History of the Mat

The mat (“mount” in British English, or passé-partout in French) is a sheet of paper that resides between the image and the frame, creating a field of light or color around the picture. A mat provides multiple functions, both protective and aesthetic.

Here, we’ll explore the history of The Mat – where it came from, why it’s used, when this element of design appeared, and some of the changes it went through. There is a lot to tell!  After all, the history of mat begins back in the 13th century, when the history of the picture frame itself begins.

15th Century Framing

The Beginning

Initially, a mat was part of the frame and was made of wood. At the same time, for paper art or book pages, the mat was drawn around the main image right on the top of a piece of paper. This technique meant to emphasize the importance of an image, as if separating it from the frame and drawing in the eye’s focus.

(Check out “An Overview of the History of Matting” for additional history along with an interesting collection of matted art that shows mat transformation through the centuries.) 

The next step of the mat’s development was to become a separate wooden frame that was put under the primary frame. Usually, this wooden mat was covered with paper, leather or silk.

When mass use of paper started in the 15th century, the mat completely separated from the frame and became an independent element of picture framing decoration.  It was made from thin paper and had a simple, plain look.

Most engravers of those times loved using mats for their etchings and engravings (matted drawing is still a classical way of framing). As graphics were a quite popular form of art back then, they helped the mat gain wide recognition among artists and started the mat’s long path of transformation in appearance.

16th Century Framing

The Rennaissance

In the 16th century, the classic French mat appeared. It evolved two characteristics of the modern mat:

 – First, a cutout started to be made in the paper, the so-called “window” in the mat. Before that, the actual artwork was simply placed on top of a sheet of paper.

  – Second, the main feature of the French mat was two or three ink lines that were drawn around the cutout. Those lines were usually one or several colors derived from the artwork itself. 

Ironically, the French mat was made popular by an Italian painter, Giorgio Vasari. (Want to learn more about the history and development of French mat? We recommend “The Fine Art of French Matting” by framer Ursula Hobson.)

Classical French Mats

Examples of 16th-century classical French mats created using ImageFramer


Under French influence, the English mat was established. It was very similar to the classical French matting design except that the surface of the mat was completely painted over in one dark color, usually in different shades of gray, blue or green. These colors made a perfect match to golden frames that were so popular in Great Britain at that time.

19th Century Framing

The Industrial Revolution

At the beginning of the 19th century, the first cardboard was invented and by the end of the century, the mass production of mats from compressed cardboard began.

The era of photos had arrived, and mats began to be widely used by photographers. By the end of the 19th century, the mat became not just an integral part of photography framing, but also performed a few other functions. Primarily, the mat was used as a business card of the photographer, and at the same time, his advertisement focused on a specific customer.

Silver Painted Mat

When expensive photos were matted, the inner cut was additionally painted with silver or gold paint.

Almost all the photographs were vertical, with the nameplate at the bottom. Typically, a mat of 20 mm was used, with the photographer’s name and his studio address applied by a stamp or paint.

Such an elaborate style of the mat design did not last for long. During the First World War, the mat lost its fancy look and became plain and simple as we know it today. But do not let this simplicity fool you.

The Modern Day

In the modern world, mat designs are striking in their diversity: double and triple mats, mats of all kinds of colors and shades, mats with different textures and shapes.

In the digital world, the mat has gained tremendous importance. Without it, neither photographers nor web designers would have very exciting work. Many artists decorate their virtual artworks with a mat before sharing them with the public through online galleries or social media. Nowadays, the digital mat is also used by professional designers, architects, amateur painters, and frame shops to preview the final look of a framed picture.

While an experienced designer can simulate a mat in an expensive full-featured photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop, many amateurs and professionals alike prefer a bespoke digital framing tool. ImageFramer by Apparent Software is one such option.

ImageFramer 4: Your art. Showcased.

Download the best-in-class Mac app for adding photorealistic frames and mats to photos and artwork today.

In today’s world, the mat has become an art form in itself.  First established in the medieval times, over the centuries of materials and styles transformation, passé-partout has retained and continues to pursue just one goal – to beautifully frame and enhance the art it surrounds.