Frame of the Week – Framing with Light – The Hudson River School

This week’s featured work is a mid- to late 19th century American gilt composition cove frame with textured cove and fruit clusters at the corners.

0583 Fruit clusters accent the corners of this unique mid- to late 19th century American gilt composition cove frame

“The Hudson River School”, sometimes called the first school of American art, was a fraternity of 19th-century artists best known for their dramatic, grandly scaled depictions of American landscapes.

Thomas Cole, who was actually an English émigré, was the unofficial founder of the school, which also included Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Durand.

Several of the artists lived on New York’s Hudson River – hence the school’s name – and they all painted natural scenes, mountains, valleys, rivers, forests and other wonders of nature, that captured the majesty and unspoiled beauty of the new American frontier.

The Hudson River was famous for its beautiful, often pinkish light and artists of the time were fascinated by it.  Their paintings were infused with that special light that was almost spiritual in effect.  This luminance inspired an offshoot of the Hudson River School, and its artists were aptly named “Luminists”.

Thomas Cole believed that “the frame is the soul of the painting,” and other Hudson River School artists shared his interest in finding, or constructing the perfect frame.

  0583 corner

Detail of corner ornament and textured cove of this week’s frame

Compo was used to create beautiful ornaments inspired by nature, which were applied to layered moldings of significant depth and width, intended to draw the eye into the perspective of the scene and reinforce the majesty of the paintings they encased.

For more information on this frame or any of the 5000 frames in Lowy’s collection, please visit www.lowyonline.com or call 212-861-8585.

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Gilded Everything

Excited about gilded frames? You’re not alone – just look at the golden pieces displayed at The White House, many of which Lowy’s master gilder, Wayne Reynolds, worked on. There’s no limit to the effects that can be achieved with gilding. In fact, one of Lowy Frame and Restoring Co.’s gilders, Janine Lambers, also works in gold leaf to create stunning artworks that use traditional techniques in a contemporary way.

Janine Lambers, Oxidized Screen Maquette
Janine Lambers, Oxidized Screen Maquette

In her work, Janine uses a silver leafing process known as water gilding and draws from more than fifteen years of experience as a gilder of frames and furniture. As with the antique reproduction frames we make at Lowy, she starts with a wooden support, which she then layers with traditional gesso and clay. On this surface, she applies gold and precious leaf such as palladium or silver on a much larger scale than usual, allowing the metal to naturally oxidize. Influenced by artists including Max Kuehne, Gustav Klimt and Charles Prendergast, she is inspired by artistic techniques that fuse art with craft in modern forms. Janine has exhibited at Gallery 66 in Cold Spring, NY, and at RiverWinds Gallery in her adopted hometown of Beacon, NY, which is also home to Dia, the largest contemporary art museum in the United States.

Janine Lambers, Screen with Poppies, 57” x 64 3/8”
Janine Lambers, Screen with Poppies, 57” x 64 3/8”

Even wearable objects can be gilded. Ian Campbell, a recent graduate of Yale University’s M.F.A. program in Sculpture, makes wearable gilded sunglasses and jackets through his fashion label, Igor&. And opening this month, the Frick Collection Museum will display one of the most important public collections of European timepieces and five spectacular clocks, many of which are gilded. These striking examples confirm our sneaking suspicion: Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. is at the center of a thriving and robust field!

Leather Jacket by Igor&
Leather Jacket by Igor&

To find out more about gilding, call 212-861-8585 or click here.

Guide to Gilding: Applying the Gold

Now that we have our substrate ready to go, the time has come to apply gold to the frame. The gold is the tomato in the salad, the omelet’s goat cheese, or the chocolate for the cake. It’s both essential and exciting.

To get started, one of the gilders at Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. sets up the workspace with brushes, a gilder’s knife, gilder’s liquor and booklets of gold leaf around the prepared frame. The gold leaf comes in boxes of 500 sheets, separated by very thin tissue paper. The purity of the gold can range from six to twenty-four karats, and it is common for us to work with both white and traditional yellow gold. Whether restoring an existing frame or applying an entirely new finish, the frames at Lowy are a product of art history and aesthetic preferences.

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The gilder starts at the corner of the frame. He or she will cut a section from the booklet of gold leaf with a gilder’s knife on a leather pad. The width and shape of these sections are dictated by the size and pattern of the frame. Very thin pieces are required for the most ornate schemes, while larger rectangles can be used for flat panels. When the gold leaf is cut, the gilder uses a brush to pick up the leaf and lay it on the frame. The brush is about three inches wide and made from very soft squirrel hair, weighing less than an empty paper cup. A gilder must be practiced and steady-handed to apply this layer properly because gold leaf is an unforgiving material. Once the leaf has been placed, the gilder uses a sable brush to paint a layer of gilder’s liquor over the gold. Gilder’s liquor is a combination of water, alcohol and gelatin glue, which when used by a gilder to adhere gold leaf to the frame produces a bond that can last hundreds of years.

The skills, experience and understanding of Lowy’s gilders and their knowledge of traditional materials used in gilding make us a great resource for your framing needs.

The Cultural Heritage of Gilding

Gold leaf has been used to embellish objects serving significant social and cultural purposes for thousands of years. Foremost among this history are religious traditions involving gold. A plethora of gilded devotional objects and architectural elements were used in medieval Western religions, relying on the brilliant qualities of gold to signify the presence of the divine and to convey an aura of reverence.  Some of these, such as miniature icons and charms, were portable, while others, such as wall murals, carvings and spires, remained stationary. One example of a large architectural project is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. A landmark for Muslims and Judeo-Christians alike, the central dome is covered in gold.

The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eastern religions have also been known to employ gold as a signifier and a narrative aid. In Thailand, statues of the Buddha are often gilded to literally convey religious text, which describes the spiritual teacher’s golden complexion. Buddhist visitors to a temple can show their devotion to the faith by applying their own piece of gold to a statue. Other times, Buddhist religious scripts are written in gold lettering.

Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood.From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)
Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood. From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)

In a secular context, gold symbolizes power. The material is seen in the Far East on objects including Chinese porcelain, Korean beads, Japanese screens, Indian armlets and Middle Eastern coinage. In the West, we have shoes, Italian armor, English bodkin cases, French brooches and dozens of other treasures befitting each national tradition. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” boasted gold scrollwork on the bows of each of 16 functioning naval battleships.

Nowadays, visitors to the U.S. Capitol and other official buildings are greeted with an awe-inspiring onslaught of gilded ceilings, frames and column details. Many of the frames received conservation treatment from Lowy’s master gilder, R. Wayne Reynolds. Curators, art lovers and high profile clients have trusted Lowy Frame & Restoring Co. for over a century.

Guide to Gilding: Preparing the Surface

Lowy’s antique and reproduction frames represent various historical periods from the 15th through 20th centuries. The process of creating a gilded reproduction frame starts with the entire frame designed on paper, which is then carved in wood. Wood is one of the most common and useful substrates for gilding because it is stable over time and because it is true to traditional techniques. In accordance with fashion, culture and custom, frame makers have worked in a variety of woods such as pine, poplar, oak and limewood. In the 19th century, the newly developed material called composition, a thick moldable mix of rabbit skin glue, whiting, linseed oil and rosin, gained popularity for its ability to mass produce ornament. Composition made it possible to make complex frames with many different designs because the ornament could be cast into molds and applied to the frame, instead of being hand carved.

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Even when elegantly carved, bare wood is irregular and must be smoothed before applying gold. First, we apply a layer of rabbit skin glue to ensure that bonds will form properly. Then, we brush on 10-12 coats of warm liquid gesso, a protective covering typically made from calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate, water, rabbit-skin glue and sometimes linseed oil. After the gesso dries, it is sanded. Next, we apply layers of traditional bole, a fine particle clay also mixed with rabbit skin glue. The bole, which is usually yellow, red or grey, will over time start to show its color through the gilding due to abrasion of the finish. When applying these base layers, gilders must balance even coverage with maintaining detail, keeping the original design intact. Sometimes this requires that we recut the design by carving back into the gesso layer to redefine or augment the ornamentation.

In this 17th century Italian frame, red clay is visible through the finish.
In this 17th century Italian frame, red clay is visible through the finish.

Lowy has facilities for antique frame reproduction, carving and gilding. That’s one of the reasons why we have been sought out for frame fabrication and restoration projects for such a long list of venues, ranging from government buildings to private collections and public exhibitions. If you would like more information, please ask! And stay tuned for the rest of our series on gilding.

The Evolution of Gilding

Gold, one of the most malleable and permanently shiny metals on earth, has been worked by artists and creators since at least the sixth millennium B.C.E. A function of the material’s stable chemical structure and geological rarity, gold has secured statuses ranging from an embodiment of luxury to a protector of sensitive industrial components.

one of Lowy's many spectacular gold frames

Alas! Because gold is soft, rare and expensive, objects made entirely of gold are extraordinary and uncommon. The 500-year-old process of gilding was developed to produce decorative arts objects that give the illusion of solid gold. At Lowy we continue the tradition by starting with gold that has been hammered into very thin sheets known as gold leaf. And we do mean thin — 1/250,000″ or less! Such thin material is possible because gold has a uniquely fluid, and therefore very strong, bonding structure. The gold leaf is most commonly applied over a covered wood substrate with a glue and chalk ground. Ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and Greeks covered objects in a thick layer of gold before gold leaf was invented.

Lowy’s master gilder, R. Wayne Reynolds, demonstrates the flexibility of gold leaf to a panel of admirers

Check back at The Lowy Blog over the next several weeks for our snapshot into the rest of the process. With a uniquely long history and deep knowledge about this traditional craft, Lowy is your master for magnificent gilded frames.

The next generation of Lowy: a framer is born.

Ben Shar, Brad’s son and Larry’s grandson, learns to burnish and gild at a demo by Wayne Reynolds.  His nursery school was here on a tour, and it was amazing how they responded!  Take a look through the photos and see for yourself.

The Lowy All Souls Tour