Gilt Frames: The work of Thomas Cole and John Vanderlyn

What usually goes unnoticed in a painting is what surrounds it: the frame. In the Hudson River School painting collections, there are ornate and meticulous frames, each specialized to the painting it holds. The frame itself is a separate piece of work, focusing on the architectural aspects. For example, the molding of the frame is how the trim sticks out and what shape it makes. Much like the trims around a window or door in a house, it can be curved, recessed, far out, or caved in. Some shapes include ogee (protrudes out drastically with a rounded shape), cove (similar to ogee but protrudes more sharply), slope away (a smooth, soft curve), and cassetta (more cubic with sharp edges). The wood also differed. One such frame that was popular in the Hudson River School paintings were the gilt frames. These frames have a thin layer of gold leaf by using a technique where you apply an adhesive first, then place a very thin sheet of gold around the frame. 

 One artist who designed his own frames was Thomas Cole. As Thomas Cole said, “The frame is the soul of the body” and therefore fit perfectly with the landscapes he painted. Cole was heavily influenced by contemporary English forms. His frames specifically were made with molded compo, a shapeable resin, instead of carved wood. For his frames, it was a three-step process. First, the mold was carved in reverse, and the material of the frame was applied to the molds. Then, it was removed and glued onto wood. Finally, they put the finishing touches by coating the frame with gesso and bole, and finally gilded to silvered the frame. Even though the mold could have been used over and over again, it is rare to see multiples of a frame design as there are many elements and embellishments to choose from. With his painting, Interior of the Colosseum, Rome, made in 1832, the frame is a 1960’s fluted-cove moulding, which has many lines of ridges. However, there is a plan for the painting to be reframed in an Empire-style gold leaf cove moulding. This style will better suit the painting and its era, which was done beautifully by Eli Wilner & Company.

Another artist with beautiful frames is John Vanderlyn. The frames are originals, so preservation is very necessary for these frames in particular. With his painting, Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage, the outer frame is in great condition, however, the inner liner is a bit worn down. To restore the frame’s scratches and other losses, a painting conservator will match the frame’s color (in this case, gold) and fill in the imperfections. Usually, the corners of the frames will have the most imperfections. His painting, A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara, made around 1802 to 1803 also underwent a thorough process of restoration. This painting in particular is important to preserve due to its backstory. Aaron Burr (known from the duel between him and Alexander Hamilton) sponsored Vanderlyn to create this painting as Burr had just been there with his daughter and her new husband. Vanderlyn took on the challenge, as he would be the first to paint Niagara Falls. At Niagara Falls, he made many sketches and finally picked two to paint after coming back to Kingston. Especially with this painting, there were multiple steps of restoration. First, it was cleaned with naptha soap, emulsion clean, and solvent mixtures which get rids of any residues or stains. Next, the old glue lining was adjusted. The conservator started to inpaint fillings, which is a process to fill in any missing gaps in the painting, and finished with a varnish coat. Once again, the conservator continued inpainting with acrylics and they also keyed out the stretcher. Finally, the last spray of varnish coats the painting and the finishing touches of cleaning, consolidating, and toning the frame with resin were completed. With all this, Vanderlyn’s painting and frame is ready to be presented to the public.


However, no matter how sturdy the frame may seem, all frames and the painting should be handled with care. Although it is nearly impossible to keep its condition similar to how it originally was, it is important to preserve it. This is done by not touching the painting with our fingers, as fingers have dirt and oil that could wear the painting over time. Instead, only professional painting conservators are allowed to as they help restore and preserve the paintings. However, if you are planning to buy a frame and are unsure if there is anying gold gildings beneath the paint, you can ask the seller to test the finish. You can do this by licking the top of a cotton swab and touching it on a corner of a frame. It will reveal if there is any gold underneath as the saliva is able to smudge a little part of it off. Otherwise, it is best to leave the frames and paintings alone and in an ideal environment. These frames and paintings have withstood time, and should continue on withstanding time for the future generations to come. After all, art is meant to be enjoyed by everyone.


Keri, Junior Interpreter