Picture Hanging - A Classic Article

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This is a Classic Article, originally published in 1915 in Frank Alvah Parson's book "Interior Decoration". A scanned copy of the book as a whole can be found on the Internet HERE thanks to Google's effort of scanning and preserving historical treasures like this. Bear in mind that this is a 1915 article and some of teh concepts might be outdated and should never be taken as the current trend. We did not modify the original content in any way, except that we added titles to the original content to increase readability.


For many years pictures alone were regarded as fine art. Art study meant picture painting, while art appreciation was synonimous with picture discussion. The realization that art quality in pictures is identical with art quality in chairs and rugs has been gradual. This realization will lead to a better choice and a more, consistent use of pictures in interior decoration. One needs to have not only a feeling for a beautiful picture, but a sense of its fitness as a wall decoration, and of its harmony with any type of furnishings to be used with it.

Painting, Furniture and Decor
During the historical periods painting developed with other branches of art. The High Renaissance in Italy found expression for its qualities in pictures, furniture, textiles and other art objects simultaneously. The painters of the days of Louis XV, like Watteau and Fraganard, expressed precisely the qualities in their pictures that the cabinetmakers, the textile weavers and the metal workers expressed in their fields. Thus are periods clearly defined, but it is sufficient for us to see the correspondence between pictures and other objects of art expressing the same idea.

Strictly period rooms should have strictly period pictures; not always pictures painted in that period, for many period pictures, like period furniture, were poor expressions of the period idea; but what they should have is a picture whose spirit and feeling are precisely that expressed by the other articles in use during that period. In rooms, however, in which the strict period idea is not intended, a wider range of picture choice is possible. There is no reason, however, for a wild and unrelated choice in pictures any more than in other decorative objects. The same harmony of idea should be apparent that is felt in any other quality that the room expresses. These are the fundamental points in the choice of pictures for interior decoration.

Another and closely related element is the medium in which the picture is expressed. There are oils, water colours, prints, photographs, etchings and steel engravings. These textures have about the same relation to each other that burlap, linen, cotton bed- ticking, chiffon and cane-seated chairs have. It is impossible to harmonize them all in the one room, or, in fact, to bring any two or three of them closely together. If there is one oil painting in the ordinary room, it is a delicate matter to introduce any other picture in any other medium. Of course, it is possible that a water colour might be broadly enough treated and of a subject closely enough allied to make it possible. A photograph of an oil painting, similarly treated, in a similar spirit, might be, under some conditions, used. Very rarely is it possible to combine any of these excepting prints with photographs, etchings with steel engravings, or, occasionally, a water colour with oil.

Too many pictures together in any media indicate bad taste. We can learn much from the Japanese in that regard. They hang one picture at a time of the right size in the right place and, after having enjoyed that for some time, change it for another, and another; but they never present their pictures in herds or droves.

As to frames, what they are and what they should be, volumes could be written. The birth and evolution of the picture frame is a subject that no one has, so far, exploited.

The function of the frame is to hold the picture in place, demark it slightly from the wall on which it is hung, but still relate it to the wall, and make easy the transition from it to the picture. When a picture frame does this, and in no way detracts from the picture itself, it is good. When it attracts attention by its garish glitter, its erratic ornament, or its prodigious size, at the expense of the picture itself, it is one of the surest indexes of bad taste on the part of the owner.

Whatever is on the wall is a part of it or it is not decorative. Right here let it be said that those frames which project forward like an unnatural growth cease to be decorative. One feels them to be a thing separate from the wall itself. In the good days, when pictures were really decorations, they were either painted on the wall, painted to fit wall spaces, or hung in panels or other spots to which they were suited in size and shape. Of late, owing to the influence of the Decadent Renaissance, they have been surrounded by ornate, vulgar and expensive gilt frames whose only excuse for being was their showiness and their cost. The sooner this over-ornamented style in picture frames is eliminated, the sooner pictures will take their rightful place as a factor in the decorative idea. It is because of these abuses that pictures have fallen somewhat into disuse by all good decorators and most sensible house furnishers. For years the gilt frame held the field. Of late there has been a decided improvement, and when gilt is used it is now toned either warm or cool, and very much
dulled, so that it seems, in many instances, to relate, somewhat, to the picture itself, being similarly keyed. Quite frequently, even now, it is not sufficiently keyed so that it has any relation to the wall surface upon which it is hung.

Both the picture and the wall should be taken into consideration in the choice of a frame with reference to its value and intensity relationship.

The motifs of decoration upon gilt picture frames are generally of a historic character, some Florentine, some French and others Flemish. These motifs are the same that appeared in furniture and other art objects and, of course, are expressive of the period ideas for which they stood. It is a strange fancy to have taken these historic motifs, enlarged them and made them more prominent, and then to have worked them into a picture frame. These frames are often of totally unrelated periods, and are used on pictures expressing ideas so foreign to those expressed by the
motifs that they are quite antagonistic in character. Frequently a Decadent Renaissance frame is seen about such a picture as a Millet, or a French Louis XV frame on a Holbein. What could be more ridiculous than such combinations as these, and why will the intelligent public submit to such things because a picture framer or a so-called artist does not know any better?

This is a field in which the common sense of the public can be relied upon to make a change as soon as it is aroused to a consciousness of the truth. Water colours are sometimes well framed in dull, flat gilt frames, and sometimes in wooden ones. Japanese prints are generally good in dead black, flat wood mouldings. In photographs there is a very wide range. Browns are the favoured tones. The frames should be wood, in the same hue, not more intense, and of a value a little lighter than the darkest tone in the picture. This will always produce an agreeable result.

The size, width and strength of the mouldings depend upon several things and are too much a question of feeling to admit of a hard and fast rule.
  • Large, single objects require a wider and stronger frame than delicate small ones in the same picture size.
  • Violent motions of water, trees or animals require a stronger sustaining power than the subdued or quiet sunset or May-day farm scenes.
  • Strong and vivid colour requires a stronger frame than neutral and finely blended combinations.
Where strength and motif action prevail there width and prominence in frame appear; where quiet, closely harmonious combinations exist, a less powerful frame or support is required. Usually the frames selected are too wide and, more often than not, too much ornamented and too brilliant or intense in colour.

The matted picture has had its day. Only in rare instances now is it used. An occasional water colour, for example, a gem or jewel, being too tiny to frame, is placed upon a mat that is quite inconspicuous and related in tone to both the water colour and the frame about it. This makes an easy transition from the picture to the frame. The same thing may be said of etchings.

Photographs and prints are no longer mounted on mats but are framed, as they should be, close to the picture. The fallacy of mounting small photographs or other pictures on two or more colours, or of leaving a white or a black streak around the photograph to form another frame has long since been felt. One moulding or frame is sufficient in most instances. In rare cases a narrow gilt edge inside the wood is permissible. The intense red and green as well as the pure white mats of the olden days are gone forever, with the rest of their Victorian associates.

Hanging pictures is an art. In general, oils and other large pictures should be hung, when possible, so that the eye of the average person standing will be about opposite the centre of the picture. This is as high as pictures under ordinary circumstances can be hung. Reference has before been made to the way they should be hung.

If wire or cord be used, let two appear, each parallel with the side of the frame, and each extending, in harmony with other vertical lines, to a hook at the picture moulding. Make this hanging just as inconspicuous as possible. Tone the wires to the wall if possible so that they are practically invisible. Anything which serves to emphasize the wire or picture hook is not only ugly but inconsistent.

When pictures are to be hung in groups they must be very carefully chosen. Most of us have small photographs or other pictures so personal that we think we cannot part with them and must hang them. We have no place on the wall suited to them in size or shape. We must, therefore, put two or three together, though this should be done as rarely as possible. Several groups of these upon a wall are non-decorative and generally express bad form.

When groups are to be hung, say two or three, there are two things vitally important:
  • first, the tops of these pictures must be on a straight line;
  • second, they must be hung quite close together, say two or three inches apart, so that they seem easily to unite and form one decorative spot.
To scatter or spatter them about is to use the whole decorative effect as a wall spot. These are generally better framed to stand on a table or cabinet than to arrange as wall decorations.

An important question is what shall appear under pictures if they are hung upon a wall. Sometimes we see them hung without any relation whatever to furniture pieces, that is, they are hung in any place on the wall where there seems to be a bare spot. A picture of any considerable size with a frame of any perceptible weight is not very decorative on the wall unless directly under it is some article of furniture to which it seems to belong. A picture should be hung for example over a cabinet or console. The picture alone would be an impossible excrescence, but if some articles are used on the cabinet or console which bring the group somewhere near the picture, then the console, the decorative articles and the picture together form an agreeable decorative group.

Pictures must be hung flat to the wall in order to form a part of the wall. There is only one excuse for allowing them to dip at the top, and that is that they may get a better light. This, however, does not in the least influence the matter of decoration. When pictures are hung in this way the room exists for the picture, and not the picture for the room, for they are not decoratively placed when they are so hung. Let us try to select pictures that are in subject, in treatment and in framing, harmonious with each other and also with the various objects we are using with them in the room.

Let us look to it that they are properly hung—flat, with two wires, if any—properly grouped, and related to other objects by their placement in the room. Under such conditions few pictures are essential in most rooms.

Too many pictures have as bad an effect as too many of anything else, and a bad treatment of pictures is worse than a bad treatment of other things, because pictures are more capable of extremes in good and bad than most articles, and there are more ways to misuse them because of their great range possibility. The greatest care is necessary then to limit the number, carefully decide the treatment, or, when in doubt, use none. 
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