Did you know? Whistler was a Framer

Did you know? James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a framer

Famously known for the painting of his mother, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American expatriate painting and living in London in the late 19 th century. He was working within an environment where Islamic and Moorish designs were becoming prevalent and the Industrial Revolution was making many long for a return to nature. As a result, Whistler began to make frames with a harmony of design and a balance of natural ornament.

He was attracted to the way color emerged from gold leaf when placed directly onto wood. Skipping the layer of gesso commonly applied first, this direct application allowed for greens and reds of the frame’s structure to pass through the luminescent gilded layer.

Typically, a frame serves a practical function as well as an artistic one. It highlights the image it surrounds but also separates it from the wall it hangs upon. It is commonly meant to visually fall away. For Whistler, however, this was not the case. Working with the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti, he designed frames that became an integral part of the artwork.

He used clean, undecorated lines that referenced both the history of the Pre-Raphaelites and Moorish design. Reeded carving revealed the subtle grain texture inherent to the wood. The build up and layering of gold manipulated the frame’s coloring. Works framed with Whistler designs found harmony with the frames that surrounded them.


  1. James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Oil on canvas, 1871. 144.3×162.5cm.. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
  2. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, Harris Whittemore Collection.
  3. Corner detail of a reeded Whistler frame.
  4. James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Gray and Gold , Westminster Bridge , c. 1871-1874
  5. James McNeill Whistler, Painting by the sea

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