French Mats in framing, from its origins to modern times

French Mats: origin & inspirations

French Mats have their roots in the XVI century, when the artist & collector Vasari launched the practice of presenting drawings and engravings. He was drawn to the visual appeal of encompassing the drawing or painting with fine lines. Occasionally, decorative motifs were added. Often, artists would sign their work in a simple or elaborate cartridge.

French Mats in XVII and XVIII centuries

In the XVII and XVIII centuries, drawings & paintings on paper allowed them to be framed. The French Mat technique developed thanks to this phenomenon. The famous "Montage Mariette" emerged around this time.

P.-J. Mariette, its creator, enclosed drawings with finely drawn brown lines on a margin of indigo paper. He added a thin strip of golden paper and a white mat touching the drawing. The ink strokes create a subtle play of shadows and relief.

This construction, difficult to express in words easily, adds a delicate note that has transcended time.

French Mats today

The French Mat technique is less in vogue today. It is still recommended for old prints and drawings. The technique lends itself nicely to contemporary subjects (lithographs, ink drawings, and specially to sanguine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanguine), …). This technique has altered & evolved according to the creativity of the framers, and fashioned itself to the demands of collectors over time.

The essential steps in the making of French Mats

Preparing a French Mat on a mount board is a delicate operation. It demands a sense of colour, care and a fair degree of precision. The French Mat consists essentially of;

  1. a series of strokes in ink,
  2. a watercolour band with or without spandrels (for rounded openings),
  3. and a strip of gold or silver paper neatly fringed with two lines of ink

Depending on the subject one wants to showcase, a framer decides;

  • the rhythm of the ink lines (number, complexion, width),
  • the colour of the watercolour band,
  • the look of the golden band (bright, antiquated, etc. .. .).

Diligent framers would have prepared a few preparatory templates to demonstrate the basic options for creating French Mats.

Once these considerations are finalised, the construction begins on a laminated mat of appropriate quality. The framer then draws all the lines with a pencil, and only then, manually applies watercolour. Once done, lines are drawn using ink or natural-pigment-extract based on walnut etc. Finally, the framer glues a gold paper band (2 to 3mm) between the 2 ink lines that are near the opening of the mount board.

Variations: Shaded lines and interlacing

Simply put, Interlacing is a construction of ink based line patterns drawn to intersect on the mat. They are usually painted with watercolour. Their geometric construction can be very complex. A decorative frieze imparts prestige to the framed subject. Shaded lines produce a sense of depth. Interlacing can be accomplished with dark ink of varying width, or a framer could combine the use of a gouache or white ink to accentuate a relief effect.

French Mats: Interlacing in watercolour & gold band
French Mat: Interlacing in watercolour & antiquated gold band. Old Indian painting

In conclusion:

The French Mats technique lends elegance and harmony to adorn old art works and adapts perfectly to contemporary subjects. French Mats are an absolute expression of the rigour and creativity inherent in an art framer's profession.

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