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This painting was commissioned by the innovative Italian art collector Amedeo dal Pozzo (1579–1644). Dal Pozzo wanted a series of works illustrating events from the life of Moses for his palace in Turin and the French-born artist Nicolas Poussin was an ideal choice. Poussin’s work was informed by the study of classical antiquities, yet was strikingly modern through his use of colour and the complexity of his composition. The subject is drawn from the Old Testament book of Exodus and shows the moment after the Red Sea closes over the pursuing Egyptian army, thereby saving the fleeing Israelites.
Few picture frames generate as much interest as the early eighteenth-century French frame currently surrounding Poussin’s Crossing of the Red Sea. The frame, independent of the painting, might easily be put on display for its singular strength as a work of decorative art, design and manufacture. Stylistically it sits at a watershed moment in which the formal dignity of Louis XIV’s (1642-1715) monumental style gave way to the lighter more fanciful ornament of the Régence, a period defined by its fantastic combinations of foliage, arabesques and grotesque masks.
The opulence of the frame creates a complex relationship with the painting, one that has in the past, led to the frame being left in storage in favour of a simple, commercial moulding for display.
One of a pair, the other on the companion painting The Adoration of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery London, the frame is believed to have been made around 1710. It was around this time that the then owner of both paintings, Jean-Baptiste le Ragois de Bretonvilliers in whose inventory of 1712 they appear, undertook the redecoration of the Bretonvilliers Parisian apartments in the Régence style.
The single impression we have when we look at this frame is of an intricately worked border of solid gold. This is a conscious intention, to take the simple materials of wood, chalk, animal glue, plant resins and extremely thin leaves of gold and create the illusion of something of much greater material worth. The value of the frame lies in the success of this illusion, and with the frame on the Crossing of the Red Sea this illusion is at its pinnacle. The frame is not the original presentation of the painting. The original framing is lost and no record has yet come to light of what form it might have taken. It was perhaps of Italian origin, given the painting was painted in Rome. If we take the Self Portrait (1650) by Poussin in the collection of the Musée du Louvre as one reference point, the frames in the background of the image suggest Poussin may have chosen very simple classical profile frames, gilded but lacking decoration of the surface. These would be more in keeping with the framing practice around the middle of the seventeenth century. The early eighteenth-century frame demonstrates a preoccupation with a more elaborate notion of the border of the painting, designed to harmonise with equally elaborate furnishings and architectural details.
The frame is nevertheless designed to function with the composition of the picture. The strong centre and corner ornaments form visual crosses and diagonals that align with the basic composition of the painting – the central horizontal band of the second tier of figures and the strong central vertical, aligned through the figure crouching in the foreground to pick up the shield. Similar compositional relationships can be drawn in the companion framing of The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Though for some viewers the frame might seem overwrought, it nevertheless forms a satisfyingly rich and complex counterpoint to the painting. We should remember that the frame was intended to be viewed in suppressed natural light and candle light, the articulation of the matte, burnished and textured gilding being used to create a more subtle play on the surface than the uniform artificial lighting in an art gallery. The tension comes from the frame and the painting establishing an equal presence in the field of view of the audience while representing distinctly different aesthetic concerns.
The timber throughout the frame is oak. Three primary wooden sections are assembled to form the base of the frame. Surfaces from these sections remain exposed to form parts of the overall profile. The astragal (2) runs through the length of each section and forms the bead which defines the shift from the inner, hollow flat to the richly ornamented cushion. The hollow flat is formed by exposing part of the lower section of the frame (1) between the overlayed sections of carved detail. Adjacent to this repose, a carved timber strip was added along the length of the sight edge (5). The larger, deeper sections to be carved in the inner half of the frame (3) were fitted onto the basic profile (parts1 and 2), while the bulk of the frame, the cushion and all the detail embellishing it, were carved from a solid section (4). This large block was glued to the base (1&2) and the various blocks forming part 3 and located with dowel pins (one toward each end and a third near the middle) running through the depth of the profile from top to bottom. This assembly of wooden sections was then worked as a whole. Individual smaller pieces of timber were glued in place throughout, for instance the end pieces of leaves and the projections beyond the sight edge at each corner.
Every surface of the frame is articulated and refined in some way with precise re-cutting or repareur of the gesso to create such patterns as the grain d’orge (cross-hatching), pointillé (punchwork), azure (parallel lines) and brettee (veining) of the foliate forms. Microscopic cross-sections through the gilding and ground reveal a deep body of material utilising at least six layers of gesso, the uppermost being the thickest, allowing plenty of scope for the repareur. (fig 3) The gilding itself appears over a red bole layer around 40 microns thick. According to Jean Felix Watin’s 1755 treatise on gilding, the final stages of the production would involve matting the surface with glue size, filling in gaps in the gilding with small pieces and toning (patinating) with dragon’s blood. The somewhat imprecise laying down of the gold leaf is most notable along the unadorned flat hollow and is representative of gilding of this period. The four sections that make up the frame were united at the corners with large mortise and tenon joints, augmented by screws across the mitre. It was intended to be taken apart and re-assembled to allow transport and installation. The frame weighs over 140 kilograms and measures 2.68 metres in width and 2.06 metres in height. At some time the tenons were glued in place and later again cut through to take the frame apart. The assembly is currently supported with large, hand forged right angle brackets screwed to the reverse. Miraculously the frame has been passed down through the centuries with very little interference to the surface. Apart from small losses in the ornament and minor repairs to broken sections and worn gilding, the frame is in exceptionally good condition.
Given the superb quality of the frame and the position and wealth of the Bretonvilliers family, it is reasonable to assume the frames were made by the craftsmen of the Bâtiments du Rois. Though the workshop of Jules Degoullons has been suggested, a solid attribution has yet to be established. We can only marvel at the workmanship of these craftsmen who, unlike the creator of the painting, to this date remain unknown.
Conservation treatment of the frame was carried out concurrent to that of the painting in 2010-11. The treatment program involved removing localised applications of ‘bronze’ over-paint that had darkened over time and reinstating over 30 small losses to the carved ornament. These losses occurred along the grain line of overhanging or pierced ornament forms, most notably for the final presentation of the painting, the carved floral motifs that overhang the image area at the frame sight edge mitres. The replacement components were carved in fine-grained, dimensionally stable pattern-making timbers and decorated using the same techniques and materials as used in the original.
Oak, recut gesso, gold leaf.
Good original condition, retaining the original gilding. Small losses in the carved ornament were restored in 2010-11.