Embarrassment of Edges
The first time I saw, in an art conservation studio, the unframed edges of a 16th-century portrait, it felt something like having accidentally seen undressed a distinguished, older man in my professional field. (It was, of course, an “old master” painting). I was embarrassed for both of us. I knew that early-modern European paintings were essentially a thin layer of suspended pigments applied to canvas or panel—that is the magic of their illusion—but virgin eyes could not have anticipated the shock of seeing that barely-millimeter-thick layer of paint, crumbling at its outer limits, some parts peeling away from the weary canvas to which it had been applied centuries ago. The power and potency of the painted person—the patron who had paid dearly to be immortalized by the artist—were exposed at the edges to be but a brittle skin, looking so vulnerable it made me hold my breath when I got up close.
Years and a good number of undressed paintings later, edges have become sites of crucial information about a painting’s making and subsequent history: evidence of trimming, extending, lining, relining, strip lining, transfer, cradling—those quasi-surgical procedures performed by restorers and conservators over the centuries on virtually all early-modern European paintings on public view today. A glossy, well-varnished painting surface—presenting iconic Renaissance faces and their bejeweled bodies swathed in textiles—may offer a fantasy of survival, of the painting’s fortuitous teleportation unscathed from 500 years ago to today, but edges tell it like it is. Some astoundingly beautiful early-modern paintings have been through a lot to still look so good.
In 2019 the Frick mounted an exhibition devoted to the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1579/80). Moroni’s edges are a mess. He was known to tack his canvases to the front of wood strainers, as opposed to the more familiar wrapping of the canvas around a stretcher and tacking at the edge or back. He was probably being economical—why wrap canvas around the edge when no one would see it? Original frames for Moroni paintings would have had to cover more than edges; they also had to mask his tacking on the front. Though some of his surviving portraits still have the holes to prove it, none are known to retain an original canvas tacked to the front, virtually all having been lined (a near-ubiquitous treatment in which an original canvas is fused to a newer canvas for support), strip lined (supportive strips just around the edges), extended, or trimmed.
The museum I work for prides itself on not being rough around the edges. And yet, in the Moroni exhibition, we displayed the exposed edges of a Renaissance painting, its irregular, blackened tacks, the frayed ends of the lining canvas, the thin crust of the painting surface laid bare for the world to see. On loan from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, for decades Moroni’s Lay Brother with a Fictive Frame (ca. 1557) had been underappreciated. Its curious fictive frame, a trompe l’oeil of simple stained wood, went largely unnoticed because it was displayed in an actual frame that mimicked the painted one; in publications, the painted frame had at times been cropped out, incorrectly assumed to be the actual frame. We did not want the portrait to suffer yet another snub. The point was to show it without a frame so that visitors would be able to see the fictive frame for the invention it was. The display prompted questions about how its first owner meant to present it, since it had a faux frame painted in, and Moroni was not exactly known for producing edges refined enough to leave exposed. (The leading hypothesis is that the portrait was made to be inset in a wall).
Our colleagues at the Städel collaborated with us to present the painting in this unorthodox way (and it returned to Frankfurt to be displayed in the same manner). To be precise, it was not exactly naked: the unframed painting was installed behind a protective glass-and-steel window box. Being behind glass and up on a wall in an art museum surely mitigated the discordance of seeing the torn, holey edges of a tour de force of Renaissance portraiture. In the exhibition, no one could touch the portrait or get so close to it as to fear they could damage it with breath. No visitors came up to me and told me they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d just walked in on an esteemed mentor without his clothes on. Instead, visitors told me that it was a revelation. They had never seen the exposed edges of a Renaissance picture before. Amazing, they said. It was exactly what they thought it would look like.