Recreating an Auricular frame
The Dutch sculptor and woodcarver, Maarten Robert, who also works in the restoration of antique carvings and woodwork, describes how he carried out a commission from the Rijksmuseum to recreate an historic frame for the Portrait of a man by Ferdinand Bol, based on an existing original model. The model is discussed at the end of Maarten’s article.
Ferdinand Bol (1616-80), Portrait of a man, 1663, 124 x 100 cm, Rijksmuseum.
Research into the form and function of the 17th century picture frame in the Netherlands was fundamentally altered by the work of P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops; their effort – and the effect it had in institutions around the world – should never be forgotten. Van Thiel, a former curator of 17th century paintings in the Rijksmuseum, was passionate on the subject of historic frames: a passion which resulted in a major exhibition in 1984, Prijst de Lijst, with its accompanying eponymous catalogue .
Both exhibition and catalogue may have influenced other museums and galleries to examine the frames in their collections, and their relationship with the paintings they housed. At that point, the Rijksmuseum was one of those institutions which judged it important to find more suitable frames for works in their collection which were noticeably misframed. This was not a problem when the question was one of obtaining an antique frame in a generic style; however, when a one-off or individual carved period frame was called for, there were various objections to making a replica.
One of the main problems was an overriding feeling that the product even of a master carver could appear disturbingly anachronistic and of its own time, or would at best date quite rapidly. Moreover, there is an enduring opinion that a copy of a sculpted frame is inauthentic, and does not therefore belong in a traditional museum. Thus, when Pieter van Thiel decided to look for a master sculptor to reproduce a suitable historic setting for Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man, it was a courageous and idiosyncratic decision. It was, however, supported by all the research by both Van Thiel and De Bruyn Kops which had produced Prijst de Lijst.
Until that moment, Bol’s portrait had been displayed in a 17th century Italian frame; however, the evidence accumulated in the exhibition and catalogue had rendered that both inappropriate and undesirable. Van Thiel decided to reframe it, and since no original frame was available he opted to have a replica made. He looked for a master carver: someone who could execute the work in such a convincing manner that it would please even the most critical eye. No wonder I felt so honoured when I was entrusted with this commission.
Creating the replica frame
Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum
The frame design had already been decided upon. The model chosen was one of two superb carved frames from the late 1660s, made for Jan de Baen’s portraits of Johan and Cornelis de Witt in the Dordrechts Museum (see below for a discussion of these frames, and those on De Baen’s portraits of Johan & Cornelis’s parents). They have shallow profiles decorated with modest Auricular ornament, overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves which form wreaths at the top, around shields with the family’s coats of arms.
It was decided to retain the shield in the design for the replica frame, but to leave the field empty, as it is not known who is represented in Bol’s painting – an empty coat of arms being quite acceptable today. By keeping the shield in the crest, the compositional elements of the frame could be maintained. As with similar picture frames in the Rijksmuseum, limewood was to be used for making the copy, so that the frame could either be gilded or stained and polished. The decision to gild the frame or not was to be postponed until the carving was completed.
Although the portrait by De Baen is slightly bigger than that by Bol, both paintings have the same proportions: the De Baen measures 131.6 x 106.8 cm, and the Bol, 124 x 100 cm. The outside measurements of the new frame would be 155 x 132 x 7.6 cm.
Armed with a great many photographs of all the significant details of the model frame, I made a detailed full-scale drawing from it. Only at this stage could one begin to empathize with and understand the complexity of the composition, and appreciate how beautifully it had been carved by some 17th century master craftsman. A good drawing is not only used as a functional working tool, but also helps in studying the object.
Maarten Robert, drawing of bottom rail of De Baen frame, detail (turned perpendicularly, for clarity)
It was soon apparent that each carved leaf had its own individual shape and expression. This was something I had to focus on. It is one of the fascinating qualities of 17th century wood carving, giving it its own unique character compared with wood carving of a later period. Another idiosyncrasy of the frame was the relative smoothness of the Auricular ornaments – particularly of the acanthus leaf motif in the top corners, and the scrolls in the middle of the frame. And there was a certain mysterious clumsiness in the head of the sea monster, with its drowsy gaze, in the centre of the bottom rail – so characteristic of the Auricular style. It was a challenge to execute all these features with the same élan as the original. An Auricular frame is, in effect, composed of four different pieces of sculpture, which come together to compose the frame.
Mitch Peacock explains the mitred half-lap on his channel, WOmadeOD : click on image
After the drawing was approved, I started work on the construction of the frame carcase. Most Auricular frames are joined by what is known as a ‘mitred halved joint’, or a ‘mitred half-lap’. This has different lap joints at the front and back of the respective rails: or, in other words, there is a diagonal mitre at the back, and a perpendicular butt joint at the front. The video, above, shows very clearly how this is made. The double nature of the joint means that shrinkage of the wood is minimized, avoiding damage to the carving on the front, and also the spectator is hardly aware of how the frame is constructed.
Maarten Robert: carving the frame in an upright position
In order to begin the process of carving, the drawing was transferred onto the lengths of wood. At first the four rails were kept separate, and they were arranged flat on the bench for me to work on; however, at a certain point I joined them together in the form of the frame they would become, so that I could continue carving with the wood in an upright position. I still believe this is the best way to work on a frame of this size, in order to have a good overview of the whole object. It was also of great importance to have the right light falling from above, in an approximation of how the finished object would appear in the museum. Toward the end of the project it is important to keep the carving lively; – it has to be crisp and look natural, and must never be overworked. Altogether it took ten to twelve weeks to finish carving the whole frame.
Finishing the frame
Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in new replica frame before finish was applied
After Pieter van Thiel had visited my studio to see the progress of the frame, it was decided to have a trial fitting in the Gallery of Honour at the Museum, in order to see how the Bol portrait worked in its new frame. Seeing it hung with the other paintings on display in the Gallery gave a sense of how the new frame would relate to its surroundings, and what had to be done in order to harmonize it with this setting. This was an enormously thrilling moment for everyone involved; I remember how excited we all were on seeing it in place. It was at this point that the decision was taken not to gild the frame, but instead to finish it with a warm brown polish and a patina as if of age.
Details from the two side rails of the finished frame
Colouring a piece of carving as complex as this frame is a very delicate business, I must say, especially when it has to harmonize with the painting. I referred to other frames in the Rijksmuseum as models, and launched into the final stage of the work. This was done first by applying a layer of orange-yellow stain to the wood, diluted with white spirit. I then built up the colour with successive layers of brown stain, some modified with black, until exactly the right tint and tone were achieved. The frame was then finished with a coat of hard bees’ wax, and rubbed softly to give a gentle lustre.
The painting in its new frame in the Rijksmuseum
When the portrait had been fitted with its new frame it was displayed in the Gallery of Honour in the Rijksmuseum, of which I was very proud indeed. Even today, when I have worked on so many other beautiful projects, I feel that this one was one of the best and most interesting of all, and gave me great pleasure.
Pieter van Thiel sadly died in 2012; we owe his scholarship a great deal, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay him a posthumous tribute. He was a man of great knowledge with a fine eye for detail, who has left us a magnificent body of art historical research on 16th and 17th painters.
The portrait and its new frame were exhibited for about ten years, but then it disappeared from the Gallery. It went on tour on many occasions, together with other highlights from the Rijksmuseum ; and it caused much interest when it was displayed in the Schiphol branch of the Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, like many other pieces of art, it has now been moved into store; it would be a wish come true for me to see it once more in the Gallery of Honour.
Making this Auricular frame so many years ago has had an inspiring influence on my work as a sculptor in wood. One result was a project consisting of a dozen carved frames, four of them based on the Auricular style, for which I invited well-known Dutch artists to paint a work inspired by one particular frame.
Matthijs Röling, Garden, in walnut Auricular-style frame by Maarten Robert, 54 x 48 cm overall
This has resulted in some beautiful and interesting combinations of frames and paintings, which were exhibited in different galleries and expositions . This project can still be seen on my website; it is called: ‘In het licht van de lijst’, or ‘In the brightness of the frame’.
I would like to thank Lynn Roberts for inviting me to write this article for The Frame Blog, and Hubert Baija, senior conservator of frames at the Rijksmuseum, for his comments and support.
Maarten Robert is a sculptor and woodcarver, mainly in the fields of restoration, and a faculty member of The School for Restoration, part of the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN). He was educated at the Studio for Restoration of Ornaments and Architectural Sculpture ‘Uilenburg’ in Amsterdam. The commission to carve a frame for the portrait by Ferdinand Bol, recounted above, inspired him to make a number of frames based on the 17th century Dutch style known as Kwab Stijl or ‘Lutma’ frames; after subsequent work in Florence, he completed a number of sculpted frames inspired by the Italian Renaissance which well-known artists were invited to fill with their paintings; the second exhibition pairing such frames and canvases took place at the Nijsinghhuis in Eelde, Holland (2005). He has also lectured on his work.
The frames on the De Witt family portraits: a note by The Frame Blog
Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum
The model for the replica frame on Bol’s Portrait of a man was one of four in the Dordrechts Museum, made for a group of family portraits by Jan de Baen. They fall into two pairs – a father and mother, Jacob de Witt and his wife, Anna van de Corput, painted c.1665, and their sons, Johan and Cornelis de Witt, painted after 1667, possibly in 1669. The frames have been through almost as much as the family, with the result that the two which frame the parents have been replaced by plaster copies, probably some time after the four were auctioned together in 1859 . The two sons still retain their original carved frames (although even with these, parts have been reconstructed in plaster), and the one on the portrait of Johan de Witt (above) was chosen as the model for reframing the Bol.
Sea monster mascaron on the bottom rail of one of the frames
The two original frames and their copies have shallow, flattish profiles decorated around the edges with modest Auricular suggestions of shells and segmental forms, and voluted mascarons of sea monsters at the base. The Auricular style, with its marine motifs and cartilaginous ear-like ornament, was a Mannerist genre which used organic rather than classical references. The marine forms were especially popular in the sea-going Netherlands, and can be found in many 17th carved Dutch frames. In these particular examples, they are overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves, carved in deep relief, and forming wreaths at the top around the family’s coats of arms. The top corners are decorated with acanthus leaves.
Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt, 1665, Dordrechts Museum; framed in a replica of the original frame & before restoration removed the overpainted black ground
Olive leaves (for peace) and bays (for achievement) represent the diplomatic and political lives of father and sons: although these later ended tragically – most notably for the siblings, Johan and Cornelis . Jacob de Witt, the father, was a lawyer, ambassador, burgomaster and Republican politician. Johan was also a lawyer, but became a civil servant with influence and power amounting to that of a Prime Minister; he engineered peace with Britain on terms prejudicial to the House of Orange, built up the Dutch navy, and then oversaw an even more successful peace treaty after the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Cornelis de Witt was another lawyer and burgomaster who took part in two sea battles against the English and French. These are men who, in other circumstances, affiliations, countries or eras, might have chosen to have innumerable martial and naval trophies carved on the frames of their portraits; they chose more peaceful and symbolic garlands of bay leaves and olives, however – peculiarly poignantly, in view of their respective ends.
Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt after restoration; Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in replica frame
Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man is very close in date to De Baen’s De Witt portraits, and in many ways close to them in presentation and composition. Bol’s sitter is posed in a similar attitude to De Baen’s Jacob de Witt, seated almost frontally, leaning on a support at the left, against a stormy sky; and yet how different both these subjects are from each other! Jacob de Witt is ascetic and lawyerly, static, withdrawn in gesture, the only richness of colour in the painting the carpet on which he leans and the lurid sunset in the background. The portrait of Johan de Witt, which provided the model for the frame of the Bol portrait, is perhaps even more austere than that of his father, lacking both colourful silk carpet and sunset; the animation here resides in his face, the mouth slightly open, as if about to speak, and the hand poised in rhetorical gesture. In contrast, Bol’s unknown man – variously identified as the artist and architect Jacob van Campen (1596-1657), the Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus (1609-68), who probably taught Grinling Gibbons, and Louys Trip (1605-84), arms dealer and builder with his brother of the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam – is relaxed, bohemian and expansive, surrounded by the work of his hands and opulently clothed in coloured velvet and silk. The branches of bay leaves are equally suitable for his achievements, since the bay is Apollo’s attribute, and Apollo is patron of the arts; if the sitter were indeed Artus Quellinus, this garland of carved limewood leaves would by coincidence be particularly appropriate – given the work of both Quellinus and his putative pupil, Gibbons.
Just as Bol’s portrait is flamboyant and colourful, where De Baen’s pictures of both Jacob and his son Johan are sober and monochrome, so the replica frame of the former is, as it were, the reverse of the latter: dark polished wood, instead of gleaming gold leaf. Paintings and frames have become, fortuitously, positive and negative images of each other, and it would be fascinating to see them exhibited side-by-side. Considering this juxtaposition, it is now also ironic that it is the modest and austere lawyers who are identified by colourful coats of arms, and the dandified sitter who sits beneath an empty shield.
Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Cornelis de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum, before restoration removed the overpainted black ground of the frame
Compared with the images of his father, his mother and his brother, the portrait of Cornelis de Witt is another reverse. The picture of a man of action, set against a distant warship on a sunset sea, Cornelis wears the most extraordinary ceremonial uniform, weighed down by gold and silver braid, cinched with a tasselled sash, and finished by a rich lace cravat. He holds a baton of office, has a chased sword on his hip, and is set against a swooping red velvet curtain. He seems to exemplify the power of war, where his brother demonstrates the power of words. The scene shown in the background of the painting is the Raid on the Medway of 1667, in which the Dutch fleet, commanded by Michiel de Ruyter and supervised by Cornelis de Witt, attacked part of the British fleet which was at anchor in the River Medway. Two important British ships were captured, whilst others were lost or burnt. The Dutch victory led to the Treaty of Breda in July 1667, ending the second Anglo-Dutch War; the olive branches of peace around Cornelis’s frame are thus as appropriate as for his father and brother.
Jan de Baen, Anna van den Corputlow (d. 1645), 1665, after Gerard van Honthorst, 1639; shown before restoration, Dordrecht Museum
The four De Witt family paintings and their frames were restored in 2005 for an exhibition in the Dordrechts Museum, The De Witt brothers: Power and helplessness in the Golden Age.
Detail of one of the two original frames showing woodworm damage and the overpainted black ground. Photo: Dordrechts Museum
Their parlous condition is illustrated by the worm damage, above; presumably this was already advanced when the parents’ frames were replaced in the 19th century, and those of the sons repaired with spot reconstructions. In the course of the restoration the black ground which had been applied to the frames at some point was removed, returning them to their original golden finish . The result was to render the frames far less emphatic and obtrusive, relative to the paintings; they became once more golden garlands of softly varying surface and light, focusing the attention but not stealing it.
Sander Paarlberg of the Dordrechts Musem discusses the frame restoration with the restorer Renée Velsink in 2004. Photo: Dordrechts Museum
Restoring one of the plaster frames. Photo: Dordrechts Museum
Jan de Baen, Johan de Witt, detail of frame after restoration. Photo: Dordrechts Museum
With grateful thanks to the Dordrechts Museum for information and photos.
 Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw [Praise/Prize the frame: The Dutch picture frame in the seventeenth century], exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops, 1984, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam; translated into English as Framing in the Golden Age, 1995 (117 illus. and diagrams).
 Picture and frame were part of the following travelling exhibitions: 2005, The Golden Age- Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; 2005-2006, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.
 2005: In the brightness of the frame: Frames by Maarten Robert, Gallery Vieleers, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Museum de Buitenplaats, Eelde, Netherlands; Gallery De Galerie, Haarlem, Netherlands; Gallery Spierenburg & Ramon, Antwerp, Belgium.
 Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw, exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel & C.J.de Bruyn Kops, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1984, no 63.
 Johan and Cornelis de Witt were lynched in The Hague in 1672 by a mob supporting William III of Orange. Their coat of arms shows, with rather grisly clairvoyance, two hounds hunting a hare on a green field. Jacob de Witt, the brothers’ father, had moved to The Hague in his late 60s, but after the murder of his sons (when he was 83) he moved back to his birthplace, Dordrecht, where he died two years later. His wife had died decades earlier, in 1645, and Jan de Baen copied her portrait from one of 1639 by Gerard van Honthorst, updating her costume to that of the mid-1660s.