Why all the white walls?

Why all the white walls?

You walk into a gallery and what do you see? 9 times out of 10 you'll probably see some variation of white walls and dark gray floors. The space feels sparse, clinical, and so quiet you could hear a pin drop. But has it always been this way? And why is this the unwritten standard that most museums and galleries have adopted? Here we'll break down the pros and cons to having white walls while also looking in to the trend that started it all. 

Pros - the fairest of them all

There is a case for the white cube you've come to think of for gallery walls. The color white was popularized in Germany during the early 1900's, first by Bauhaus styled interiors but then institutionalized by the Third Reich in the 1930's. The Nazis associated white with purity, but they saw the advantage of its flexibility as a display background for art. If you take a look at photographs from the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938 you might be surprised to see that all the walls are white. Scholar Charlotte Klonk goes on to discuss how this trend immigrated to America.

The white cube has various roots which all finally come together in the 1930s in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Before and after the First World War, there was a desire to show pieces of art against a background with the greatest possible contrast to the dominating colors of the paintings. 

Though by no means the only institution doing this (see the Harvard Museum of Art and Wadsworth Atheneum), MoMA paved the way for the standard we have come to know with its 1936 exhibit "Cubism and Abstract Art." Since then not much has changed in 80 years. Now that we know where this trend came from, let's break down the pros for displaying artwork on white walls. 

  1. It suits contemporary artwork. The rise of modern art saw artists experimenting with a multitude of media and new ways of viewing art. Imagine viewing a James Turrell light piece on colored walls. The experience would completely change at each venue. White is neutral enough that it can work with every medium and doesn't distract the eye. 
  2. Chop and change. Anyone who has ever worked at a gallery knows how much labor goes in to changing exhibits. White is easy to patch and paint over. You also don't have to completely change the color of the walls to suit the next exhibit.
  3. And then there was light. This relates to the above. Lighting is more important than you think. A good lighting setup spreads light evenly throughout the exhibit without it being obvious to the eye. White walls bounce light around the exhibit instead of absorbing it. 

Cons - the enemy of painting

White hasn't always been the preferred wall color, nor has our tradition of hanging paintings in a row at eye level. Pre-20th century saw a different aesthetic to displaying art. Replace the white walls and inconspicuous frames of today with rich dark colors and large ornate gold frames. Before the rise of modernism, galleries opted to arrange art in the salon style. Starting at eye level, paintings would be placed side by side all the way to the ceiling. The best works were placed closer to eye level while the artwork deemed of lower quality near the top. The 18th century saw the birth of public art museums like the Louvre and the British Museum. These spaces were filled with artwork from private collectors, whose preferred method of displaying art involved crowded groups of paintings on patterned wallpaper.

  1. Origin story. In the 1900's, museums moved away from the salon style display of the 18th century, which resulted in larger portions of the walls being visible. At this time, Charles Eastlake, director of London's National Gallery, decided to change the gallery walls to red. Scholar Charlotte Klonk on this decision: The interaction with the golden frames and the mainly cooler colours of the paintings themselves led, according to this research [of modern sensory physiology], to a harmonious effect in the beholder’s visual experience.

  2. Color suits pre-20th-century art. The 2011 remodel of the Musée d'Orsay added richly colored walls to the new galleries. Guy Cogeval, director of the Musées d'Orsay and the l'Orangerie, strategically choose dark blue and gray, reds, and even purple for the walls of the newly renovated museum to enhance the collection of predominantly Impressionist art. See his opinions on white in the quote below. 

  3. Return of color. Color is beginning to gain in popularity again; some galleries are experimenting with displaying contemporary art on color. Shows of Andres Serrano photographs have been displayed on black and bright red walls. Likewise, German Expressionist Anton Henning's paintings have been displayed on slate colored walls. Colorful walls are a great way to create ambiance and enhance the artwork's subject matter.

What do you think? Does color distract you when viewing artwork or does it enhance the experience? Let us know!

“White kills all painting apart from 20th century and contemporary art. When you put an Academic or an Impressionist painting against a white background, the radiance of the white, its indeterminate aura around the work prevents the sometimes very subtle contrasts of values from being revealed. In my view, white is the enemy of painting.”
— Guy Cogeval



Musée d'Orsay color choice - Musée d'Orsay

When White is Wrong - ArtNews

How the White Cube Came to Dominate the Art World - Artsy

The white cube and beyond - Tate Etc. conversation with Niklas Maak, Charlotte Klonk, and Thomas Demand

Destination: Art - Marfa edition

Destination: Art - Marfa edition

What Were They Thinking!? - Monogram

What Were They Thinking!? - Monogram