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The frames for Vincent van Gogh’s paintings

The museum is often asked why we have chosen wooden frames for our paintings by Vincent van Gogh. Over the years, Mrs Kröller-Müller and her successors experimented quite a bit with the frames of the paintings she had collected. You can see the results throughout the collection, ranging from costly gilt frames and handmade frames from the Nieuwe Kunst (Dutch art nouveau) period to modernist frames painted in pale colours in the museum's own workshop. You will also see cheap frames with glued strips of linen, straight from the corner art shop, but luckily also many more made or ordered by the artists themselves.

In his letters, Vincent van Gogh frequently expressed his ideas about how he wanted his pictures to be framed. His preferences varied from dark wood such as oak and walnut and light wood such as pine and chestnut for certain paintings, to coloured or even white (and flat) frames, or simply thin laths painted with red lead to give the paintings the flattest possible edging. To my knowledge, only one of Van Gogh’s works has survived with an original frame: a still life with fruit from 1887, now in the Van Gogh Museum. The work has a flat, wide pine frame which was painted by the artist. However, his surviving statements are not particularly clear, and this one frame is too unique for us to be sure of making frames that are ‘faithful' to the artist’s ideas.
Owners of paintings by Van Gogh have thus had plenty of latitude to design their own frames, and they have taken full advantage of this. Mrs Kröller-Müller had many of her frames made in ’t Binnenhuis, a traditional workshop in Amsterdam associated with architects, artists and designers such as H. P. Berlage, J. Altorf and J. van den Bosch. There was one type of frame that she kept almost exclusively for her Van Gogh paintings. Unfortunately, all but a few of these were removed in the 1950s. After lengthy deliberation between 2003 and 2005, the museum commissioned replicas of this frame, based on a pre-1910 design by J. van den Bosch.

Helene Kröller-Müller had the paintings from Vincent’s Dutch period framed in teak and those from his French period in maple. In the surviving paintings (such as The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) and Wheat stack under a Cloudy Sky, both from 1890) the maple can be seen to have acquired a pale yellow colour. That this was Helene’s favourite design is apparent from the fact that she had her own portrait by Floris Verster framed in a version made of coromandel wood. Photographs of the halls in her private museum on Lange Voorhout in The Hague and later from the period when the Kröller-Müller Museum opened in 1938 show how Helene wanted her favourite works presented: in simple, austere frames, painstakingly executed in beautiful natural materials.

In the 1950s, my predecessor Bram Hammacher felt the whole thing looked (as he once told me) so ‘woody’ that he decided to change the style and materials. Initially he had a colleague experiment with the frames by staining them and colouring them with pigment, but he was not satisfied with the results and eventually ordered new frames with flat, glued-linen edges from an art shop. In the 1980s his successor, Rudi Oxenaar, was so displeased with them – by then most of the original Van den Bosch frames were gone – that he asked the architect who had created the museum’s new wing, Wim Quist, to design frames for the Van Gogh paintings to be shown in the major exhibition in 1990. Quist designed several versions, which were indeed on display in 1990.

When I arrived late that year, the Van Gogh paintings had four different kinds of frame: simple oak frames of uncertain origin, a few based on Van den Bosch’s design, the art shop frames (whose strips of linen were by now rather grubby) and Quist’s frames. Although it was clear that a solution had to be found, the decision-making process dragged on because staff were unable to agree on one of the proposals, and, more importantly, there was not enough funding for any of them.

It was only in 2003 that funds appeared, in the form of a loan fee from Japan. We decided to reproduce Helene’s frames, for a number of reasons. In the first place, there was the historical argument: our collection had its origins in the ideas and actions of Helene Kröller-Müller, a strong personality of outstanding intelligence. Respecting and preserving decisions and bringing them up to date (unless new insights utterly precluded this) was an intrinsic element of our museum and helped to make it unique. Then there were the Van den Bosch frames themselves: they were constructed in such a way that they guided the eye smoothly into and out of the painting. The design displayed features of the austere Dutch Nieuwe Kunst, which had earned architects such as Berlage worldwide renown. Where else in the world were frames like these to be found? Finally, there was Van Gogh. Many passages in his letters revealed his preference for the pure quality of wood. He often spoke lovingly of oak, walnut, pine and ‘yellowish chestnut’. For all these reasons, we chose Helene’s frames. The surviving originals made them easy to reproduce. After weighing Vincent’s considerations against the decisions that Helene had already made, we kept dark teak frames for the works from his Dutch period and light maple frames (‘yellowish chestnut’) for those from his French period. We hoped that in time the maple would acquire just as lovely a yellow patina as in the older specimens. As a discordant element in the latter category, we decided to frame the portraits in walnut simply because of Vincent’s fascinating love for it.

That, in brief, is why our Vincent van Gogh paintings have wooden frames.

Evert van Straaten
June 2007