If you ever get the chance to view the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first thing you’ll notice is its size. At 14 feet tall and 21 feet wide, the gigantic masterwork elicits gasps. For nearly a century, the iconic painting has been part of the Met’s collection, but until recently, no one paid much attention to its quiet co-star: the frame.
In 2007, a Met curator came across an 1864 photo of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer. He immediately noticed that the frame in the photograph was strikingly different. Staff research revealed that the plain gold frame museum curators and patrons had come to know was nothing like the original: a highly detailed piece decorated with ornate, hand-carved American iconography.
With a renovation of the American Wing about to begin, the curators knew it was a perfect opportunity to recreate the magnificent frame. Suzanne Smeaton, an expert in American frames, spearheaded a collaboration between dozens of people — curators, framers, architects, wood carvers, engineers — whose entire lives became consumed by designing and constructing the new frame. The task took several years and dozens of hands, through various phases of research, construction, carving and gilding.
Despite their supporting role, there is a growing awareness and appreciation for frames. Crafted from fine materials through the steady, practiced hand of a woodcarver, frames were just as much a historical artifact of their time as the art they housed. The intricate patterns and motifs sealed with gold leaf reveal the artistic trends of a bygone era. In the past, curators rarely documented the frames that arrived with artworks and, as a result, many have been lost. “Frames generally take a backseat,” explains Smeaton, “but, when present, they’re truly an extension of the art itself.” Beyond historical considerations, frames are subject to aesthetic choices. “A lot of frames have been removed from their artworks due to the vagaries of taste. What we love right now is probably not what they’re going to love in 50 years,” Smeaton notes.
Smeaton realizes that by recreating a piece of the past, she and the team were taking liberties. “It’s really subjective,” Smeaton admits. For those concerned with authenticity in art, the frame might seem a bit disingenuous; like an Instagram photo filter, it imitates the past. Smeaton adds, “To this day, I can have a very animated exchange with my coworkers about, ‘Is this the right frame for this particular painting?’”
Once the frame was finished, getting it to the Met was no mean feat. In preparation for the trip, it was taken apart and carefully wrapped, while a small, protective crate was created for the crest. Since the museum’s freight elevators could not accommodate the frame’s length, it went through the front door and up the grand staircase. A row of seven men hoisted the frame on their shoulders, carefully snaking through galleries and dodging glass vitrines filled with costly ancient pottery and decorative art. Dozens of engineers, architects and handlers worked together to hoist the frame upright and get it in place around the priceless painting.
Despite in-depth research, Smeaton isn’t sure where the original George Washington frame went. “I harbor a fantasy that after [this frame] has been on view for a few years, someone is going to write to the Met and say ‘You know, we have a crest that looks a lot like that,’” Smeaton says. “It’s hard to believe that someone would discard such a thing.” With more attention being paid, maybe fewer frames will get lost in the fray.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.