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Art Hanging Through the Ages: Evolution, Trends, and Cultural Significance

  • by Arthur Harrison
  • 6 min read

For most people, viewing an actual art piece, in itself, is enough. But what about the way the artwork is hung and the context around it? We here at Picture Hang Solutions realize that the way the artwork is presented is almost as important as the piece itself. 

When we’re deciding how to hang framed art in our home, what's the one factor that helps us decide on the type of artwork and placement we choose? It comes down to how well it ties into the visual composition of the room! It conveys to your guests a message about your aesthetic sensibilities. It’s the same thing with displaying art – what are the implicit messages behind how it’s displayed?

Notions of art hanging are just as important as finding the right artwork that fits your aesthetic preferences. Read on as we explore major art movements from the 18th to 20th centuries and see if you can pick up some picture hanging ideas to try! 

The Salon Wall

If you’ve read some of our articles before, you might have noticed frequent references to a salon-style hang or a gallery wall. This style of hanging art has been around since the 17th century and is a crucial detail of the zeitgeist of the art world during that period. 

Image of a salon wall
Image from Somerset House

Reaching back to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the Salon Carre was an exhibition space inside the Louvre that hosted all the exhibitions that were mostly for the aristocratic audience. The salon hanging style allowed a more efficient way to display the students’ artworks. Paintings of different sizes were hung only a few inches apart from each other and arranged in a wall tableau, occupying floor to ceiling. 

To achieve this kind of display, the Royal Academy used picture hooks made of metal or wood with a curved or pointed end to hold the picture hanging wire. Picture rails, which could hold substantial weight and allow the frames to move, saved the wall from having to bear the stress of several frames hanging from top to bottom. 

By the 19th century, picture hanging went from just churches and castles to middle-class homes, and picture rails became a popular feature among Victorian homes.

The Modernist Grid

The end of the 19th century was signaled by an important historical landmark: the second Industrial Revolution. Technological advances like the telegraph and the railroad networks marked the beginning of a new era. As they left behind traditional forms and styles of displaying art, artists were in search of a new way to express the modern age. 

With the illusion of progress and stability quickly being shattered by World War 1, the aesthetic climate would soon find a sense of order in a symbol now attributed to the modern age: the grid. This was perhaps most embodied by the advances in printing and media, as Richard Hollis pointed out, because letterpresses used grid systems as helper lines for written books. Texts were arranged in rectangular grids on a page, and the modernist grid was all about repetition and separation. 

A letterpress from the 19th century
Image taken from New York Almanack

The popular aesthetic movements of the era soon adopted the grid in their art styles. For example, the De Stijl movement was founded in 1917, motivated by the desire to restore order, which was encapsulated by the universal geometric language of the grid. Piet Mondrian was a prominent name among the De Stijl artists. 

Paintings by Piet Mondrian
Paintings by Piet Mondrian. Image from Bucerius Kunst Forum.

The modernist grid style of hanging reflected a grid-like pattern on the walls, with equal spacing between each artwork. The arrangement comes together to create a harmonious and uniform display. This style of hanging manifested in different succeeding ways of art display, even being incorporated into other styles like the salon style.

The modernist grid
Art of the Twenties, November 14, 1979-January 22, 1980, Museum of Modern Art. Image taken from the Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Other popular art movements during the era adopted the grid style hanging but in different formats: Bauhaus was all about the geometric practicality of the grid. Bauhaus exhibitions carefully aligned the artworks along horizontal and vertical axes to come up with geometric placements that enhanced order and structure.

A Bauhaus display of art
Bauhaus: 1919-1928, December 7, 1938-January 30, 1939, Museum of Modern Art. Image taken from Museum of Modern Art Archives. 

Mid-Century Minimalist Curation

The middle of the 20th century has seen some of the most revolutionary changes in art history. Motivated by global events years prior, several cultural and aesthetic upheavals gripped the Western world by storm.

The art movements of the time had stark differences indicated by different attitudes toward art. In the 1960s, Minimalism rose to prominence, advocating for an entirely different approach that was unheard of: the removal of self-expression and individuality. With Minimalism, the goal was to be objective and non-referential. It was simply about eliciting a purely visual response from the audience by emphasizing the most basic elements (color, form, space, medium) and de-mystifying their work.

A minimalist display of art
Art of the Real, July 3-September 8, 1968, Museum of Modern Art. Image taken from Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Minimalists approached art hanging the same way they looked at art: with simplicity, precision, and the reduction of any unnecessary elements. To simulate repetition and order, they were evenly spaced apart and arranged in a grid formation. Their artworks were hung flush to the wall without any additional framing or visible hardware, creating a seamless integration between the wall and the artwork. 

A gallery of art in the minimalist style of display
Once Invisible, June 20 to September 11, 1967, Museum of Modern Art. Image taken from the Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Two picture hanging hardware materials came about during the mid-century: French cleats and drywall hooks. While French cleats have been in use since the 19th century for shipbuilding, smaller aluminum cleats became extremely popular during the building boom after World War II, which also extended to picture hanging.

Drywall also became the go-to material for houses during the building boom. German inventor Artur Fisher created the drywall anchor in 1958, which was a huge step towards do-it-yourself home repair methods. It created a strong hold for screws on drywall panels and became a popular choice for picture hanging at home.

New Age Intuitive Hanging

The global events from the middle to the late 20th century were distinguished by a series of upheavals about traditional notions on sexuality, authority, the individual, and race. The New Age movement that emerged during the 80s and 90s was a combination of attitudes from the decades prior. The movement was extremely eclectic, attracting many occult leaders from the psychedelia of the 70s and combining this culture with Eastern mysticism and traditional cult practices. 

An art wall in the new age movement
Reincarnation Triptych by Judy Chicago, 1973, Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, CA. Image taken from Judy Chicago.

Drawing on the fall of traditional Western forms, the New Age was defined by an openness to non-Western spiritual beliefs and practices. One of the noteworthy beliefs was an awareness of earth energy, an ancient system that provides fertility and harmony with the environment. 

A new age art display
Donald Lipski: Pieces of String Too Short to Save, May 20, 1993 to September 5, 1993, Brooklyn Museum. Image taken from Brooklyn Museum Collections.

This belief was closely associated with other Eastern practices of the same sensibilities, such as the Chinese practice of feng shui: a way of optimizing this energy system through movement and circulation within architecture, interior design, and spatial arrangement.

These principles can extend to picture hanging, with regard to how the content and placement of the artwork can create a harmonious connection with the viewer. Even the choice of hardware could be influenced. Natural materials like brass or copper were believed to have positive energy properties. Frames were also more likely to be wooden.

Though it was not often necessarily in adherence to feng shui, the artists of the New Age approached art display in a similar way, which was more intuitive. It was more common to hang their work in non-linear and symbolic placements.

A display of art in the new age style
From Christo and Jean-Claude to Jeff Koons: John Kaldor Art Projects and Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995. Image taken from Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Final Thoughts

For as long as art has existed for public consumption, art display has been just as important in delivering the message. The methods mentioned above are still in use today, not only in museums and galleries but in studios and personal home displays. Make sure to check out our blog for more technical how-to information on hanging pictures!

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