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THE ordinary decorations of college rooms are very tiresome. Wherever you go the same faces stare down at you from the walls; the same figures appear in the same more or less proper attitudes; the same white shingles with monstrous red seals, and sometimes the same silver medals, with ribbons chosen by the happy owner's friends and patrons, grow as tiresome as the same bell which has rung the college up to prayers for goodness knows how many years.
Most men appear to think that when they have purchased a print or two, the moral character of which is regulated by the reputation which they desire to maintain; when they have been elected to the St. Paul's, the Chess Club, the Institute, or the Athenaeum, etc., ad infinitum, and have encircled their shingles with gray passe-partouts; when they have carelessly slung any medals that they may possess over the shingles aforesaid, and when they have put photographs of a popular actress or two - probably Rosina Vokes, and some loose character in tights - on their mantelpieces, they have paid attention enough to aesthetics. They appear to regard pictures, and decorations in general, as convenient inventions to fill bare walls; they appear to decorate their rooms, if they take the trouble to decorate them at all, with little more appreciation and intelligence than were used by the wealthy gentleman who purchased his library by the pound.
The truth is that they do not understand the real value in daily life of what may be called artistic surroundings. It is by no means necessary to have every stick of furniture carved on the very nicest plan that the system of Eastlake has produced; nor to arrange every corner of a room with a studied attention to the picturesque, which would make it look like a magnified reproduction of a modern genre picture. But it is, if not absolutely necessary, at least highly desirable to hang upon your walls pictures that will suggest ideas; pictures at which you can look with pleasure for more than a single moment; pictures of which you will in time grow fond, instead of longing at the end of a couple of months to pitch them out of the window.
Original works of art are of course beyond the reach of any college student. Heliotypes are so thoroughly within the reach of everybody that, very naturally, nobody wants them. What you do want and need are good photographs and tolerable engravings of pictures or of statues or of buildings or of scenes which everybody has not seen, and which everybody does not see in every room that he enters.
The amount of pleasure and of mental relief which a few good pictures - peculiarly your own property - will give you is astonishing. There are many moments when you are too indolent to work, or even to think of anything to think about. You sit in your chair, lighting cigarettes and mentally declaring that this sort of thing is unbearably slow. You look at your walls or your mantel-piece in the condition in which they at present are, and you are reminded of nothing but this same slow sort of thing. Last year's crew and last year's burlesque actress; certificates of admission to half a dozen more or less popular societies; a French print of a grinning grisette; at best a third-rate Landseer or two, in which the dogs and the wilder beasts unconsciously lead your mind back to sporting matters, - that is all that you will probably discover, and your thoughts will not wander a dozen miles from your cigarette.
But, supposing that you have chosen your pictures with a little less regard for fashion and a little more regard for taste, you will find matters very different. If you have travelled, a couple of views of some well-remembered spot will carry you at once a thousand miles away. Before your cigarette is half finished you will find yourself wandering in fancy among the crumbling ruins of Italy, or beneath the battered castles of the robber-barons of the Rhine, or in the fading palaces of the Spanish Moors.
If you have not seen much of the world, - I use this phrase in its literal sense, - a good photograph of a picture which has meaning will impress that meaning upon you. The sublime figures which the old artists of Italy have left behind them cannot fail to arouse wondering thoughts of the minds which could conceive such forms, and of the thought which must have brought them into being. The splendid limbs of the marble relics of the ancients will carry you back to the days when men saw such limbs at every turn. The striking realism of the French pictures of the present day will remind you of hundreds of things which indolence will permit you neither to think for yourself, nor to dig out of the endless pages of a stupid book.
If you are tired with work and want rest, it is the same. You are too tired to read, and your mind is too full to work of itself with ease. A glance at your walls will give you either additional trouble, or the relief that you desire, according as they are hung with commonplace or with good pictures.
A fondness for real works of art is among us often misnamed affectation. A fear of ridicule often prevents us from surrounding ourselves with the forms and faces that our taste would choose. But give taste - by taste I mean good taste - fair play, and the result could not fail to be what you would wish. The monotonous athletes, sportsmen, ballet-girls, and shingles which we see to-day would vanish, and in their place would appear pictures which it is a pleasure to possess and at which it is a pleasure to look.
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