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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Framing Of Pictures

( Originally Published 1935 )

A frame is necessary for any picture because it stops the movement in the lines of the picture. The frame also provides the transition between the picture and the wall on which it is hung.

The size of a picture, the subject matter, movement, color, and the medium in which it is done all affect the choice of a frame. One general rule applies to all frames: they must not attract attention away from the pictures. That eliminates at the start all highly ornamented, glittery, gilded frames such as adorn many of the oil paintings in our museums, in our homes, and in dealers' shops. It is difficult to understand how such vulgarity in framing has been accepted so generally. The Whistler frames, still obtainable, are the result of the revolt of a great artist against pretentious frames.

Size and Weight. Ordinarily the smaller the picture is, the smaller the frame should be. Paintings in oil require larger and heavier frames than water colors or prints. Paper pictures invite more delicate frames than canvas, and so also does the finer technique of etching and water color.

Subject Matter.   Stronger subjects, buildings, for instance, require larger frames than delicate subjects such as children, even though the pictures are of the same size. Simple subjects, such as peasants, require stout plain frames; aristocratic ladies require frames in character. Masculine portraits usually should have plain frames. Close-up subjects generally require wider moldings than distant scenes even if the pictures are the same size. Both strong color and the violent movement of diagonal lines require a heavier frame than placid horizontals and weak color.

If a picture belongs to a certain historic period it should have a frame of the same period. Most of the motifs on picture moldings are traditional and should be used only with pictures that agree with the spirit of the historic period that produced the motifs. Recently a great museum hung a ridiculous combination consisting of a dashing, vivid polo picture in a very elaborate gilt frame covered with feminine motifs like bowknots and garlands. Modern pictures should have simple modern frames; the more abstract the picture, the more geometric the molding should be.

Color.      If a picture is mostly warm in color through the use of yellow, red, and brown, its frame should be warm colored or gilded. Frames of pictures having chiefly cool colors such as blue, black, and white, or gray should also be cool in color, possibly silver.

Oil paintings may have frames of dull gold leaf, silver, stain, or paint that is a grayed tone of the dominating color in the picture. Sign painter's gold leaf comes fastened to a paper background and can easily be applied to a frame by an amateur who will follow the directions. The ordinary gilt frame should be toned down by painting it with burnt umber or whatever color is desired and then rubbing nearly all the paint off. Aluminum leaf has taken the place of silver leaf and is just as effective. Sometimes good antiqued effects are obtained by using one color over another. Natural wood waxed or stained suits some pictures but does not suit all rooms.

Water colors may have dull gilt, silver, painted, or stained wooden frames. Japanese prints may have plain dull black frames if there is black in the picture, but not otherwise. Etchings may have narrow black, dull silver, or gray frames. Photographs look well framed in the medium value of the picture using brown or gold for a sepia print and silver or gray for a black-and-white print. Frames are sometimes painted to match the wood trim or furniture of the room. Glass may be used on all pictures, even oils, to protect them. However, one should be careful to get entirely colorless glass, for sometimes a glass of greenish cast affects the color of the picture.

Mounts or Mats. A mat is never used with an oil painting. Pictures on paper, such as water colors or prints, seem to need mats. The Metropolitan Museum uses a mat in framing a Winslow Homer water color but the Brooklyn Museum does not, so expert opinion does not agree in this case. When a picture is hung against patterned wall paper, a mat is necessary. A mat also improves a picture that is crowded with many objects and has little background, or one that has much movement and carries the eye too abruptly to the frame.

The color of a mat may be cream, white, a neutral tone lighter than the frame, or just darker than the lights in the picture, or in rare cases a grayed medium tone of the predominating color of the picture. Sometimes a series of border lines repeating the color of the picture are painted on the mat, as a transition between the colored picture and the plain mat. Occasionally very brilliant colorful pictures such as flowers are improved by black mats and frames. A dark picture seldom needs a mat, but if it does a dark mat should be tried. It is wise to experiment with mats and moldings before deciding what is best.

The size of the mat depends upon the size and type of the picture, upon the space where it is to be hung, and upon the scale of the furnishing in the whole room. A picture that is a horizontal rectangle should have a mat with the narrowest margin at the top, medium margins at the sides, and the widest margin at the bottom. An upright rectangle has the medium margin at the top, the narrowest at the sides, and the widest at the bottom. A square picture usually has the same margin at the top and sides and a wider one at the bottom. A 2-inch mat on a water color about 16 by 20 inches is reasonable. It is helpful to study the mats and frames on the pictures at contemporary exhibitions.


Most people hang too many pictures in their homes. Three pictures are enough for the average living room. Those three should be put away after a few months and some others hung for a while. It would be interesting to change pictures with the seasons, most certainly having a difference between summer and winter pictures. One does not really notice pictures after they have been up several weeks, so a change is a source of pleasure. The person whose hobby is pictures is justified in hanging more pictures than is usual, but in this case the room should be sparsely furnished.

Pictures must be hung low enough so that they will seem to form a unit with the furniture, otherwise there will appear to be a line of pictures higher on the wall and a line of furniture below. Sometimes a candle or some other tall decorative article on a piece of furniture helps to unite the furniture with the picture, but it should not extend over the picture. A picture hung above an article of furniture must be related to it in scale. Sometimes one picture may be hung over a group of furniture, for example, over a chair and a small table together.

Pictures should be hung as flat as possible so that they will seem like a part of the wall. If the screw eyes are placed near the top of the frame it will usually hang flat. It is best to hang most pictures blind with no wire showing at all. If a picture or mirror must be hung from the molding, it is well to use two hooks, one on each end of a long wire passing across the back of the picture. In this way the picture can be easily adjusted, and the ugly triangle caused by the use of one hook is avoided. The hooks and wires can be painted to match the wall so that they will be inconspicuous.

It is customary to hang pictures at the eye level of a standing person, but in modern rooms they are hung on the eye level of a seated person so as to be in harmony with the low furniture. The upper or the lower line of all the important pictures in a room might be on a level, so as to promote a feeling of unity in the wall decoration. It is sometimes well to hang the dominating picture a little higher or lower than the other pictures in the room.

Small pictures are often hung in groups, but they should not usually be in the same room with large pictures. All the pictures in a group should be related in color and subject matter. It is usually desirable to leave less space between the pictures than the width of the pictures themselves. Sometimes an inconspicuous textile or paper can be used as a background for a group of small pictures, making them a unit in scale with the rest of the furnishings. Pictures should not be hung in step-up fashion because this makes the arrangement more noticeable than the pictures themselves. Small pictures like silhouettes are unfortunately often hung near the fireplace which is entirely unrelated to them in scale. Pictures with mats should not be hung near those without, because the contrast is not pleasant. Pictures with gold frames should not be hung near pictures with wooden ones. It seems advisable not to hang photographs of people; they usually appear better in standing frames.

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