A selection of films plus one TV episode in which paintings play an important narrative role. What is decisive here is that the paintings featured in the films are crucial in driving the narrative forward and are not just used for background effect.
The Impossible (Egypt 1965 Hussein Kamal)
A domestic drama that employs painting “as a storytelling device” in that the film’s action is commented on by “the paintings on the walls” of the characters’ drawing- and bedrooms, thereby creating a series of “striking visual comment[s]” as they move through them (McIver 220).
Barry Lyndon (UK 1975 Stanley Kubrick based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon though the film is set in the 1750s, 60s and 70s).
One of the first films subjected to an analysis of its painterly style soon after its release, the film references 18th century paintings by among others Gainsborough (exteriors: peopled landscapes) and Constable (exteriors: landscapes without people), Georges de la Tour (interiors: candlelight) and Hogarth (interiors: satirical domestic) see
Source: You Tube by Laurent de Béchade
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[above all 3:40—4:13]
The music video for Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” (A Night at the Opera 1975 written by John Deacon) with its gigantic ballroom and glittering chandelier hanging from the ceiling was like the interiors for Barry Lyndon shot at Elstree Studios in London see the instantly recognizable candles from the film:
Source: You Tube by Queen Official
Barry Lyndon sourced lighting candlelight sequence where thanks to the use of newly developed camera lenses, the sole source of light are the lit candles:
Source: You Tube by Misesian
An American in Paris (US 1951 by Vincente Minnelli)
Each of the sets of the 17-minute ballet sequence towards the end reflects in turn the style of the French Impressionists Dufy, Manet, Utrillo, Rousseau, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Schalcken the Painter (UK BBC 1979 horror film by Leslie Megahey)
Adapted from J Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 gothic tale “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken” (sic), the film deals with the work of the 17th century Dutch genre and portrait painter Godfried Schalcken 1643-1706. The influence of Vermeer can be seen in the lighting and set design.
The Age of Innocence (US 1993 by Martin Scorsese based on the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton published in 1920)
Numerous paintings can be glimpsed by both the protagonists as well as we the cinema audience >>
There are five paintings alone as we see Newland Archer navigating the drawing rooms in the Beaufort mansion:
The Duel after the Masquerade Ball by Jean-Léon Gérome (1857), Le Printemps/The Return of Spring by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1886), L’Ambitieuse/Political Woman by James Tissot (1885), Hush! (The Concert) by James Tissot (1875) and Too Early by James Tissot (1883).
Mountain Scene by Albert Bierstadt (1880), Gallery of the Louvre by Samuel F.B. Morse (1833) and The Death of Jane McCrea by John Vanderlyn (1804) are all seen by Archer in the corridor of Mrs. Mingott’s house.
Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici by Peter Paul Rubens (1624) contemplated by an aged Archer in museum.
The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church (1861)
Archer congratulates his daughter on her engagement.
Sphinx by Franz Rohrbeck (N/A) and Ruines de la Mosquee du Calife Hakem au Caire by Prosper Marilhat (1822)
Same drawing room with May Welland.
The Fighting Temeraire by William Turner (1839)
Archer waiting for Countess Olenski. See start of this section!
Expectations by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885)
Archer and May Welland talking with Mingott. Also ‘reproduced’ as a shot in the film.
The Sphinx or The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff (1896)
Dialogue between countess Olenska and Archer.
An unidentifiable portrait of a dog very similar to a few canine portraits by George Stubbs as well as one or two ‘after’ him. Archer, May Welland and Mrs. Welland in Mrs. Mingott’s living room with her surrounded by dogs.
For interpretations of how and why some of them are used see
Finally, The Age of Innocence is an oil on canvas painting by Joshua Reynolds (1785 or 1788)
Uncovered (UK/Spain 1994 Jim McBride)
Based on the novel La table de Flandes / The Flanders Panel (1994) by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The art restorer Julia discovers a hidden message underneath the paint of the 15th century portrait of a woman and two men playing chess she is working on: Qvis Necavit Eqvitem, “Who killed the knight?” This points to the murderer of one of the characters in the painting, a forefather of the painter’s owner, and this mystery soon has its equivalent in the present when the people involved in Julia’s research are also murdered. In the novel the painting is identified as The Game of Chess oil on wood by the Flemish painter Pieter Huys (1471) yet while Huys did exist he never completed a painting with this name.
The Stendhal Syndrome (Italy 1996 horror film by Dario Argento)
Inspired by the 1989 book of the same name by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, which in turn is based on the French writer Stendhal’s experience in the Santa Croce church in Tuscany in 1817, namely a debilitating psychosomatic illness affecting people when they are exposed to works of art. In the film this happens to Detective Anna Manni when she enters a museum, which leads to her being kidnapped by the very serial killer she had gone to Florence to catch.
The Thomas Crown Affair (US 1999 heist film by John McTieman)
Featuring paintings by Monet, Manet, van Gogh, and Pissarro. There is one painting in the style of Cassius Coolidge’s dogs playing poker series, and René Magritte’s The Son of Man from 1964 can be seen several times, above all in the final robbery sequences see
Le Tableau / The Painting (France/Belgium 2011 computer animated film by Jean-Francois Laguionie)
Set within the borders of an unfinished canvas with characters fully drawn and colored, partially completed and only in rough design. There are possible influences here of Matisse, the Fauves, Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani, Manet, Andre Derain, and Bonnard.
L.A.Story (US 1991 Mike Jackson)
One sequence takes place in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art against the backdrop of what looks very much like an (albeit unnamed) Mark Rothko red painting.
Source: You Tube by bob whyshouldi
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (US 1986 John Hughes)
High school student Ferris Bueller wants a day off from school so he talks his shy and neurotic friend Alan into taking his father’s Ferrari. Together with his girlfriend Sloane they go to Chicago for the day, starting out at the city’s Art Institute in a sequence that turns into a metadiscourse on the similar affects painting and film can produce in us:
Source: You Tube by iomelinamela
It is a 29-shot montage sequence including paintings by Picasso, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Rodin’s bronze Portrait of Balzac sculpture, Marc Chagall’s stain glass American Windows. The last twelve shots then show Alan standing in front of and staring at Georges Seurat’s 1886 Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There is no dialogue, only the unsourced music of the Smiths “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” in an instrumental version by Dream Academy and shot-counter shot between Alan and the little girl in the dead centre of the painting. The director himself explains the personal significance of the gallery, its relevance for the characters, and in particular that he always considered pointillist painting “sort of like making a movie” where the painter has no idea what they’ve done until they step back from it. Alan establishes some kind of connection between himself and the girl: “The closer he looks at the little child the less he sees, of course with this style of painting. The more he looks at it, there’s nothing there.” And this could very well be what Alan wonders about himself: “I think he fears that the more you look at him, the less you see, there isn’t anything there.” And so the final four shots of the girl where she becomes increasingly then virtually invisible—“That’s him.”
Source: You Tube by MonkeyBoyBud
Anamorph (US 2007 by Henry S. Miller)
Willem Defoe plays the reclusive detective Stan Aubray, drawn to investigate the murders of a serial killer whose case reminds him of one he himself worked on a while back. With the use of human bodies, the killer is employing anamorphosis, a painting technique that deliberately distorts the laws of perspective, for example with an anamorphic lens, to create two competing images on a single canvas. The film’s final shots [1:37:00-1:38:35] appropriately have Aubray dying in a chair like in one of Francis Bacon’s 50 or so equally distorted versions of Velázquez’ Portrait of Innocent X (1650) see link for Study after Velázquez’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1953:
Das große Museum (Austria 2014 documentary by Johannes Holzhausen about everyday life in the world famous museum of art history in Vienna)
The National Gallery (France/US/UK 2014 film essay documentary by Frederick Wiseman about the most visited art gallery in the world)
Francofonia (France/Germany/Netherlands 2015 by Alexander Sokurov about the Louvre in Paris during the Nazi occupation)
Beltracchi – Die Kunst der Fälschung (Germany 2014 documentary by Arne Birkenstock about the art forgers Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, responsible for one of the biggest postwar forgery scandals)
El sol del membrillo / The Quince Tree Sun / Dream of Light (Spain 1992 by Victor Enrice and the Spanish painter Antonio López García 1936- , who plays himself attempting to paint the eponymous tree growing in his studio’s backyard)
Tatsumi (2011 by Eric Khoo)
Based on the manga memoir A Drifting Life and five earlier short stories by the Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi 1935-2015. A Singapore production with Japanese dialogue animated in Indonesia.
Gerhard Richter Painting (Germany 2011 by Corinna Belz Painter at Work)
RECREATIONS OF HOPPER
Herbert Ross’ 1981 Pennies from Heaven does one of the painter’s Nighthawks (1942):
Source: You Tube by Bart Lewinsky
In Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (US 1997) we witness a film crew shooting a live recreation of the same painting:
Source: You Tube by Blair Waldorf
Shirley: Visions of Reality (Austria 2013 by Gustav Deutsch)
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) took his inspirations from among many other things the cinema and above all cinematography of his time, for example in his use of light and shadow. In turn his paintings influenced individual sequences and/or the whole ‘feel’ of a variety of films. Perhaps the most famous from numerous examples is the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which quotes Hopper’s 1925 oil painting House by the Railroad. In Shirley: Visions of Reality Viennese filmmaker, architect and experimental artist Gustav Deutsch recreates thirteen of Hopper’s oil paintings as vignettes that come to life, three-dimensional scenes. The story follows the fictional life of the eponymous red-haired New York actress by means of news clips, music and poems as she takes us through the life, wars and social history of the USA between 1931 and 1963. We see Shirley for the first and last time in a train reading a volume of poems by Emily Dickinson in a reproduction of one of Hopper’s final paintings, 1965’s Chair Car. See first link for Hopper/Hitchcock, second for Shirely‘s website:
More Wenders/Hopper: The Swiss Fondation Bayerler’s spring 2020 exhibition showed works by the painter accompanied by Wenders’ supporting 3-D short Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper
Source: You Tube by FondationBeyeley
Final Portrait (UK 2017 Stanley Tucci with Geoffrey Rush as the Swiss modernist sculptor, graphic artist and painter Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966)
Set in the Paris of the 1960s the film depicts Giacometti’s attempt to paint a portrait of his friend the young writer and art lover James Lord as he sits and poses for him.
The Dutch Master (US 1995 short film by Susan Seidelman)
About Teresa the dental hygienist, who stares fascinated at a painting reminiscent of Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Drinking with Soldiers (1658) in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art until one day its scenery and characters come alive and she enters the world of the painting. Not only does Teresa end up reversing the male gaze there
the painting also enables her to escape a potentially stifling marriage, providing her with a space in which to indulge her auto-erotic fantasies:
Both shots with the kind permission of Christian Stollwerk of ZIEGLER FILM GmbH & Co. KG
Director Susan Seidelman on the de Hooch original on which the painting in the film is modelled:
My husband Jonathan Brett—who co-wrote and produced The Dutch Master—and I had committed to living in Paris for a year because I was set to direct a feature for Polygram, a company that unfortunately went bankrupt. So we were kind of in a funk over there, and probably thinking about various ways of escaping our reality, when we went to the Louvre and saw this painting by Pieter de Hooch. A great thing about Dutch Master paintings is how they have rooms within rooms; there’s the main space, but there’s often a door suggesting something happening in the space beyond. We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to go into that painting and through that door?
The painting is characteristic of de Hooch’s deep-set, sparsely furnished rooms with open doors and windows and different light effects from the evenly distributed soft daylight to the stark shadow contrast that lends the scene its vitality. The strong colours de Hooch likes to employ appear here in a remarkable luminosity (Stukenbrock/Töpper 474—75). The version in The Dutch Master is described by the museum guide as a simple late afternoon domestic scene “see the strong, warm beam of light. A statue of Mercury is on top of the cabinet in the room into which the door leads—the significance of which is anybody’s guess…”
Source: Wikimedia Public Domain
From the same interview on voyeurism:
But as a director, as a filmmaker—I’m kind of a voyeur. That’s part of the job. You get to look in and explore all different kinds of worlds that you don’t necessarily participate in. That’s really what movies are: we go to watch other people doing private things on the big screen. So the idea of a woman going into the world of a painting was erotic to me. For contrast, I wanted to make her “real” life as antiseptic and sterile as possible, which is why I made her a dental hygienist working in an office that was very cold and chrome, while the world inside the painting was lush, dark, and sensual. The colors, the set design, the costumes; everything was about creating a difference between her real life and fantasy life.
Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie (UK/US 1997 by Mel Smith)
Trying to make amends for sneezing on James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1/Whistler’s Mother (1871), Mr Bean only makes matters worse:
Source: You Tube by Mr Bean
But there is a conciliatory ending when he is called upon to give a speech about the painting. He admits that by staying with his best friend David Langley and his family, he has learned that “families are very important. Mr. Whistler … took the time to paint this amazing picture of” someone “he thought the world of. And that’s marvellous”:
Source: You Tube by Mr Bean
Venus (UK 2006 by Roger Michell from a Hanif Kureishi script,)
Peter O’Toole plays the ageing veteran actor Maurice Russell, whose life is drawing to a close (prostate cancer) while he is simultaneously drawn to his friend Ian’s grand-niece Jessie. He takes her to the London National Gallery in London to see his favourite painting, Velázquez’ Rokerby Venus (1647—51), after which she agrees to become a nude model for art class:
Source: You Tube by Movieclips
Right at the end Jessie finally gets to pose as a model for the Rokerby Venus along with some of her art class colleagues.
Miles Ahead (US 2015 biopic by and staring Don Cheadle in the lead role)
Jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, bandleader and style icon Miles Davis was also a painter. His work is now curated by family members like his L.A.-based musician/producer son Erin.
Source: You Tube by Miles Davies
Set Decorator Helen Britten revealed that all the artwork was inspired by Miles’ style (the artists used are thanked in the closing credits) and that Set Decorating Buyer Andrea Doyle was responsible for the painting Davis can be seen working on of a bullfighter featured on the easel in his home:
The Eyes of Orson Welles (US 2018 biographical documentary by Mark Cousins)
An essay film much like Welles would have made himself (and did, for example F is for Fake), his daughter Beatrice Welles granted Cousins exclusive access to the rarely seen hundreds of private drawings, cartoons, films storyboards, paintings, character sketches, set designs, doodles, illustrations and even Christmas cards he produced for family and friends that he left behind after his death in 1985 many of which appear in the film. See below for a gallery of his works:
Woman Walks Ahead (US 2018 by Susanna White)
Based on true events, the film tells the story of the New York widowed artist and Native activist Catherine Weldon, who in the 1880s travelled alone to Standing Rock/North Dakota to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull; she ended up completing four in oil.
Jim Carrey I Needed Color (US 2017)
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The Goldfinch (US 2019 by John Crowley)
The 13-year-old Theo loses his mother as a result of a terrorist attack in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He manages to save from the wreckage a painting, which he conceals where he lives: The Goldfinch, by one of Rembrandt’s pupils, Carel Fabritius. The film version of Donna Tarrt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name is the story of a traumatised teenager whose fate is closely linked to secretly possessing this famous painting.
The Limits of Control (US 2009 by Jim Jarmusch)
A mysterious loner only ever identified in the end credits cast list as Lone Man is in the process of completing a criminal assignment. He visits the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid on several occasions. Each time he observes/studies just one painting then disappears again. The paintings are
-The Cubist The Violin (1916) by Juan Gris (one of the reasons he goes to Madrid in the first place)
–Nude (1922) by Roberto Fernández Balbuena
–The aerial view of the Spanish capital Madrid desde Capitán Haya (1987-1994) by Antonio López
-Arte Povera painter Antoni Tapies’ Gran Sábana/Gran Ilenco (Large Sheet 1968), a white sheet stuck onto a white canvas, slightly crinkled at each corner, possibly suggesting a cinema screen and the concomitant ability of film images to indicate depth as the two-dimensionality of the painted image is overturned in this interplay between painting and cinema.
Each of the four paintings above is visually linked to sequences in the film, for example while waiting for a man with a violin case Lone Man stands in front of The Violin, and before meeting a mysterious woman naked on his hotel room bed he has been told to wait for it is Nude which gets his complete attention. They also form part of an ongoing discourse on the relevance of art. First there is the conversation about Bohemians with the Guitar Man at 1:03:10ff, who on looking at a group of youngsters wonders whether they could still be called bohemians. The comment may at first hearing appear deprecatory yet he then manages to admit that bohemians are in fact “very often the true artists.” This conversation then links up to the sequence right at the end of the film where Lone Man penetrates the heavily guarded fortress of the Donald Trumpian Target. He tells Lone Man his sort don’t understand how the world really works and that their “sick minds have been polluted with crap. Your music, movies, science … bohemians on hallucinogenic drugs. All that shit has poisoned you. And it has nothing to do with the real world” (1:30:50). The way the paintings are woven and integrated into the filmic text proves the exact opposite, namely that art is extremely relevant to the real world. Highly appropriately, the Target is finally strangled to death with a guitar string.
In The Limits of Control “what we have is not a reconstruction of a painting, but the depiction of paintings within the film and film frames structured like a painted canvas.” We ourselves as viewers are “invited to take a close look into the artwork through the eyes of Lone Man, within a new context.” Jarmusch’s character is ultimately one who “views the world through paintings; in addition, the filmmaker creates painting-like frames” see
Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany 2011 by Lars von Trier)
For the film’s use of paintings see Kirchner as well as the first link below. The second link also includes Antichrist (2009), Nymphomaniac (2013) and The House that Jack Built (2018):
The Postcard Killings (US 2020 by Danis Tanovic based on the crime novel of the same name published one decade earlier written by the Swedish writer Liza Marklund and the American author James Patterson)
In The Postcard Killings the sibling killers always send a museum postcard to a local journalist prior to committing each murder, at which point the killers drain their victims’ blood before arranging the bodies in grisly poses to match paintings (Goya, Caravaggio, Munch and Bougureau) or sculptures (Canova and Rodin) from the very museum that was on the postcard tipping the journalist off:
Saturn Devours Its Children by Goya
Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio
The Scream by Edvard Munch
Amor and Psyche by Antonio Canova
The Kiss by Rodin
Dante and Virgil by William-Adolphe Bougureau
An unidentified beheading of John the Baptist (murder planned but not carried out)
Modigliani a woman lying naked (murder thwarted) such as his 1917 Lying Nude (on the left side)
While Midnight in Paris (US/Spain 2011 by Woody Allen) features appearances by Rodin, Cocteau, Picasso, Dalí, Ray, Bunuel, Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas there is only one extreme long shot of actual paintings, Monet’s Nymphéas / Water Lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie.