There's not a huge amount of information surrounding the origin of stretcher bars for canvases, however we've scoured the internet and books to come up with a brief and hopefully informative blog on what we have found in our research. It's important to add that there is perhaps more information out there. We'd be delighted to include it in this blog post and update it on a regular basis if you let us know in the comments below.
Where did it all begin?
Canvas stretcher bars, as you'd expect, follows much of the history of painting on canvas. The use of canvas painting became popular in Italy during the renaissance period (1400 - 1700). Its widely believed that Venetians we're the first to use canvas for banners, in which artists saw an opportunity compared to their wooden panels for the storage and handling benefits of their finished masterpieces. You can't roll up a piece of wood! It was not also just for portability reasons. Using canvas was the only way to make a large flat surface to paint on.
There is also evidence of 16th Century paintings being prepared on "stretching frameworks". Quentin Massys glue on linen painting of "The virgin and child with saints Barbara and Catherine" (ca. 1515-1525) was most likely stretched over a wooden frame support (Dunkerton et al 1991)
Original designs for expandable stretcher bars had only one key. Early designs proved to be problematic as the single key construction was leading to uneven tension across frames. It also happened that the keys were being easily lost due to open notches on the bars. This brings us to the stretcher bar design that we know today, the two key design.
Commercial Stretcher Bars
The 19th Century brought with it the age of the commercially produced stretcher bar. There were many patents for bars, however the one that most resembles modern day stretcher bars is known as a fully mitred bridle joint with keys.
Anco is still in existence today in the USA as Anco Wood Specialities. They boast that they have been making stretcher bars longer than anyone else in the industry. In 1904 Swedish immigrant and master woodworker Olaf Anderson and his company O.F Anderson Company, specialised in custom mouldings. This company grew and developed many other artist supplies, based in Glendale, New York
For standard sized individual stretcher bars we see nowadays, were most likely linked to loom sizes that were available at the time for fabrics. Before the industrial revolution the main loom size available was 1 meter wide, so canvases and bars during this period would not generally have been over this size in one dimension. Over time loom sizes grew and 1 meter 40 centimeters became the standard and many stretcher bars were based on this size.
These sizes ran hand in hand with paper sizes, which, incidentally, were subject to the size of the molds that the pulp of the paper was formed. The size of individual sheets of paper were determined by the size and number of the folds made in it. The manner in which this was divided also determined the sizes of standard stretcher bars.
Canvas Stretcher Bars Today
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