27 Jul 21

A closer look at the Poussin frame and frame-making in early 18th century Paris


When we talk of frame making, we commonly think of it as a stand-alone, specialist craft but this was far from the situation in early 18th century Paris, where the Régence frame that houses Poussin’s The Crossing of the Red Sea was made. Instead, three independent professions with specialist craft skills were needed to produce a frame for the luxury market. The home and workshops of these craftsmen were centralised in the (then) eastern outskirts of Paris in the furniture-making district of Faubourg Saint-Antoine. During the early decades of the 1700’s, skilled craftsmen from across Europe migrated to the area, due to the relaxation of the guild system, swelling the number of craftsmen to become the largest furniture making centre in France by the mid-18th century.

Frame-making and carving

The Poussin frame would have started its physical life as long solid oak lengths, arriving up the Seine by barge to the Quai de la Rapée, where the city’s timber stores were based. Once transferred to the workshop of the menuisier*French term used for a carpenter, who would cut and assemble the timbers needed to carve a picture frame. (cabinet-maker) the timber lengths were roughly shaped and joined into its ogee profile (an architectural term given to the elongated S-curve).

The cross-section shown here provides some insight into how these sections were shaped and joined by the menuisier:

Section 1 is the back (or base) of the frame which incorporates the mitred mortise and tenon corner joints

Section 2 is an arched bead that runs the length of each of the frame member

Sections 3 and 4 provide the main profile*The profile is the main shape of a frame moulding. A profile drawing is an illustration of the frame moulding in cross-section. of the frame

Section 5 is a thin length of running ornament along the sight edge*The inner edge of the frame closest to the painting.


Image 1. A profile drawing of the frame on the frame of Nicolas Poussin’s Crossing of the Red Sea c. 1710

Sections 1 and 4 have been pinned together by timber dowels joining the members at each of the corners and at the centre of the upper and lower members. The other sections are held together with a series of nails and glue. In addition, small sections of timber have been added to the timber lengths to accommodate for the outermost tips of ornament.

These assembled lengths of roughly shaped timber were then given to the workshop of the sculpteur*French term used for a carver. (carver) who would have enriched these timber assemblage with the carved C-scrolls,*Types of decorative ornament often seen on picture frames which resemble the letters ‘c’ and ‘s’. shells, masques and strapwork visible here. The choice of ornament is representative of the Louis XIV period*A French 17th century Baroque frame style with straight sides and projecting corner and centre ornaments. and marks the transition between the stylistic periods during which the symmetry and order of Baroque style*A 17th century style, with frames characterised by deep-relief carving of organic forms, in particular leaves. gave way to the more fluid and lighter designs of the Régence period.

These specialised crafts of the menuisier and sculpteur required nine years of training each with the first 5-6 years spent as an apprenti*French term used for an apprentice. and the remaining as a compagnon.*French term for a journeyman. This position was part of the final education of craftsmen, who travelled and learnt new techniques for a number of years. Each craft was managed by their respective guilds which enforced the boundaries of the work they could carry out. The menuisiers could only build and assemble the timber blanks whilst sculpteurs could only carve. Heavy fines were issued and items confiscated if works was carried out beyond their designation(2).

During the carving stage, the ornament was roughly carved (Image 2) and would have had none of the fine surface detail that is visible on the ornament such as the veins of the leaves or cross-hatching.


Image 2. Detail of an historic carved ornament prior to finishing

Foundation layers, gilding and toning

The peinture-deoreur*French term used for a painter-gilder, who undertook the entire finishing on a frame, including repareur, gilding and toning. (painter-gilder) was given the detailed work of transforming almost 10 meters of carved timber into a richly decorated gold surface with a jewel-like result. It was this craftsperson that applied the foundation layers of gesso*Traditionally a A mixture of animal glue and gypsum applied in multiple layers to timber to create a foundation for decorative finishes such as painting or gilding. May also refer to ground layers containing chalk. and refined the basic carved frame form through re-cutting (reparure)*La reparure is the French term for the technique of finely carving into the gesso layers to create decoration prior to gilding. Le repareur is the term for the person who undertakes the work. , and then gilding (doreur) and toning.*The application of coatings to a frame to reduce the brightness of the gilding. Often these coatings are glue-based (see ormolu).

The methodical work carried out by the peinture-doreur is well documented in the 1773 treatise of Jean Felix Watin L’Art Du Peintre, Doreur, Vernisseur, Ouvrage Utile Aux Artistes Et Aux Amateurs (The Art Of The Painter, Gilder, Varnisher, Useful Book For Artists And Amateurs)(3). Watin notes seventeen distinct stages in the process of preparing the carved timber surface for application of foundation bole layers, through to the application of the final toning.

Steps one to four describe cleaning the wood (with a mixture of water, garlic and absinthe); applying ten to twelve coats of foundation gesso (a mixture of animal glue and chalk); filling holes and knots with putty (sanded with dogfish skin); and smoothing of the surface with a cloth or wetted pumice stone. These multiple layers of the gesso can be seen in the cross-section below (Image 3) which is viewed under 100x magnification. These layers are more distinct on the lower half of the image with bands of fine white particles at the bottom of the layer and larger translucent grey particles resting above. They vary in thickness but average 100 microns, about the thickness of a human hair. The gesso foundation is a multi-functional primer. Comprised of calcium carbonate (chalk) and animal glue, the glue content provides adhesive properties between the various layers and the chalk filler provides an eggshell finish that can be burnished smooth to a polished surface. The multiple layers provides the depth that evens out the irregularities in the timber and can be refined with finishing tools.


Image 3. A cross-section of frame surface (viewed under 100x magnification) taken from right hand side of the frame which shows layers of gesso, a red bole layer and the burnished gold leaf at top. A cross-section of frame surface (viewed under 100x magnification) taken from right hand side of the frame which shows layers of gesso, a red bole layer and the burnished gold leaf at top.

Step five of the treatise mentions la reparure or the fine carving of the gesso layers (often called misleadingly ‘recutting’) with special chisels in the shape of hooks, a technique which is unique to French framing. Recutting of the gesso layers create fine sculptural detail which is difficult to achieve by cutting into timber . The term is translated into the English as recutting however this is slightly misleading given the subtle skill and detailed knowledge of ornament design required to refine the detail of the gesso foundation. The historian Schipennof notes that it would more appropriately be called ‘embellishment’, citing the example of S-scrolls*Types of decorative ornament often seen on picture frames which resemble the letters ‘c’ and ‘s’. which “look more like the drumsticks of a force-fed goose than the slim tendrils carved in wood beneath”(4). It was this ability to transform a blank form into an intricately worked, lively surface detail that meant that le repareur was the highest paid craftsman in the gilder’s studio.

The recutting hooks used by le repareur, termed fers a reparer*French term for irons (chisels) of a repareur craftsman. (repairing irons), are hand-forged steel scrapers set on a long tang (length of metal between the cutting edge and the handle), mounted into a timber handle (Image 4). As with most carving tools, the cutting edge is worked into a short sharp bevel but unlike chisels which are pushed forward, the repairing irons cut on the pull stroke like a scraper.


Image 4. A range of fers a reparer are used by le repareur.

There are a range of different types of patterns created with the fers a reparer including: brettee (veining of leaves); grain d’orge (cross-hatching); jeu de fou or quadriage (diaper); and azuré (parallel lines). Can you pick out each of these in the frame detail below? Materials such as sand or pins were less commonly added to create surface texture.


Image 5. Frame detail from the centre ornament of Poussin’s ‘Crossing of the Red Sea’ (c. 1710)

In addition to the overall frame design and form, the extent and nature of la reparure distinguishes the stylistic period of the frame. Louis XIV (c.1643 – 1715) frames, which are distinguished by their straight edges with corner and centre ornament, feature reparure that is relatively simple with parallels lines that stop short of the terminal end of the ornament. The uncut area of gesso provides a generous cushion for burnishing of the gold leaf, a process of polishing the gold leaf which compacts the underlying clay and gesso to create a highly reflective gold finish. As we move into the Régence period*Stylistic period between Louis XIV and Louis XV, including about the first 30 years of the 18th century, when Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, was regent of France. (c. 1715 – 1723), the corner and centre ornament become much more exaggerated, with terminal points spilling into the sight edge and overhanging along the outer edges. Lines of ornament now converge and expand further to the tips of ornament. As with the previous period, a limited number of fers a reparer were used. These were elliptical in form and, used at different angles, would provide a range of line depths and widths creating a great range of shadows, once the frame was gilded.

The Louis XV (c. 1723 – 1774) style*A lighter French 18th century style, incorporating the Rococo elements, in particular swept edges and prominent corners and centres. frames are much more fanciful and light, and introduce asymmetrical forms and swept edges into their design. Asymmetrical carved ornament are echoed in the reparure, where a mixture of thin and broad lines are used to enrich the sculptural ornament. Almost all of the surface is worked by the fers a reparer and very little space is given to burnishing. There is a conscious effort to introduce undercutting*Voids and recesses under the ornament that create high relief and three dimensional form and greater emphasis is given to key features such as the stem and cóte (starting curl) of the acanthus leaf creating an overall shift to refined form. By the period of Louis XVI (c. 1774 – 1793) repareur is carried out across all of the gesso. What remains is a lip to define the outer edge of the design and broad subtle scoops (rather than thin lines) that designate the veins of ornament such as acanthus leaf.

With the reparure complete, the final preparatory layers were applied before the gilding. These include a jaune d’encollage (yellow size or glue layer)*A dilute or weak glue often made from rabbit skins. It is used in combination with other materials to make gesso and composition. and up to three layers of red bole on areas to be burnished and none in the interstices or undercuts, where the jaune d’encollage acted as the main colourant. Made from a mix of very fine clay particles and rabbit skin glue, the bole provides a sticky surface when moistened to apply the gold leaf to as well as impart a warmth that is visible through the microscopic breaks in the gold leaf. The bole was given a light polish with a dry cloth prior to gilding.

Steps twelve to seventeen of the treatise are given to the process of gilding. Gilding is carried out in the deepest areas of relief first, where cold water is applied to lightly reactivate the glue without causing the surface to soften.

Images 6 and 7. A gilder’s workshop and tools for wood carving and reparure, illustrated in the Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industries (Paris, 1763), edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Courtesy of the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, University of Chicago.

The gold leaf was handled and cut to shape using a gilders knife. The leaf itself would have been hand-beaten through a process that had changed little since those used by the early Egyptians five thousand years prior(5) and remains common to contemporary gold-leaf making practices. Small sheets of gold leaf were applied in a somewhat haphazard approach which was common until the mid-1700’s at which point, gilding techniques became more sophisticated where the neat overlapping of gold leaf sheets created subtle lines, called ‘laid lines’*The subtle lines visible where two sheets of gold leaf overlap at one edge.. The irregular application of gold leaf also resulted in frequent small gaps (described as faults*The process of filling in any gaps during the gilding process. or holidays*Gaps between sheets of gold leaf laid on a surface, which are subsequently filled in by faulting.) in the gilded surface where the yellow glue size (jaune d’encollage) remained visible.

The end or terminal points of ornament, such as the tips of the acanthus leaf and the raised flats of the strapwork ornament were burnished with a curved and polished agate stone mounted in a handle. Dog’s teeth were also used as a burnishing tool due to its distinctive curved shape. The burnishing process produces a highly reflective surface that would have glistened in the candlelight that was used to light the homes of this period.

The final stages of the gilding involved the application of the toning layers. A warm glue size was applied to matte the bright gold, before a red toning agent such as vermilion*A red-coloured pigment made from the mineral cinnabar (mercuric sulphide). or dragon’s blood*A natural plant resin derived from an East Asian palm (including Daemonorops draco). was applied in the ornament recesses to further accentuate the rich design. This method can be seen in the detailed image of the Poussin frame (Image 8) which shows an orange hue outlining the surrounding ornament.


Image 8. Detail of the frame during treatment showing a re-carved replacement area prior to gilding

Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), a technique which identifies chemicals and materials based on their ability to absorb light, was used to confirm the presence of dragon’s blood as the toning material. This is an orange-red coloured resin that is secreted from the Dracaena species of tree found in a number of countries in South East Asia, West Africa and the West Indies and has been used since antiquity in dyes and pigments. When the resin is first dissolved in alcohol to create a liquid, dragon’s blood has a bright orange-red tint that tends to shift towards brown as it oxidises and fades over time.

The steps outlined in Jean Felix Watin L’Art Du Peintre, Doreur, Vernisseur, Ouvrage Utile Aux Artistes Et Aux Amateurs are still used by the bespoke frame makers in France today. Walking through the charming passageways and courtyards of the 12th arrondissement of Paris, one still comes across a handful of these small ateliers who trace their lineage to a once bustling decorative arts enterprise that represented the epitome of modernity for their time.

The author wishes to thank Marie Dubost of de l’Atelier de la Feuille d’Or for generously sharing her knowledge and providing training and insight into the craft of French reparure and gilding and the support of the Elizabeth Summons grant that made research and training into this specialist technique possible.

Read more about frames at the NGV’s Centre for Frame Research