame with front bead and continuous gadroon ornament along outer edge
17th-century Sienese frame with front bead and continuous gadroon ornament along outer edge

Usui became active as a painter as well, exhibiting with artists including Man Ray, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth and Robert Henri at both museums and galleries. He may also have created frames for these artists, his peers. However, because Usui devoted so much time to his framing business, he never achieved the success in painting that he might have. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in his paintings.

Bumpei Usui, The Furniture Factory, Oil on Canvas (image courtesy of 511 Gallery)
Bumpei Usui, The Furniture Factory, Oil on Canvas (image courtesy of 511 Gallery)

Frames during Bumpei Usui’s era were often made with new materials and techniques to reflect the more modern, naive style of the art that was being made. For example, silver leaf was frequently used instead of gold, which was seen as more formal. New surface textures were created, and the carving was often notched or chiseled in a cruder and more rustic manner than on earlier frames. Frame makers also experimented with different types of woods, sometimes leaving them unfinished or creating special painted finishes to complement a particular painting. Patinas employing gray casein were brought in to make the silver or gold appear more provincial. In the below image, you can see the effect of silver leaf over red clay in the Bumpei Usui frame from Lowy’s collection.

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Bumpei Usui's signature

For more information on Bumpei Usui frames, or our collection of more than 5,000 antique frames, please visit www.lowyonline.com or call 212-861-8585.

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