From canvas to pixel: The history of Photo Frames
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From canvas to pixel: The history of Photo Frames

Framing Services / From canvas to pixel: The history of Photo Frames

From Egyptian paintings to modern masterpieces, frames have consistently played an indispensable role in the world of art and photography. The history of photo frames is a captivating journey that spans millennia, reflecting the evolution of human creativity, innovation, and aesthetic sensibility.

In this article, we’ll explore the rich history of frames, from their humble beginnings to the diverse designs we encounter today.

Ancient beginnings (1st century)

The history of picture frames can be traced back to ancient civilisations, where they were initially used for solely practical purposes. In ancient Egypt, wooden frames were crafted to protect and display ornate hieroglyphics and religious texts.

After the pivotal Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Egypt came under Roman rule, marking a significant cultural shift in the region. During this period, a fascinating and artistic trend emerged in Egyptian burial practices. Realistic paintings of people’s faces on wooden panels, known as ‘mummy portraits’ gained popularity and became an integral part of burial customs.” It is possible that some portraits were intended to be displayed in houses before being used for burial,” notes the British Museum, referring to a small framed portrait of a woman on a fig wood panel, complete with a cord for suspension. This remarkable artefact originated during the Roman period in Egypt, dating back to AD 50–70.

The Ancient Greeks also followed a similar trajectory, creating the earliest frames through the art of stone carving.

Medieval elegance (5th-15th century)

During the Early Middle Ages, the use of picture frames spread from Greece to various parts of Europe. While there might have been some initial attempts at crafting frames from stone, the practical challenges associated with it eventually led to the adoption of wood as a more viable alternative.

As art and culture flourished during the High Middle Ages, picture frames evolved into more elaborate and opulent pieces. Wealthy patrons and religious institutions commissioned frames made of precious materials like gold or silver, adding to their grandeur. These lavish frames were not just functional but also reflected the religious significance of the artworks they enclosed. Additionally, frames were used to protect paintings from environmental damage, such as dust and moisture, preserving the beauty of the artworks for generations to come.

Renaissance evolution (15th-17th century)

During the Early Renaissance, there was a noticeable change in the predominant style of painting. Artists started to focus more on worldly and non-religious themes, moving away from traditional subjects. As a result, the types of frames used to display these artworks also evolved.

For artworks with clear religious references, tabernacle frames, characterised by asymmetrical sides and bold architectural features, were commonly used. Otherwise, the cassetta (meaning “little box”) frame became the preferred choice. This frame style laid the groundwork for today’s basic picture frame and exerted a lasting influence on frame development in subsequent centuries.

As new artistic movements like Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, and Romanticism emerged, the preferred frame style shifted gradually to a more fashionable option known as the gallery frame.

Age of Enlightenment (17th-18th century)

“Gallery frames were to harmonise with the lavish interiors of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, interiors that were frequently filled with works of art of disparate periods and styles, all of which required to be framed alike”, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) explains. The adaptability of the gallery frame made it the preferred choice for displaying an eclectic mix of artistic styles and genres.

During this period, gallery frames were frequently changed, sometimes every generation, to keep up with the ever-changing fashionable tastes or to avoid giving the impression of a decline in the family’s fortunes. It’s not surprising that frames from this period are much less common compared to other works of art from the same era, as their survival is solely dependent on historical chance.

Victorian artistry (19th century)

The 19th century witnessed the rise of several artistic movements, including Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, and Symbolism. Artists during this time explored new themes, techniques, and styles, reflecting the changing perspectives and values of society.

In the realm of frames, this era saw a continued appreciation for ornate and decorative designs, especially during the early Victorian period. Picture frames from this time were often characterised by intricate carvings, gilded surfaces, and elaborate embellishments. These frames complemented the artwork of the period and served as a display of prosperity and taste for the upper classes.

Towards the later half of the 19th century, with the advent of modernity and industrialisation, simpler and more streamlined frame designs became popular. The Arts and Crafts movement, for instance, emphasised handmade craftsmanship and a return to traditional techniques, promoting the use of simpler and more natural materials in frame design.

The digital age (21st century)

Fast forward to today, and frames have undergone remarkable transformations thanks to the rapid advancement of technology. In different industries, such as photography, videography, web design, and virtual reality, frames have found new and exciting applications.

A standout example of this evolution is the digital photo frame, which has gained immense popularity in the modern era. It’s become a popular choice for modern-day photo enthusiasts, offering a convenient alternative to traditional static picture frames. As technology continues to push boundaries, it’s exciting to envision the myriad of innovative applications that frames will continue to find in our rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Final thoughts

Picture frames have a rich history that spans from ancient times to the digital age. Throughout this journey, we have witnessed their transformation from intricate artworks to the modern convenience of digital photo frames. However, in our opinion, one thing remains certain: the classic charm of traditional picture frames will never go out of style.

SohoFrames offers a diverse selection of picture frames. Whether you’re in search of an elegant rococo style photo frame or a rustic frame to complement an old painting, we have an extensive range to cater to every design preference.

Here at SohoFrames we are constantly developing and pushing the boundaries in framing, like our upcoming collection of Islamic-style frames which feature highflying finely detailed carved motifs that reflect the spirit of tradition. Tailor your frame to your exact liking or browse our carefully curated choices for an added touch of refinement.

If you’re interested in our bespoke framing services and want to know more, or you’d like to book a consultation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today.

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