Sarah B. Cunningham: Living with Art

July 10, 2012

Photo by Clements/Howcroft, courtesy of Walker-Cunningham Fine Art

“It doesn’t really match the drapes,†said my longtime client when I presented her with a painting for acquisition. She was right, and it gave me pause. Until then, as an art dealer, I had always been more focused on the object–a painting or sculpture–than on the interior as a whole. I was thinking, “Is the piece a perfect fit for the collection, in excellent condition, fairly priced?†“Does it match the window treatments?†was not yet on my radar.

My appreciation for how we live with art has evolved over the years to become a core principle of my business as an art dealer–finding the right fit for my clients in all ways as I help to bring these sublime objects into everyday lives.

Perhaps the ultimate exercise in living with art: Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo from

Collectors buy art first and foremost for love–I believe in this and encourage it! And once you fall in love, you’ll want to confirm quality, condition (especially for antique paintings), and the “known quantity†factor for your acquisitions: is the artist established, or part of an emerging market? (In my next guest post here, I’ll highlight a few important considerations when purchasing art.) But even the finest, most valuable works of art are, on a basic level, decoration–albeit imbued with a great deal of independent meaning, history and value. They are wonderful to behold. They can bring warmth and life to a room. This dining room features an original nineteenth-century charcoal by French artist Henri Renault.

Charcoal drawing by Henri Renault (French, nineteenth century); interior design by Briger+Briger. Photo by Michael Zabé, courtesy of Briger+Briger

Inspiration truly abounds when you envision your space with art in mind. Whether you are designing your interior around an existing collection (in the photo below, it is important contemporary photography), or have recently caught the collecting bug and are looking for ways to introduce art into your home, this is a happy challenge.

Interior design by Christine Tuttle. Photo by Russ Mezikofsky, courtesy of The Boston Globe

Original fine art–paintings, sculpture, photography and works on paper–provides a visual focus for a room and a spark of inspiration for the entire interior. Here, a light-filled living-dining area highlights three paintings by taking advantage of some great wall space and a dramatic high ceiling.

Featured artists (left to right): Henry Botkin, Sally Michel and Herbert Barnett; interior by Platemark Design. Photo by Michael J. Lee, courtesy of Platemark Design

A pop of vibrant color from a twentieth-century modern oil by Sally Michel brings warmth and cheer to this fresh kitchen interior. (The kitchen is a fantastic spot for highlighting a favorite in your collection, where you will enjoy it each day in the hub of your home.)

Interior by Platemark Design. Photo by Michael J. Lee, courtesy of Platemark Design

In Ralph Lauren’s Bedford, New York, residence, I see a favorite concept in play–juxtaposing photography, oil paintings, objects, furnishings. My longtime gallery mentor and dear friend Alfred Walker, a collector and lover of all things exquisite, is also known for layering in his interiors. I find this works to superb effect with art in the home.

Photo by Durston Saylor, courtesy of Architectural Digest

As 1950s New York Times “Art at Home†columnist Betty Pepis stated, “Picking a picture is purely a matter of personal choice. But transferring it from gallery to home, other points must always be considered.†Indeed!

1955 column logo courtesy of The New York Times

In my next post, I will share a few of my insights for the acquisition and care of original art–considerations and tips gleaned from my thirteen years in the business.

-Sarah B. Cunningham

Sarah B. Cunningham is owner of Walker-Cunningham Fine Art in Boston, a gallery specializing in American and European paintings from 1850 to the present.

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