Art history unfolds in LIC workshop

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Photo courtesy Eli Wilner & Company
Teams of workers had to carry segments of the frame during construction. The frame’s total weight is around 3,000 pounds.
Photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
“George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” in its replacement frame after the original went missing, is widely believed to be the most important work in American art history.
THE COURIER/Photo By Noah Rosenberg
Eli Wilner & Company, under the direction of CEO Eli Wilner (left) and Floor Manager Myron Moore, is nearing completion on their re-creation of the original frame for the iconic painting, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

Employees at Eli Wilner & Company’s Long Island City workshop were hard at work on Monday, February 16. It was a fitting way to spend Presidents’ Day, considering that the men and women were nearing completion on a two-year tribute to George Washington.

Their homage comes in the form of 3,000 pounds of reinforced and intricately carved basswood and elaborate plaster castings adorned with $30,000 worth of delicate gold leaf – what the art world hopes will be a proper frame for the mammoth painting that commemorates what is arguably the do-or-die moment in American history.

“George Washington Crossing the Delaware” was painted in 1851 by a young American named Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. The iconic painting – which depicts the historic moment in 1776 when General Washington led the American revolutionary troops across the Delaware River to surprise the English and Hessian forces – has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection since it was gifted to the museum in 1897.

Somewhere along the line, the original frame went missing, and the painting ended up in what Eli Wilner considered to be an ill-fitting home.

“The frame that was on it was a three-inch wide gilded frame and on a painting that’s 12 by 22 feet it looked like a poster,” recalled Wilner, a specialist in American and European period framing, who began dreaming of crafting a new frame for “Crossing the Delaware” nearly two decades ago. “The whole idea of getting it right, putting the [original] frames back on the paintings was really my philosophy and my whole reason for being in business,” said Wilner, whose craftsmanship hangs on the walls of the White House and the Met, among other places.

The problem, however, was that no one had any idea what the original frame for “Crossing the Delaware” looked like. Crafted at a time when frame makers often earned more for their immensely detailed work than the painters themselves, it was impossible to suppose what shapes and symbolism the frame took on.

How do you create a frame for such an iconic work “that has any resonance with the painting inside of it – what do you do?” Wilner recalled asking himself after meetings in the 1990s with Carrie Barratt, the Met’s curator of American paintings and sculpture.

But, all that changed with a telephone call two years ago. Barratt was on the other end of the line telling Wilner that someone had discovered a photograph of the painting in its original frame from an exposition in 1864. Wilner had to put the phone down.

“There was no solution, there was nothing that made sense until this was found,” Wilner said of the photograph that set in motion the arduous research and hundreds of hours of labor needed to re-create the majestic frame.

Observing them at work, it is hard to imagine how Wilner’s employees, like Master Carver Felix Teran, were able to translate a 150-year-old photograph into the massive frame worthy of holding what many consider to be the most important painting in American art history.

“In the beginning, I was scared,” said Teran, a Jackson Heights resident who spent eight months carving the frame’s crest alone. The lavishly detailed crest weighs around 250 pounds – carved out of basswood, the crafters expect it and the rest of the frame to withstand moisture and retain their shape – and incorporates elements such as a bald eagle, a flag, spears and muskets as well as a line of text about Washington. The crest sets the frame apart from all others in American art, according to Wilner.

Teran’s initial trepidation has given way to pride as he and the team of 30 employees are set to finish the frame in March – two years ahead of schedule.

“I’m going to be happy – it’s going to be in the right place, for the people to see,” Terran said.

Built to last thousands of years – “as long as the Met’s around this frame’s going to be around,” Wilner said – the historical accuracy and intricacy of Wilner’s re-creation is overwhelming even for those who have toiled over it for so many countless hours.

“I personally have never seen anything quite like it,” said Wilner & Company Floor Manager Myron Moore, who struggled to find the words to describe the immensity of the project. From the hand-carved shields in the corners to the grand scale of the frame, Moore said the work is unparalleled. In fact, the frame was so large the crafters had to refer back to period furniture, as opposed to frames, to overcome their stylistic concerns, he said.

The work, valued by Wilner at $800,000 in terms of materials and labor, will remain in Long Island City until 2011, when the Met is scheduled to complete restoration of the painting and renovation of the wing that will house it.

In the meantime, Wilner will open up his workshop to local students, docents from the Met and others who wish to catch a glimpse of history in the making – or re-making.

“It’s almost like they created a sculpture with this frame,” Wilner said of the original. “This painting, I think, will go from being an icon – but always looked at for the last 100 years as a two-dimensional, almost poster-like representation – to a painting with perspective, with depth, with three-dimensionality, with action. I think the frame is going to complete it in a way it hasn’t looked since 1860.”