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Whistler, Roussel, and Frame Design

Museum visitors ask us lots of excellent questions, but one frequent topic is that of frames. How do we choose them? Are they original? Visitors to Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions may have noticed that there are several different frames in use in the exhibition. Both James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel cared enough about the public presentation of their prints that they designed special frames to exhibit them. So in keeping with their shared interest in frame design, we made a point to present their works on paper in frames consistent with the aesthetic that each of them preferred. In the case of Whistler’s prints and drawings, we have used frames that were made based on his own designs. Many of these were seen previously at the Art Institute in the 1998 exhibition, Songs on Stone.

For Roussel, whose work has only rarely been shown before at the Art Institute, we were able to use some of the original frames that he himself created. Roussel designed two different types of frames for his prints. For his monochrome prints, he used a thin wooden frame with an ivory or bone-colored finish; this frame style had rounded corners, and Roussel then adhered prints with different patterns to them. One example is his Lily Pattern Frame of 1888/89 (top image). For some of his color prints, Roussel designed elaborate ensembles consisting of the color print or work of art, which was placed on a printed color mount, and then both were enclosed in a wider frame profile with square corners onto which patterned prints were also adhered. There are three of these complete ensembles in the exhibition, including Last Poppies, shown in the Stag and Flower Pattern Frame (image immediately above).

In situations where we didn’t have enough of Roussel’s original frames, we created new frames in order to carry out his vision. In this photograph, you see conservation specialist Christopher Brooks and frame conservator Kirk Vuillemot (left to right) discussing the vintage frames the Roussel produced. We selected the monochrome frame style as our prototype, and we decided to emulate the rounded corners and ivory colored varnish. Kirk developed the reproduction ‘Roussel-inspired’ model that we used in the exhibition. We wanted to be clear that these were not original period frames, so to help make that distinction we did not produce pattern prints to adhere to the frames.

In addition to the specific framing decisions made for the exhibition, special attention was also paid to the overall presentation of the works. For Roussel’s L’agonie des fleurs, we used the new Roussel-style frame and then mounted the work on white-gold leaf coated paper (above). This presentation emulates Roussel’s experimentation with metallic inks for printing and also for printed mounts. We also employed a green-brown mat for some of Whistler’s color prints, like Moonrise in the New Forest (below).

One of the great delights of preparing an exhibition that is based on the Art Institute’s permanent collection is the opportunity to work with conservation preparators like Christine Conniff-O’Shea (below) to make these kinds of decisions. When an exhibition features permanent collection works rather than those borrowed from other institutions, we can control how objects are matted and framed to create a viewing experience that not only enhances the pleasure of seeing our collection displayed but also supports the thesis of the exhibition itself.

—Victoria Sancho Lobis, Prince Trust Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings