Updated: Jan 28, 2021
On the first day in nearly a month in which I have been able to carve out space for Flowers and Fruit, the Gallica BnF website is down--and with it, my access to the December and January 1888 issues of La Révue Indépendante. Félix Fénéon, the civil servant, anarchist, and art critic, mentioned Theo van Gogh's exhibition of Gauguin's work in those issues. But I cannot tell you what he said because I am in California and the French server that usually brings me my sources with only a minimum of attitude has gone to bed with a headache.
I don't blame the server for feeling poorly. It has been quite a month. More than that, quite a year. And it is not only my work that is going more slowly than planned: our friends at the Wildenstein Plattner Institute have not only not released the new volumes of the Gauguin catalogue raisonné promised for the end of December. They haven't even had the bandwidth to update their website. Visit it and you will find, still, that the Catalogue is "forthcoming December 2020." Well. We have all fallen short.
I quote Anne Lamott to my students whenever I can get away with it. In her 1994 book Bird by Bird, Lamott writes: "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people"(28). It will leave you immobilized on the sofa, unable to make any choice lest it be the wrong one. It will shame you if you miss your deadlines (I'm looking at you, WPI) and it will shame you if you spend a month revising syllabi and unraveling the news instead of writing about late 19th century French art and artists. This entire project is an exercise in stepping away from perfectionism. And it's an exercise in letting go of other things, too: I build arcs in my head only to have the server go down, or the publications team a continent away to miss their deadlines. For the last few months, I have planned to lean on the new Gauguin catalogue; I planned to lean on Félix Fénéon's caustic criticism. Perfectionism scolds me for shifting directions. It tells me, in the voice of my high school college counselor, that I should stay the course, take no risks, never get a B. Changing my plan, that inner voice says, might be just as dire as that college counselor, may he rest in peace, suggested that a B in Algebra would be for my future.
The B in Algebra did not bring intellectual ruin. And so, in the spirit of squelching that oppressive voice, of refusing to cede to the enemy of perfectionism, today we are going to talk about picture frames. It's not where I thought the story would go at this point, but that doesn't mean it's not a useful direction.
On January 12, 1939, the staff of Day & Meyer, Murray & Young, "packers, shippers, and movers of high grade household effects & art objects," packed three cases of paintings to ship from Robert McKee's apartment on the corner of East 79th St. and Lexington Avenue to the "San Joachin [sic] Pioneer and Historical Society" in Stockton, CA. Item #11 in Case #1 was an "Oil Painting, inscribed 'en tolmi Roy, PG.'" It was Flowers and Fruit.
The painting was shipped in its frame--its 4" gilt frame which, the packers noted on the inventory, was "chipped on [the] bottom and right side." Whoever kept the log that became the typed inventory was moving too fast to check the spelling of Joaquin or peer closely at the painting's signature although, to be fair, "en tolmi Roy" was a reasonable interpretation.
The painting--perhaps the first painting attributed to Gauguin to join a museum collection west of the Mississippi-- took pride of place next to the fireplace in the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society's McKee Room later that year.
Flowers and Fruit is still in the same frame--and the frame constitutes another clue as to the painting's history. Museums don't customarily change out the frames on paintings; a frame tends to be treated as part of a canvas's identity, part of its original appearance. I was curious about the frame because of what it might be able to tell me about the painting's life before 1939. Frames are historical. Styles, materials, decorations change. Tastes change.
Flowers and Fruit, 2018
Flowers and Fruit, 1939
The frame is carved wood, finished in gesso, a thin plaster used for ornamentation. Long ago, it was painted or gilded a reddish-gold. The edge of the frame is decorated with "scrolling foliate corners and strapwork and leaf bud centres" or stylized leaves and flowers around the corners; the middle of each side is left plain. The interior of the frame, the area closest to the mat, has a narrow ribbon-and-stave motif--which means that it looks like a stave, a narrow length of wood, with a ribbon wrapped around it. The frame is ornate, exaggerated. It's a far cry from the simple black frames around the exhibition posters in my study. It calls attention to the painting: it suggests grandeur, imposing work on imposing walls.
Except that it's sadly dinged. The finish is coming off; in spots there are outright chips and cracks. The gilding is worn to almost nothing. It looks, as my relatives would say, like it was ridden hard and put away wet. Uncared for, neglected, weary.
I was only moderately curious about the frame until I began to notice frames on other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.
On a February afternoon in Pasadena I came across this Cézanne still life in its ornate frame:
Detail, Paul Cézanne, Flowers in a Red Vase, 1880-1881,
Norton-Simon Museum, personal photo
You see it, right? The swoopy carving, the heavy delicacy?
Detail, Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Meier de Haan, 1889,
MoMA, personal photo
Or this one, a Gauguin from MoMA: it's different, but it's more the same than it's not. The frames are close cousins, if not siblings, or at least half-siblings.
My museum visits became as much about seeing the frames around the paintings as about the paintings themselves. Late one Monday in Paris at the Orangerie I came across the closest frame yet:
Paul Cézanne, Pommes et biscuits, 1879-1880, Musée de l'Orangerie, personal photo
The carvings are there, the "leaf bud centers." Around the inside edge the motif is nearly identical. In the corners, where the edges meet, the ornamentation smooths out:
Detail, Flowers and Fruit, personal photo
Detail, Pommes et biscuits, personal photo
Both frames have those smooth corners, the same joint. If you squint, you can see how close the carved decorations are. It's like looking at two elderly sisters, one of whom has had an easy life of regular visits to the doctor, healthy meals, and plenty of exercise, while the other has had intermittent health care and too many frozen enchiladas. Other visitors to the Orangerie that afternoon were focused on the Waterlilies; I was testing how close the security guards would let me get to the frames.
Maybe I've convinced you that this frame that hangs in a back room a few blocks off of Interstate 5 is of the same ilk as frames that hang in more elite locations. Why does it matter? It matters because it is another link in the chain. Art dealers such as Vollard and Durand-Ruel commissioned frames such as these for the work of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists that they showed. The frames--which echoed the rococo style of a century earlier--were meant to draw attention to the canvases, to give them gravitas. This was in the days, remember, when these paintings were risky investments, when they were more likely to be shown on the walls of a working-class café than in the halls of the Louvre. Dealers often bought paintings unframed from artists. Then, unhampered by the artist's taste, they chose gilded, carved, elegant frames to suggest that these paintings were valuable, that they would pop on the clients' papered walls. And over time, the frames became associated with the art, the art with the frames, to the degree that the frames themselves look neutral. Modern viewers look past the frame to the invaluable paint on canvas that it contains.
Almost a century ago someone chose this frame for Flowers and Fruit. The frame proclaimed that this painting belonged next to Cézannes and Redons, Pissarros and Signacs. That it belonged next to Gauguins. The frame leads us back in time to the moment when Flowers and Fruit entered the art market.