Reframing the Frame, Exhibition at the Louvre

Regards sur les cadres Louvre Museum Empty Frames

“Excuse me,” demanded a tourist armed with an open Louvre map and a huge camera, “where is the art?”

I had been standing with my nose in an intricately sculpted wooden frame that was, in fact, empty. Indeed, all the frames surrounding us in the gallery were missing their paintings, their raisons d’être. The resulting room was quite eerie at first: the empty frames seemed to be putting on a phantom exhibition.

This was the first room of the mini-exhibition, Regards sur les cadres (Reframing the Frame), which spans three humble galleries of the gigantesque Musée du Louvre. It is the Louvre’s first exhibition dedicated to frames, and is the result of ongoing research on the museum’s massive collection of nearly 9,000 frames, 3,000 of which are stored away in the reserves. This work is being led by painting curators and the Framing and Gilding Workshop (I love that the Louvre has their own framing and gilding workshop).

This exhibition aims to “invite visitors to question the complex status of the frame: a utilitarian object at the service of the painting it protects, frames, and emphasizes, yet simultaneously a work of art in its own right” (from the introductory wall panel).


The first room is almost shocking: a gallery full of empty frames cannot help but subvert a visitor’s visual expectations. By denuding these exquisite objects of their paintings, it becomes possible to really savor their virtuosity and creativity. I felt like I was seeing something very familiar in a totally new way.

The showstoppers for me were the 18th century French frames, made of sculpted wood and covered with gold leaf. The longer I spent time with each frame, the more details would pop out at me: flowers, ribbons, leaves, beads, contours, branches, bows...

Louis XV Frame Louvre Museum
Louis XVI Frame Louvre Museum
Louis XVI Frame Louvre Museum Bow
Louis XVI Frame Louvre Museum Bow


The second gallery of the exhibition puts paintings back in the frames to help visitors start thinking about the choices behind the pairings of frames and paintings. I had never taken the time to look at a painting on display in a museum and question whether or not I agreed with the combination.

What are your thoughts on the following pairings?

Chardin Ustensiles de cuisine Louvre Museum

The wall panel mentions that this frame, made much later than the painting, highlights the painting’s economy and simplification of forms. The large scale of the frame helps magnify the quotidian objects that the artist sculpts with light.

Painting: Jean-Siméon Chardin (France), Ustensiles de cuisine, chaudron, poëlon et œufs, about 1733

Frame: French from about 1850


Again, this frame was made later than the Chardin painting inside. The wall panel argues that the frame’s sober decor and geometric profile add to the painting’s elegance and perfect composition.

Painting: Jean-Siméon Chardin (France), Pipes et vases à boire, about 1737

Frame: French from about 1760-1770

Chardin La Tabagie Louvre Museum
Baugin Le Dessert de gaufrettes Louvre Museum

The wall panel points out that the frame’s brown tones encourage comparison with the sobriety of still life paintings made by the artist’s Flemish contemporaries, whom he could have met in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. A gilded frame would have perhaps shattered the austere silence that radiates from this still life.

Painting: Lubin Baugin (France), Le Dessert de gaufrettes, about 1631

Frame: Italian (?) from 1600-1700


The wall panel mentions that this frame’s exuberant decor is in line with the taste of the 18th century culture in which it was produced. While the frame was created specifically for this 17th century landscape, it comes from a completely different artistic culture than the painting.

Painting: Attributed to Johannes Lingelbach (Germany, the Netherlands), La Dînée des voyageurs, about 1650 (?)

Frame: French from about 1730-1740

Lingelbach La Dînée des voyageurs Louvre Museum


The final gallery presents a variety of specific choices for frame/painting pairings, as seen in the Louvre’s galleries today. These choices have been made by collectors, museum curators, and even artists themselves, and they highlight the historical dimension of the presentation of paintings.

Royal French Collections

This Italian painting entered Louis XIV’s collection in 1665 and this frame was commissioned for it at that time. The frame demonstrates this royal connection with intertwined L’s in the corners, and it matches the painting’s fishy subject matter with dolphin heads, fishing nets, and cornucopia. So while the frame and painting have different geographical and chronological origins, the curators decided to keep this trace of the painting’s history rather than find a contemporary Italian frame.

Painting: Annibale Carracci (Italy), La Pêche, about 1585-1588 / Frame: French from 1665-1680

Annibale Carracci La Pêche Louvre Museum
Annibale Carracci La Pêche Louvre Museum
Annibale Carracci La Pêche Louvre Museum Dolphin

Original Artist’s Frame

This frame was designed for this painting by the painter himself. The sculpted demons and serpents mirror the painted creatures that live in this palace in the capital of Hell, inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Painting: John Martin (Great Britain), Le Pandemonium, 1841 / Frame: Great Britain, 1840-1850

John Martin Le Pandemonium Louvre Museum
John Martin Le Pandemonium Louvre Museum Demon Frame

Curator’s Choice

When the Louvre acquired Mathieu Le Nain’s Le Reniement de saint Pierre in 2008, it came in the Italian frame seen below.

Painting: Mathieu Le Nain (France), Le Reniement de saint Pierre, around 1648 / Frame: Florence (?), Italy, 1650-1700

Image: (c)    RMN-Grand Palais    (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle

Image: (c) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle

Italian Frame Louvre Museum Le Nain
Italian Frame Louvre Museum Le Nain

While this Italian frame is exquisite, the Louvre curators decided that it was a bit much. So after the acquisition, they decided to reframe the French painting with a contemporary French frame. This sober and elegant frame also harmonized more readily with the other frames already on display in the gallery where this painting would be hung.

Frame: France, 1650-1700

Le Nain Le Reniement de saint Pierre Louvre Museum
Le Nain Le Reniement de saint Pierre Louvre Museum


At the end of the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to continue practicing their newly honed critical regard of frames in the adjacent galleries, where several frames now feature their own descriptive wall texts.

The Louvre is also working on a guide for the frames on display in its galleries, which should come out in 2019.

Regards sur les cadres empty frames louvre museum

Regards sur les cadres (Reframing the Frame) at the Musée du Louvre (until November 5, 2018)

Galleries: Sully wing, 2nd floor, rooms 904 to 906  ∣ Address: Palais du Louvre 75001 Paris  ∣ Métro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre (line 1 or 7) ∣ Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday from 9am to 6pm, open until 9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday (NOTE: while the museum is open on Mondays, this exhibition is not)

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