IT is quite thirty years - and I 've not forgotten it yet - since the framed photograph of a young woman hung between the two front windows of a conventional long and narrow parlor - the very long and very narrow parlor of a house in a certain city block. Such a modest, shrinking, sweet young woman - she of the picture! It seemed unkind to have placed her there, the only picture on all that bare expanse of wall; unkind not to have given her some encouragement or support. I discovered afterward that at school this young girl and the owner of the house had been room-mates. I 've always believed that this photograph, four by five, was the only picture the mistress of the mansion possessed. I can remember after all these years just how the frame looked, made up of pieces of finely fluted wood that projected at the corners like a cross.
Framed photographs and crayons of the family or of friends are out of place on the walls of a parlor, except in rare instances. Within the past few years the fashion has grown of having photographs of people framed in silver or gold, or circlets of rhine-stones and brilliants, or in embroidered damask or brocade and covered with glass; but these pictures are not put up on the parlor walls unless at times a group of them is made in some one place, over a sofa or a writing-table, the fact of their being grouped suggesting in itself a well-defined purpose. A grouping of miniatures in this way, especially over some old-fashioned mantelpieces, is most interesting at times. Ordinarily, however, that to which we pay the distinction of a place on our walls must have some merit of its own apart from its sentiment. Some of us besides have a natural shrinking from putting the photographs of those we love on the walls for every one to look at. A portrait is another affair. The work of the painter then assumes an importance which overbalances the question of personal sentiment.
Unless one has a single great picture for which a special place has been made, as over a fireplace or an altar, no picture is hung to stay. The acquisition of a new painting will necessitate the rehanging of all. Moreover, some of us outgrow the pictures that at one time we thought beautiful, and are glad to replace them, or to live with bare wall-spaces instead. There are certain pictures, too, which try one's nerves by and by. Set, sweet smiles on young faces get to be unendurable. Any suspended action always does, worrying us into positive dislikes of the object which seems never able to complete an act it has already begun, and sometimes elicited our sympathies for. All of this proves that our pictures are movable properties, and that although we may arrange them to our liking to-day, to-morrow we may be quite willing or obliged to do our work over.
No great picture affects our nerves in this same way, for in great pictures there is always an element of repose; but then, few of us possess great pictures. Those of us who do, give them established places which are never changed; for such a picture belongs to the very structure of a home and is interwoven with its sentiments.
Now and then one runs across a man who has whims about his pictures. He will possess several that a museum might covet, and these he will conceal, bringing out but one at a time in order to enjoy it for a little - a month or two, perhaps. Then he puts it away and brings out another, to enjoy that also for a space. His theory about picture-hanging is a simple one - only that picture which is worth living with, and that one by itself.
With the rest of us the temptation is to cover our walls, to fill up empty spaces, forgetting that empty spaces are often a relief. The majority of us live shut in by houses for which the architect has done nothing, and which the paper-hanger has not improved. Of all these walls none is so hard to arrange with pictures as that of the long, narrow parlor with its fireplace a dozen feet from the window on one side and the folding-doors on the other. Almost any picture hung here, unless it has sufficient size and importance to be made a centre, would become a spot. Moreover, if there is nothing beneath the picture, no piece of furniture with size enough to make it worth considering as a foundation, there is no way of making the picture part of a composition, properly supported from below. We all know how awkward the effect is of a huge, solitary, heavily framed picture on a light wall with nothing above or below it. It never seems to have any place there.
One of the cleverest of my acquaintances insists that pictures should be hung according to certain laws of construction - a strong base below, a large centrepiece above, and a higher point above this. "Then," to quote from this particular authority, "you get the triangle, or you get the arch and you do not violate the architectural laws."
The strong base may be a sofa against the wall, or a bookcase, or a large table. The centrepiece must be an important picture. It may be square or oblong. Again, it may be built about with two uprights on the side, but the base must be wider than the structure above and there must be a highest point of apex.
Pictures may be arranged in panels, side by side, each panel matching the other in size.
There are some people, on the other hand, who insist that the putting of one picture in the centre and then building about it must be conventional and tiresome. Their plan is to arrange pictures with some irregularity (see diagram). No one picture, it will be observed, is on a line with the other.
In a room, not a picture-gallery, the best of one's pictures go over the fireplace. It is the place of honor accorded to that which one values most. When such a picture was owned before the room was built, the architect generally makes it part of his plan and encloses it as in a frame with the wood or the stone of the fireplace.
The wire or support of the picture should never show, although the question of injuring the wall has to be considered at times, and the wire or support left in evidence.
The proper framing of a picture is a question with which every artist of note concerns himself. It is certainly not a subject which the amateur should neglect. Pictures should be taken to a dealer, mats and frames tried on with the same care - indeed, with even more care - than one expends in the choosing of a bonnet. Primarily the nature and character of the picture must be considered. A mat of one color may destroy some subtle tone of the painter, another may serve its legitimate purpose and frame it. Only by experiment can the point be proved. After the mat comes the frame, the size, its quality, its color. Every frame-maker has an assortment to submit to every customer. Besides this he is constantly experimenting in stains, so that dozens of different woods of various tones and textures are to be found in the shop and he is willing to go to work to produce others. A good frame-maker will take infinite pains to tone his frames and his mats with his pictures and consume days in hunting through various other establishments to get just the right quality for a mat. The question, therefore, of fashions in framing ought not to arise, unless some interesting departure has been made by an artist of note, and the rest of us, recognizing his principle, adopts it.
I do not know who it was who proved to us first how much better certain photographs of the masters looked without mats, and framed simply with the wood and toned with the dark of the picture, but whoever it was he has made himself many followers, so that almost every picture of the kind has a wide wooden frame and no mat.
White mats should never be used on dark walls, and indeed no picture should be framed without some thought of the wall on which it is to be hung. White frames and mats on dark walls give to a room a look of being plastered with postage-stamps. Every frame and mat is felt, but the pictures themselves are forgotten.
No picture by its setting wants to be made to stand out and claim recognition for itself. Its excellence may compel you, but its framework should not; especially is this true in the rooms of the dwelling-house, where pictures are like companions, - never so charming as when they lack insistence.