Picture Hanging by Christopher Wright.

Jan 31st, 2010 | By | Category: Essays

Christopher Wright, MA. FRSA
Art Historian

The hanging of pictures is an art with multiple choices and it is often assumed, therefore, that it is entirely a matter of opinion. In fact, there are numerous rules and guidelines which cannot be broken without a negative affect on the appearance of the painting.

The setting

Most Old Master and Impressionist paintings are viewed in a public place – art gallery, museum, stately home, or, still rather formally, in an art-dealers gallery. The private collector, however, usually buys a work of art with the intention of placing it in a domestic setting. Furthermore, there are few collectors who design or build their homes with a view to showing works of art. Usually the collector uses the painting to decorate or enhance an existing environment.

Some of the problems this situation can create are unsolvable: Any painting not designed for a domestic setting, for example an altar piece, will always look out of place surrounded by everyday objects, and there are few things a collector can do to reduce the incongruity of the setting except by attempting to isolate the painting from the paraphernalia of everyday living.


Small pictures are difficult to hang successfully in large rooms and vice versa. This is one of the few problems which is largely recognised by most private collectors – hence the demand for small pictures by the professional class who tend to live in apartments rather that in large houses. Most old master paintings have an optimum viewing distance which makes large pictures impossible in small spaces. For a small picture, however, the collector should try to avoid too many pieces of furniture which can act as an obstacle to viewing a picture in comfort. An example of this can be the placing of a picture over a sideboard which prevents the viewer from seeing the picture either from the optimum height or distance.


The frame forms an integral part of any picture and this point is often made most crudely when the organisers of temporary exhibitions find that the frames themselves clash not only with one another, but with depressing frequency, with the picture itself.

Framing is partly, but not entirely, a matter of personal taste. There are some guidelines which can become rules. The most important of all is period. It is possible to put an Old Master or Impressionist painting in a frame different in period to the painting, but on many occasions when this is done, incongruity ensues. The best example of this was the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century custom of putting Dutch seventeenth-century paintings in French eighteenth-century frames – passion for the latter also extended to the Impressionists. In recent years there has been a reaction against this trend with equally unfortunate results. Many Dutch pictures are now put in black frames in the mistaken belief that all Dutch frames in the period were black, when for most of the last century gilt (but not French gilt) was the norm. The guidelines therefore are to note the general trend of the period from which the painting comes. Some painters designed their own frames, or at least influenced the result. The pre-Raphaelites were a good example of this trend and many of their specially designed frames survive. This is because a high proportion of pre-Raphaelite pictures were acquired by museums at an early date. As a result there was little opportunity for later collectors to remove the elaborate inscriptions or exotic in lays.

Some pictures, however, seem to have been more or less indifferent to the fate of their work at the hands of the framer. Hence there is not always an accurate precedent. The collector therefore has to rely on instinct rather than on any historical theory. Optically the frame isolates the painting from its background. If it is too close in either tone or colour to the painting itself, it will fail to define the edges of the work and as a result, even from a short distance produce a curiously blurred effect. Impressionist paintings are particularly susceptible to this problem. This is one of the reasons why gilt continued until the end of the nineteenth century even for the Impressionists. On the one hand it was a survival from the days when gold leaf was a symbol of opulence, on the other it continued to form an isolating colour from the painting to its background.

The width of frames

The width of a frame is usually considered to be a matter of taste, a narrow frame on large picture is as easily justified as a large frame on a small one. The scale of the frame only becomes an important issue when pictures are to be juxtaposed. Great disparity of frame scale on the same wall can lead to a restless effect. The relationship of the frame to the background wall becomes all-important. A thin gold line round a large and dark picture placed against a dark background will either please or displease according to the taste of the collector. If a dark frame is substituted in the same setting the painting will, quite literally seem to disappear into the wall.

One of the most overlooked aspects of frame width is one of rhythm. The introduction of swags and curlicues was especially popular in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These curves and counter curves accord well with the lightness and delicacy of much French eighteenth-century painting, but become a visual catastrophe when placed on any work with a classical content.


The background on which pictures are hung or screwed is often not given enough consideration. Many public art museums adopt a style and force their collections into its straightjacket. Private collectors often try to be sensitive to the needs of their pictures and most of the mistakes in this arise from misguided enthusiasm.

There is a tendency to try to make the wall covering enhance the work of art when the reverse should be the case. The background, of whatever colour or texture, should be as self-effacing as possible if the pictures themselves are delicately handled, or pale in tone (for example, water-colours). More robust works of art – the Baroque or the Postimpressionist- require a correspondingly robust treatment.

The biggest mistake, and the one most continually made, in the background for pictures is texture. Colour is a matter of taste and the collector will do no harm to cherished possessions by using a colour personal to them. Once the texture is wrong from a historical point of view, the paintings themselves become much more difficult to appreciate.

In the seventeenth century Dutch pictures were mostly hung against grey or white plaster, and, later in the century in the better-off houses, against panelling. In modern terms the Dutch can take any colour according to taste but the moment the painted plaster is abandoned the pictures look less good. It is now considered quite normal to hang Dutch pictures against silk damask, or more discreetly watered silk. The effect is to transform the robustness of the Dutch into the atmosphere of the eighteenth-century boudoir which is the correct style of background for the confections of Lancret and Pater.

The greatest sufferers from inappropriateness of both texture and colour are the Impressionists. Where the Impressionists are part of a collection which continues into the twentieth century they tend (at least until recently) to be hung against white painted plaster to act as a prelude to the twentieth century as it were. When the Impressionists come at the end of a historic gallery they tend to have to fit in without being given the special consideration of the earlier masters in the same gallery.

Few people think of the fact that the Impressionists were, on the whole, hung in over- furnished middle class homes in late nineteenth-century France, and, in America, in the homes of the very rich with avant-garde tastes. Thus figured wallpaper and textiles are entirely appropriate for the Impressionists as this is how the painters knew their work would be seen.

In spite of these structures there is a good deal of scope for both inventiveness or compromise but the collector should always be aware of the broad sweep of history as tastes have changed in the nature of the backgrounds against which pictures are placed.

The mechanics of hanging

Cords versus screws. – If there is any security question whatever, as in most museums with small pictures, they have to be screwed flat to the wall which causes the obvious disadvantage of unsightly screw holes if the pictures are ever moved around. More satisfactory for various reasons is hanging them from some form of cord. This allows the picture to tilt forward slightly thus reducing the relocation from protective glass or shiny varnish – (always necessary on a dark picture). This leaning slightly forward also reduces the amount of dust which falls on to the picture surface.


The labelling of pictures is essential in public art museums, but this is basically a nineteenth-century innovation when large numbers of pictures suddenly appeared in the public domain. Earlier collections had no need to remind themselves of the artists who painted the pictures they owned, as it was already obvious to them.

By some transfer of custom it is now virtually universal that private collections like to label their pictures, not with the title, as of old, but with the name and often dates of the artist. This has a curious effect in a private collection as these labels are often obtrusive and written in ‘old fashion script’ quite out of keeping with the period of the picture. The National Trust has continued a policy of not adding labels to pictures when there were none at the time of transfer to the Trust. This keeps the integrity of the rooms but it often makes it difficult for the visitor especially if any slight change has been mad to the arrangement of the room, thus upsetting the order in the guide book! The wise collector, suffering from labels, will take all of them off, and observe the immediate improvement in the appearance of the pictures.


Many collectors seem to want to contemplate their treasures from the vantage point of their most comfortable chair. This can often lead to a room which allows the works of art to reflect the moods and tastes of the owner. At the same time it can prevent the contemplation of individual works of art. The common mistake is an obstacle-race of furniture – small pictures put over large sideboards, large ones hung too low and therefore obscured by flower arrangements, épergnes and other objects of interior decoration.

If possible, where there is natural light the picture should be placed with the light falling in the same direction as the picture. Similarly landscapes with horizon lines always look better if the horizon in the picture can be hung at a natural height.


This is one of the most difficult problems of all, as here taste is combined with the tape measure. The subject of the picture is balanced with light, form and texture. Almost all the mistakes made in this area are caused by the application of logic rather that intuition. Like does not always look well with like – contrasts are often better. Landscapes mix well with subject pictures rather that being put together. Outright masterpieces tend to look better surrounded by lesser works rather than fighting with each other for the spectators’ attention. Spacing between pictures is a matter of taste but the moment it becomes irregular the effect is one of a bazaar or sale room.


The writer of these notes has been involved in the hanging of numerous exhibitions where, in most instances, compromise is the dominating factor. The exhibition seeks to present a particular point to the public and aesthetic considerations have to be placed secondary to comprehensibility.

Current trends are both heartening and disappointing. There is a far greater awareness of the choices to be made. For some the solutions have resulted in massive improvement. The transformation of the National Gallery in London in recent years has been partly due to the careful re-hanging. Other institutions have lost the art of hanging altogether and it would be invidious to name them here. For the collector the plea must be to consider the options and then to take a conscious decision based on sound judgement.

Tags: Christopher Wright, hanging paintings., painting hanging, picture hanging

One Comment to “Picture Hanging by Christopher Wright.”

  1. marlene says:

    I’m trying to look some information about Christopher Wright, I need to know his bio as an art certifications. please send me an email to mkflrealty@gmail.com

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