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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Pictures For Your Home

( Originally Published 1935 )

Pictures reveal the stage of aesthetic development of their owners more clearly than any other articles of furnishing. Need for economy may prevent the discarding of ugly furniture; but there is no excuse for the woman who hangs pictures that she does not like, as bare wall spaces are always preferable to poor or tiresome pictures.

No woman can reasonably expect to be able to select pictures that have aesthetic quality unless she has seriously studied pictures. There is no such thing as natural good taste in pictures, and those who imagine that they have it are badly mistaken. Probably constant association with fine pictures might develop a sure taste, were it not for the fact that we are all exposed to the great quantities of poor pictures used in advertising and elsewhere. A dilettante could visit art exhibitions for a lifetime and still not know what to look for in pictures.


Almost anyone who will study, however, can develop her judgment about pictures so that she can form independent opinions that are based on important values. This power of critical appreciation enriches life greatly, providing an escape from material things and a satisfying use of leisure time.

The study should include reading, creative effort, and analysis of pictures. The reading course in picture study might begin with Roger Fry's "Vision and Design" and Ralph Pearson's "How to See Modern Pictures," because the authors of both books are artists. When they discuss what the artists are trying to do, they know what they are writing about, which is not always the case with the critics, philosophers, and psychologists who write about art. Since the public is usually about forty years behind in understanding what creative artists are doing, it is unfortunate that more experimental artists do not write about their own work. Whistler, Durer, and da Vinci believed that artists should write about their pictures; but, since life is short and the painters' craft is not, it would be unreasonable to expect an artist to spend time on any medium of expression except the one in which his talent lies.

Among other books that have a sound philosophy and a real understanding of the artist's point of view are Clive Bell's "Art" and Albert Barnes' "The Art in Painting." Probably the most easily understood explanation of modern art is found in Sheldon Cheney's "Primer of Modern Art."

The woman who is in earnest about understanding pictures should also have some good instruction in painting. Whether or not she has talent, she will learn to appreciate painting by trying to paint.

Through experience in the analysis of pictures it is possible to learn to recognize aesthetic values. Anyone who lives in a city where there is a gallery of pictures should study them in lecture tours. A complete questionnaire for the analysis of pictures may be found in Thomas Munro's valuable book "Great Pictures of Europe." At the end of this chapter there is also a questionnaire for picture analysis which is specially adapted to the plan of this book.

In the analysis of pictures the art elements and art principles are important guides, for in painting, as in all the other visual arts, art quality is produced by the sensitive artist working with the plastic elements at his command: (1) line, (2) pattern, (3) volume, (4) space, (5) light and shade, (6) color. The art components used by decorators do not exactly correspond to these art elements because pictures are confined to two dimensions.

As he paints a picture the artist might use the art principles somewhat as follows. First, he selects a canvas, itself of fine proportion, not square, not too long, probably the ideal Greek proportion. He then looks about him for something to use as a subject, even though he may consider nature only as a point of departure and will interpret the natural material as he wishes. He selects his chief motif and plans to emphasize and repeat this theme, or possibly he uses it only as a center of interest.

On the canvas he first draws the skeleton or framework of his picture, perhaps with charcoal. The dominating lines and the supporting lines are related carefully, so as to produce rhythm. The two halves of the picture must agree in weight or in power to attract the eye, and when this is adjusted nicely there will be balance of form and also color. A picture painted of the seashore might be made up entirely of horizontal lines, were it not that the good artist knows that vertical lines in opposition are necessary to stop the horizontal movement, and so he adds cliffs, trees, masts, figures, or whatever he can to introduce upright lines. But possibly all the right angles, where horizontals and verticals meet, make an effect more violent than the artist wants. If so, he can cut across the corners with diagonal lines making an easy transition between opposing lines. Transition sometimes requires that there be medium-sized forms between large and small ones, or intermediate colors, values, shapes, and textures between opposites. All the art principles are involved in composing a picture.

Some of the world's great artists have planned the construction lines of their pictures on definite geometric intervals. Raphael, Leonardo, El Greco, and others of the old masters built the framework of their pictures upon certain fixed units and schemes, but kept their methods secret.

Whereas making the framework or structure of a picture is often solely an intellectual process the painting of a picture is usually an emotional expression. The sincere artist paints pictures that are his personal interpretation. It is said that only a great person can create a great picture.


In selecting pictures for a home various phases of the subject are to be considered. They are:

1. Appeals: subject matter or aesthetic.

2. Styles: traditional or contemporary.

3. Quality: original pictures or reproductions.

4. Media: water colors, oils, or printing materials.


There are two main types of appeal, the aesthetic and the appeal of subject matter. Both may be present in the same picture. In this brief discussion it is not possible to consider the overlapping of these appeals and others.

Subject-Matter Appeal.  This type of appeal is entirely legitimate in a picture provided it also has aesthetic merit. Many of the world's greatest pictures have these two appeals, well blended. The most obvious kind of subject-matter appeal is present in story-telling pictures, such as one of a birthday party or of a dog saving a drowning person. Mere illustrations such as these have a different purpose from pictures which are intended to be hung on walls. Story-telling pictures are suitable for children, but they ought to be outgrown. Adults can get their stories from literature, which is a proper medium for them.

Sentimental appeal is also entirely irrelevant to art quality in a picture. A picture of a row of kittens or a smiling baby is appealing if the subject is dear to the observer. A picture of a place that has been visited, or that resembles a familiar place or one of historic importance, has an appeal easily confused with aesthetic appeal.

Mere representation or mere natural-appearing scenes and people provide enough appeal for an untrained eye. If this were all that art should be, then the camera would provide the highest art because it can produce a perfect likeness.

Aesthetic Appeal. Subject-matter appeal is elementary when compared with aesthetic appeal. Aesthetic appeal is realized only by those who can analyze a picture and see how the artist obtained his result. Only an artist who has the ability to create good pictures can analyze a picture fully from all points of view. The emotional capacity of the observer affects his ability to understand the significant quality of a picture, because emotional appeal is an important part of aesthetic appeal.

Opinions differ as to the importance of these appeals in pictures. Some people believe that art which can not be understood by the majority is aristocratic and futile. They say that the only vital art is that which expresses the lives of the great masses of people, such as the work of Diego Rivera.


Traditional Pictures. Traditional pictures are those of the past, the term being used here to correspond with the term traditional furniture styles. It is not necessary, of course, that period rooms should have pictures of the same period, but there should be harmony between them. Usually the traditional furniture styles are combined rather freely, and this permits a wide range of choice in the selection of pictures.

One very good rule to be observed in selecting pictures for period rooms is this, use early pictures in early rooms. Most of the early pictures, or those painted before 1700, are in museums, and it is therefore possible to get reproductions of them. Among the most important early pictures are those painted by Giotto, Titian, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto in Italy; by Rembrandt, Rubens, Hobbema, and von Ruisdael in northern Europe; and by E1 Greco and Velasquez in Spain.

With eighteenth-century furniture, which is lighter in type, the most suitable pictures are those from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the conservative ones from the twentieth century. Reproductions of these pictures are generally obtainable. France led the world in painting during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among her important artists were Corot, Millet, Ingres, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Seurat, and Cezanne. In England, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, and Reynolds were prominent. In the United States, Inness, Homer, Abbey, Alexander, Chase, and Whistler did outstanding painting. These lists are not complete by any means, but they are representative.

Since the work of the old masters has stood the test of time, its aesthetic merit need not be questioned, but, nevertheless, the best known of the great pictures should be avoided for home decoration because people are so used to them that they are no longer stimulating to the imagination. It is as dull to see the same pictures too often as it would be to hear the same music or read the same books over and over. Less famous pictures by the masters, or pictures by less important artists, are preferable to masterpieces that are too commonplace. The fine well-known pictures that are valuable for study might be kept in a portfolio when they are not desired for wall decoration.

Oriental Pictures. Oriental pictures and accessories are desirable for use today, particularly with furnishings copied from the eighteenth-century styles, because Chinese things were used considerably at that time. Some students of aesthetics say that Chinese painting is the supreme artistic achievement of man. It is sometimes possible to get reproductions of such fine old Chinese paintings as Tung Yuan's "Landscape" in the Boston Museum, or of Japanese block prints or paintings by masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Block prints were the art of the common people, almost as plentiful as our comic papers. These prints usually have real artistic merit, because of their fine restraint in color and composition. Oriental pictures can be used in almost any type of home, traditional or contemporary.

Contemporary Pictures. The most vital pictures for people now living are those painted today. Older people and those particularly interested in the past often desire pictures expressive of the life of former periods. Since art is an expression of its own day, however, modern art should find a response in us, now that we have recovered from the shock of seeing the unfamiliar.

Two general types of painting are being done at the present time. They are impressionism and post impressionism. The contemporary exhibitions usually show about equal shares of each style. The conservative artists are generally impressionists; the liberals, post impressionists.

Impressionism. The impressionists commonly prefer picturesque subject matter and paint it as they see it, showing the light and shadow and the mood of nature, sometimes with fine design and sometimes without. This type of painting is approved by the layman because he usually understands what the artist is doing when he copies nature. Most persons enjoy the pure, fresh color that the impressionists use, put on, as it often is, in separate brush strokes to be blended in the eye of the observer. The opponents of impressionism say that it is a cul-de-sac for creative artists, because the finest possible achievement in it has already been attained.

Post Impressionism. In the twentieth century the post impressionists, all inspired by Cezanne, and freed from conventions in painting, are experimenting with cubism, futurism, synchronism, abstraction, vorticism, and more recently expressionism, and sur-realism. They say that their aim is to paint things as they know them, not as they see them, making use of fine design. They often prefer ordinary subject matter because they want to create beauty, not merely to copy a thing that is already beautiful.

The experiments of the modern artists should be received tolerantly even by those who do not like them, because experimentation in all lines of achievement must be expected in this age. Probably no person over fifty years old will learn really to like modern art, but since the whole Western world is trying it, it can not be dismissed with a shrug.

The Use of Contemporary Pictures.   Conservative contemporary pictures can be used in almost any type of room except early period rooms and modern rooms. Pictures of this type are painted by the leading conservative artists in the United States such as Blumenschein, Guerin, Higgins, Lie, Meiere, Savage, Ufer, Waugh, and Wendt.

Modern pictures should be used only in modern rooms, the most extreme abstractions and violent distortions being suitable only to ultra-modern surroundings. Some of the best modern pictures in the United States are painted by Blum, DeMuth, Hartley, Hopper, Marin, Martin, McFee, O'Keefe, Sterne, Weber, and Wright. Many others are doing interesting work. Diego Rivera of Mexico is considered by some to be the greatest painter in America. Some of the important European modernists are Braque, Chagall, Dufy, Jeanneret, Klee, Leger, L'Hote, Lurcat, Kokoschka, Matisse, Ozenfant, Picasso, Roualt, Segonzac, and Vlaminck.


Original Pictures.      Those who can afford it should have some original pictures. Anyone whose standard of living includes Oriental rugs and an automobile should have at least one good original painting. The purchaser of original paintings is helping in the creative work of her own age.

The person with a small amount of money, who wishes to buy an original picture, should buy it from the artist directly. The art dealer is of course necessary and should be patronized by people of means, but more people might be able to afford pictures if they could buy them from the artists. Pictures, like the services of surgeons, should be given to people according to their means. It is absurd for artists to fill their attics with unsold pictures when there are people who would receive much happiness from them. Many artists put paint remover on good pictures and scrape them in order to have the clean canvas to paint upon again. It would be far better to sell the picture for the cost of the material to teachers and other people who are trained to appreciate paintings but cannot ordinarily afford to buy them.

The prospective purchaser of an original picture who does not live in a city where there are exhibitions should write to the nearest large museum for advice about buying original paintings in the price range that she can afford. It might be possible to have pictures sent on approval or to arrange a visit to some artists' studios.

Reproductions.    It is very much better to have reproductions of worthy pictures than to have poor originals, just as it is better to hear a phonograph record of a fine musical composition than to hear an amateur play an original piece poorly.

Black-and-white reproductions of printed pictures are often so successful that it is impossible for an amateur to distinguish between handmade prints and machine-made copies. The person who is paying for original etchings should buy them only from the artists, from exhibitions, or from the most reliable dealers.

The quality of reproductions in color varies greatly, the best being so faithful that they show every brush stroke of the original paintings, while there are others that are extremely poor. It is now unthinkable to have brown or gray reproductions of paintings since color reproduction has improved so much. Tinted photographs are unpleasant and undesirable for display because the processes of painting and photography are much too different to be combined.

Reproductions in color of the work of the best artists should form the greatest part of the pictures bought for modest homes. As it is now, much too large a share of these consists of color reproductions of mediocre and poor pictures of the calendar type found in the picture sections of most department stores.

It is possible to procure reproductions of both old and contemporary pictures from the museums or institutes that own the originals, and from art stores. Art periodicals sometimes contain beautiful pictures in color that can be framed and are worth more than the cost of the periodical. It is well to examine the current numbers of art periodicals at a library and buy copies of those containing desirable pictures.


Oil Paintings. An oil painting should not be considered an impossible luxury by the family of modest means. A young artist of ability who has not yet attained recognition is usually willing to sell an oil painting at a reasonable price. There is a great range of choice in technique and in subject matter in this medium. An oil painting can be painted over and over until the artist is satisfied with it. The studied quality in many oil paintings appeals to the deliberate type of person more than the emotional quality in water-color pictures.

Water Colors. Water-color paintings are less expensive than oils and should be more used in modest homes. It is necessary to attend exhibitions and to read the art periodicals in order to learn "who is who" in painting, especially in water colors, as new names appear constantly. America's best water colorists in the past were Winslow Homer and John Sargent. At the present time John Marin, Charles DeMuth, and Charles Martin are the leaders of the moderns. There are, however, many other good water colorists in the United States.

Every worthy water-color painting must have certain qualities, among them fresh, direct brush work, with no scrubbing and no niggling. Technique is so important in a water color that errors in drawing, in color, and even in composition should be overlooked if the technique is perfect. The artist has to work at top speed to get a good water color, because the paint has a way of drying too quickly, and doing surprising things. Emotional intensity, too, is necessary for good water-color painting, which is highly subjective and requires a very different approach from the carefully considered oil painting. The best water colors are somewhat sketchy so that the observer has to use his own imagination in completing them. One charm of water-color painting is that the accidental effects often are better than anything that might have been done deliberately.

Prints.     Some print collectors say that prints belong in a portfolio and not on walls. On the contrary, color prints and blackand-white prints large enough to be seen easily are often suitable for wall pictures. It is true, however, that about go per cent of the prints now hung should be in portfolios where they can be studied closely, because they are too small to be hung.

Collecting prints is a hobby that cannot be surpassed because of its cultural benefits and its wide range of possibilities. If one begins with contemporary prints the price is moderate. Some. original prints in the current print exhibitions cost only five dollars. It is only through prints that the artist's own work is available to people of small means. Starting a print collection often leads to study that will enable one to enjoy the fine prints in the museums. Much interesting material has been written about prints, but possibilities still exist for research on special phases of the subject.

Processes of Print Making. Many persons think that etchings are the only important prints made. Etchings are no doubt the aristocrats of the group, but lithographs, engravings, wood engravings, mezzotints, monotypes, and linoleum-block prints are also important members.

Etchings are ink impressions taken from plates engraved by lines eaten out with acid. Rembrandt and Whistler were among the most important etchers of the past.

Lithographing is a process of printing from a greased pencil drawing that has been transferred to porous stone. Important contemporary lithography is being done by Birger Sandzen and other Americans. Lithography has suffered because of its association with commercial processes.

The wood block, and its substitute the linoleum block, have a long history. Durer and Holbein did wood engraving in Germany in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Japanese have applied the process widely and successfully. Today interesting book illustrations are made by Rockwell Kent and others through the use of black prints. Current exhibitions show good block prints both in color and in black and white.


Since pictures speak for their owner, she should be sure of what they are saying. If she is a gentle, refined person her pictures should express those qualities; if she is courageous and original her pictures ought to be the same. A person with simple tastes naturally chooses pictures very different from those selected by the person who likes complex effects. A little girl might prefer dainty pictures of dolls or flowers; a boy would probably choose Indian, animal, or cowboy pictures. A traveler might want architectural pictures from distant lands, and an amateur photographer might hang his room with beautiful photographs. A lover of books might collect good book illustrations, perhaps concentrating on one medium such as block printing.


Pictures for the living room should not be too unusual in composition, color, or subject matter because this room should be restful, and the pictures therein should not be offensive to friends or to any member of the family. The most suitable living-room pictures are landscapes, marines, decorative flower pictures, or figure compositions (if hung temporarily), and portraits (if of members of the family).

Dining-room pictures may be more gay because the occupants do not stay there long. Flowers, pleasant still life, and some landscapes such as blossoming trees or streams are suitable for dining rooms. A certain artistic dining room owes its charm to a row of Japanese prints of flowers and birds that form a border around the room about two thirds of the way up the walls. The wall paper is the same dull soft blue that occurs in the pictures so that the effect is not spotty.

Small rooms require pictures in scale. In a small bedroom or even in the kitchen small colorful pictures may be hung. As it is possible to get at a dime store a simple picture frame the right size to fit the best magazine covers, an assortment of these pictures can be placed in the frame, one behind the other. It is very little trouble to take out the removable back, and slip a different picture next to the glass, when a change is desired.

In a guest room it is well to hang impersonal pictures such as appeal to almost anyone. Other bedrooms, however, may have very personal pictures, appealing only to the owners. Having only one type of picture in a bedroom helps to unify its effect. Pictures for bedrooms should usually be lighter in color than living-room pictures and should have lighter frames.

Children's rooms should have pictures that tell stories and also have aesthetic quality. They should be large enough to be seen easily, and the subjects should be such as children like. Valuable information about selecting pictures for children can be found in a book entitled "Art in the School," by Belle Boas.

Simple cottage rooms should have pictures unaffected in subject matter, technique, and framing. Maps, engravings, or reproductions of plain genre pictures by Millet, Breton, Jan Vermeer, Hals, Potter, and others look well in Early Colonial and other simple rooms. Framed samplers and mottoes are also in the same spirit as these rooms.

Combining Pictures. All the pictures in one room should be friendly in texture, scale, subject matter, and color. An important oil painting usually prevents the use of anything but oils in the same room. A very bold water color or an excellent reproduction of an oil painting, however, can sometimes be used in the room with an oil. It is safest to consider that oil and water do not mix, and neither do canvas and paper pictures.

It is well to have some variety in the size of the pictures in a room, without any of them being out of scale. The pictures in an ordinary-sized living room might well range from the size 14 by 18 inches to the size 20 by 24 inches, if there are only three or four pictures in the room. One picture should dominate in size and beauty, and it should have the place of honor, which is usually above the fireplace.

The subject matter of the various pictures in one room should be reasonably concordant. Monotony is not desirable, but neither is great difference such as that between a picture of a forest fire and one of a sleeping infant. It is disturbing to see one picture with small houses and figures hung close to another picture with large houses and figures.

Pictures in the same room are likely to be harmonious in color if they are chosen particularly for that room. Usually it is desirable to choose pictures that have different colors dominating. Probably the principal mistake to avoid in color is having some pictures too light or too dark for the others.

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