Over the fireplace
Robert Genn

September 14, 2010

Dear Rodney,Yesterday, Colleen O'Brien wrote, "I was meeting with a client last night and a 
question came up regarding hanging artwork over a new fireplace. One of the 
builders said to never hang art above a fireplace as it would ruin a painting. 
Another person said there is no issue. There will be no mantel on this particular 
fireplace. Do you have any knowledge about this?"

Thanks, Colleen. Apart from the fact that "over the fireplace" is a traditional 
(and mandatory) location for art, there are three main problems with fireplace 
proximity. One is the excessive drying that takes place near any heat source. 
Canvas, particularly, can become brittle after only a few years. Also, overheated 
oils can become cracked and flaky. Modern, better designed fireplaces may radiate 
heat outward and not be as problematical.

Another problem is the buildup of soot and grime from smoky, poorly designed 
hearths. Visiting in a cottage this summer I noticed a really dark oil over an 
ancient river-stone fireplace. The painting looked like something out of a 
mediaeval nunnery. On closer examination it was a landscape by a deceased painter 
I used to know. He would be rotisserating in his grave if he saw it, I figured, so 
I offered to clean it up. It was quite a job. Starting with Mr. Clean and a soft, 
circular motion with a white towel, I soon found myself resorting to a Brillo pad. 
(Please don't share that last sentence with anyone--that's strictly between you 
and me, okay?)

Actually, well dried, with a final cotton-batten cleaning with mineral spirits and 
a shot of Damar varnish from a spray can, it looked like a million bucks. 
Interestingly, with the darkening that had taken place over the years, the folks 
who owned it simply lived with it and thought that was how it always was. 

There's another thing about fireplaces. Whether there's a mantel or not, paintings 
tend to fall down from them. For some reason they seem to land on the corners of 
the fire screen or the sharp parts of fireplace implements. Holes in fallen 
canvasses are a big problem around Christmas, particularly where stockings are 
involved. Also, the heavily-laden and overweight Claus coming down the chimney may 
inadvertently be knocking the pointy ends of picture hooks. Just a theory. 

Best regards,


PS: "The national distrust of the contemplative temperament arises less from an 
innate Philistinism than from a suspicion of anything that cannot be counted, 
stuffed, framed or mounted over the fireplace." (Lewis H. Lapham)

Esoterica: One only needs to look at paintings under glass to see the effect of 
dangerous, poorly-drawing fireplaces. The constant return of an oily smudge 
(creosote) may indicate the presence of toxic, airborne substances, including 
carbon monoxide--the result of incomplete or low-temperature burning. Perhaps a 
painting over a fireplace is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine--a 
pleasant monitor to have hanging around.