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The Fine Art of French Matting

French matting is a style of decorative matting created by carefully inking border lines using a ruling pen and subsequently filling the space between two of the lines with a watercolor wash. The addition of gilded tape, outer washes and marbled papers can further enhance these lovely mats. French Mats are primarily used in framing of Old Master drawings, botanical, natural history, portrait, sporting and architectural prints.

The earliest examples of “French mats” were made by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), an Italian painter, architect, writer and art historian. He created beautiful hand-drawn surrounds often simulating niches and altars.

Famous connoisseur and art dealer, Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) drew on examples of Vasari mats to design his own elaborate mounts. He preferred distinctive blue paper borders with ruled and drawn lines that acted as paper picture frames to set off Old Master drawings to great effect. His mats often included cartouches inscribed with the name and date of the artist and gold leaf paper ribbon surround. 

                        

Subsequent French dealers and collectors adopted the use of hand ruled borders with washes and bands of gold. They favored more subtle colors, usually on creamy paper with green, blue, or rose washes and lines in charcoal or brown. By the 19th century advances in paper making and glass production made it affordable to display framed drawings and watercolors in middle class homes. It was an era when explorers were returning from the New World with illustrations of unusual plants, birds, animals and insects. Prints and paintings of these subjects were a popular mode of decoration. Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), an outstanding botanist and artist, was the court painter for Josephine Bonaparte, and the innumerable copies of his famous roses and lilies are almost always presented in charming and colorfully decorated French mats.

In England during the 19th century there was a lot of interest in, among other subjects, hunting scenes, landscapes and portraits. The English mats created at this time were similar to those from France but at times the English mats were dark with opaque lines, a style which worked well in dark interiors and in contrast with the maple and gold frames that were popular.

                  

French mats continued to be popular into the 20th century. Antique botanical and bird prints were often used by interior designers as they coordinated well with the “English” look that was popular at the time. These were often presented in elaborate French mats that included many lines and bands of marbled paper. English dealer and decorator Stephanie Hoppen became renowned for her extravagant mats and frames. 

French matting techniques have been revived as custom framers look for ways to further enhance the viewing experience by presenting art in coordinated artistic matting. Hand drawn lines around the opening of the window mat also direct the eye from the frame into the artwork giving it a special setting. In the late 80’s I produced two VHS instructional videos demonstrating the secrets to this guarded art called the Fine Art of French Matting, Part I and Part II. To help keep these time-honored techniques alive the tapes have been converted to digital format and are available for viewing on Youtube.

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