Featuring Family Photos: Hanging portraits in the living room

by epi on July 23, 2012

Q: I just bought a new house and have dozens of family photos. Is it proper to hang/display any of these in the living room where I entertain? I was thinking of hanging a few (a small collage) on a small wall between the living room to the dining room.

A: Yes, it’s fine. Some people think that family portraits belong in the bedroom or family room and that they are not a decorative, living room item, but there is no rule that says you can’t include family portraits and pictures in your living room if that is what you want to do.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Chocobo July 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

There’s an argument that the drawing room is the place for company and so intimate objects like family photos best belong in the family area — the family room and bedrooms. Many people don’t follow that but it’s an argument I see sense in; I don’t really want my guests distracted by a photo of my family at the Grand Canyon and the wedding portrait of Aunt Myrtle when we’re trying to visit with them. This particularly makes sense to me if you are a person who entertains acquaintances and not just close friends in your home — I’m just not sure I want people I don’t know that well to have a window into my intimate home life so easily.

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Jerry July 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Dude, in all the years I’ve been alive, I have never had a guest so distracted by a photo that it became impossible to visit with them. Family photos are intimate objects? Hardly.

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Chocobo July 24, 2012 at 8:26 am

You may not feel that way, but I do. I would rather get to know someone better before they see my bridal portrait and pictures of my vacation with my family. You may not think it’s such a big deal, but to me those things are private — for the same reason I do not put pictures of vacations on Facebook — and putting them in private areas of the house makes sense.

Other people are less private about their lives and so I understand why they wouldn’t really care. But I am offering another opinion on why one might choose decorative objects rather than family items for the rooms where guests are entertained.

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Jerry July 24, 2012 at 9:03 am

The question was whether it is proper to hang family pictures in the living room, not whether you — as an individual — feels comfortable doing so.

Feel free to decorate your home how ever you like, but make sure that you know why you’re making those choices. I do find it particularly odd that your first post claimed that family pictures might “distract” your guests, while your second post suggested that you don’t wish to share your family life with people you don’t know well.

A per se rule that one cannot or should not hang family pictures in the living room is just silly. If you’re so well off that you can afford a separate drawing room to entertain casual acquaintances and a living room to entertain family and close friends — then good for you! A better solution for the 99% is not to entertain people in your home if you’re not yet comfortable with them.

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Elizabeth July 24, 2012 at 9:31 am

Jerry, I’m not sure why you feel the need to contradict and argue with every post you don’t agree with. Chocobo wasn’t suggesting that her point of view should be a “rule” – s/he made it clear in the original post that it was a personal perspective rather than a rule s/he was seeking to extend to others. That’s why this discussion board is so great – because it is inclusive of multiple points of view. Please help to maintain the openness of this blog.

Just Laura July 24, 2012 at 11:02 am

In one of Miss Manners’ books (page 455), she mentions that photographs should be reserved for bedrooms, or at least not rooms where one commonly entertains guests. I’ve heard that rule elsewhere as well.

While I don’t have family photographs in any common rooms of my house, I do have a nice picture here at my work of my husband sitting on his Ducati. Therefore, I may be in violation, but everyone has had the good grace not to point out this possible offense.

Chocobo July 24, 2012 at 11:18 am

Thank you, Elizabeth, Laura. I have also read that rule in Miss Manner’s books and was attempting — apparently poorly — to give some reasons as to why such a rule might exist. For example, keeping one’s private life private, or not wanting the family album on the walls with guests about. Sometimes the reasons for such rules are outdated or lost to time, and apparently whether the rule still applies is contested, since the EPI doesn’t think there is such a rule and Miss Manners does.

Jerry July 24, 2012 at 11:22 am

Elizabeth: Based on some of our recent discussions concerning shoes on and shoes off — and your brutal critique of a commentator on that issue — you seem to be calling the kettle black. You (and another poster) also seem to have a personal dislike of me. That’s too bad — I’m really a charming and delightful person if you get to know me and/or ask the right questions. (You’ll also note that I don’t comment on anything to do with showers, and I leave most posts on weddings alone, even when I think the advice presented is rather silly.)

I asked for some clarification on what appears to be inconsistent reasoning. It is incredible to me that a visitor would find family photos distracting. It is similarly incredible to me that anyone would entertain in the home, but feel uncomfortable if that same guest saw a wedding photo, a vacation photo, or a family photo. To me — and I suspect to many people — weddings, vacations, and family are legitimate topics of conversation. Memorabilia of these interesting events (be they photographs, souvenirs, or other mementos) are a great way to break ice and/or spark conversation.

In short, Elizabeth, there’s a lot you can do here. A skillful community moderator (and I understand you are a moderator) could tease out these issues that I raised (and I took only a few minutes to think through these issues) and use the blog to lead a great discussion about the role of decorations in entertaining or how an interesting souvenir from a trip can be a conversation piece. If I were Chocobo responding to my post, I would have responded to the idea that not many people have drawing rooms in this day and age. Or I would have clarified the pictures-are-distracting vs. pictures-are-intimate issue. There’s a lot that can be done. One does not have to be offended every time a question is asked or a challenge presented. One can respond by clarifying one’s position. And we — or at least I — learn best when someone points out a flaw in our — or at least my — logic.

But if my thoughts and contributions are not welcome on this blog, I’ll take my ball and go play somewhere else.

Vanna Keiler July 25, 2012 at 7:01 am

I agree with the EPI response. Whatever the rules were regarding living room and family room, they obviously do not apply if you have only one such room (or none, if you live in a loft, for example). Since the trends nowadays in home architecture is for one big “great” room, the concept of separating items into various rooms seems reserved for those with the ability to do so. On a personal note, when I visit someone’s home, it seems odd nowadays to NOT see a photo of some family or friends somewhere, as even if you don’t particularly like taking pictures yourself, often someone gives you one anyways. However, as I write this, I realize everything is going digital nowadays, so perhaps the question will soon become “Should I put images of my family as a screen saver on my large flat screen tv, or is that too personal for my guests?”.

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scdeb July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Jerry,
Don’t go! I enjoy your comments & would miss them. Sometimes I agree; sometimes not.
On the topic of personal photos displayed in the living room or drawing room I am on the fence. If tastefully displayed they are a wonderful addition. I dislike the huge displays of professional posed members of the family members on every wall with special lighting etc. Maybe the thought that one was bragging about their travels, children, etc was why this was an etiquette rule?

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Shirley Mc February 11, 2014 at 10:04 am

I personally believe that a nice, professional family portrait should be hung above the fireplace. Has anyone else ever heard this.

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Alicia February 11, 2014 at 10:27 am

Well yes that is one option. However, traditionally portraits of living people have been left for the families private rooms and in the public rooms art is shown. So from a traditional view a nice piece of art or a lovely mirror would go over the fireplace in a room that you entertain in. It avoids the concept of bragging about how pretty your family is.
That said in the modern world it is not unusual for family photos to be displayed in entertainment spaces but a portrait that is large enough to go over a fireplace would be quite large and dominating indeed. I would find it a bit too much to have such a huge family portrait in the living room. Additionally if you use the fireplace the picture is subject to soot and other things that would damage such photo. Personally, I have a large mirror hung above my mantle with changing seasonal displays of things on top of the mantle. that get reflected in the mirror.

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DLE July 29, 2014 at 9:50 pm

What about oil paintings of a family member – particularly if the artist is well-known?

In manor homes over the centuries, portraits of wives, daughters, patriarchs, and others were hung in public rooms. Is this no longer considered appropriate?

I’m the subject of the painting referenced above, and wonder if I’ve been embarrassing myself, and my family, for having it hung over an antique desk.

Would appreciate thoughts and insights … and thanks in advance.

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Marilyn June 26, 2014 at 6:29 pm

I took my 3rd selfie in front of an edgy piece of art a couple weeks ago. It came out well, has bright color, I like it and more importantly, it represents who I am, an artist at a gallery opening, happy and carefree.

Question: is it pushy to get an enlarged version, hang it in the L-shaped dining room that opens to the living room in my townhouse. I’m using the dining table as an office at the moment.

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Jody June 27, 2014 at 7:00 am

Marilyn, I don’t think it would be pushy at all; from the way you’ve described the scene I think it sounds nice and would be a great addition. You didn’t mention whether you have roommates or a significant other living in your house; if you do, I’d check with them first. Otherwise, go for it.

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Marilyn June 28, 2014 at 11:32 am

Thanks Jody, you gave me the push I needed! (I’m between significant others at the moment, so no problem there.)

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Just Laura July 24, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I suppose I’ll go on record as saying this is an outdated rule, but please note I’m not taking sides. I just don’t have a problem with seeing a proud Grandma’s pictures along her stairway. (Nor would I dream of telling anyone how s/he should decorate his/her home.)
I imagine that this dated from a time when photographs were not displayed, and kept in a small case. Pictures were deeply personal (which explains many of the Victorian mourning photos). I don’t know when the trend began to display family photos publicly, but when photography became more prevalent and accessible to the general public, the immense sentimental value of each individual picture likely decreased.

At one point a lady wouldn’t dare go into public with her ears uncovered, but by the 1860s everyone ignored that rule (though kept their ankles covered!). Rules change, for better or for worse, and I’m glad EPI is around as a gentle guide.

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Elizabeth July 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Nonsense. I don’t have a dislike of you. My objections to the shoe post were hardly brutal (unless “think of how your words have implications for others” is considered brutal). And I’m sure you’re charming and delightful. In fact, I just thought to myself “Jerry and I are probably more similar than different.”

I’m one of many moderators, and my opinions are my own (I don’t “represent” Emily Post) and so I have never intended to imply that you aren’t welcome here – it’s not even close to my place to do so, nor would I want you to cease your contributions. I would hardly expect that someone like you would be chased away by the gentle admonition to “help keep open dialogue going”. Rather, I look forward to our continued ball playing.

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