Paintings in Film | Inspirations and Speculations | Art | Michelangelo

Inspirations and Speculations

The inspiration for this website was Susan Seidelman’s 1994 short film The Dutch Master (1994) where the dental hygienist Teresa becomes fascinated by a Dutch painting in MoMa. The painting’s characters suddenly take on a life of their own and Teresa enters an erotic fantasy world of luxurious colours and sensual costumes. As a result of repeated viewings of this film the question gradually emerged as to how many other films made similar uses of paintings—and not just biographical films about painters, for example the project then expanded to include painters who have made films.


At the same time speculations emerged on possible parallels between painting and film at least in the western tradition (in contrast to, say, East Asian painting, which tends to emphasize flatness over depth, Japanese emakimono or picture scrolls and Chinese handscrolls are read from right to left and so on). These parallels include:


Camera angles

Numerous uses of bird’s eye view in the landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder from The Suicide of Saul to The Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. A striking example of–in this case extreme–low angle is Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling panel for the Camera degli Sposi–bridal or painted chamber–in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy. Such illusionistic paintings are appropriately called in Italian “Di sotto in sù”, which means ‘seen from below’ or ‘below, upward’

(Depth of) perspective

(Use of) space, light[ing], and colour

Two-dimensional flat framed screens

With the image as the prime means of expression

Simultaneity of action

-See Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana from 1563 where the ten or so gestures, actions and events leading to the miraculous transformation of water into wine from John 2:1-11 all of which should logically follow one another consecutively in sequence are instead crammed into one moment like a time-lapse.

Sequentiality of action

-In Rembrandt’s Ahasveros and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660) the sequence is: Queen Esther exposes councillor Haman as the one who betrayed her and her people (leading to their slaughter) then slowly lowers her arm, an enraged King Ahasveros rises from the table, and councillor Haman recoils in fear, probably already guessing that he is to be executed (from Esther 7: 1-7).

-Rembrandt again, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). The storm Jesus is trying to calm is on the left, the eventually calmed storm on the right.

Slow motion

Pieter Brugel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) from Revelation 12: 2-9. The Archangel Michael right at the centre of the painting seems to be moving in slow motion in contrast to the smaller figures around him


See the same painter’s grisaille Death of the Virgin from 1564. Sourced lighting: the dying flames of the fireplace and the candle held by Mary upright in bed. Unsourced: the white/whitish light behind Mary’s head

Split screen

Edward Hopper’s New York Movie 1939, also referenced by McIver 233



In painting, single portraits like in film can be divided into the following shots (italics for paintings, bold for films):


At the same time, according to the head posture of the person being portrayed in the direction of the viewer/observer and the angle/perspective/point of view respectively we can also talk in terms of:


  • Head shot (en face): Medium Close Up
  • Three-quarter profile: Between a Medium Close Up and a Medium Shot
  • Three-quarter view: Same
  • (One) Quarter portrait: Same
  • Profile (view) (en profil): Same
  • In lost profile (profil perdu): Full Shot

Extreme Long (often Establishing) Shot: So many analogies between the depictions of landscape in film and painting, of course, but if we take buildings compare the opening shot of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) to The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin – 302 by Chris McMorrow and Hotel Del Coronado by Thomas Kinkade


Medium Shot: Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930) compare the film examples in


Wide Shot: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942), which has since given its name to


Additional Short Bibliography:


Further parallels include the way freeze-frames and tableau vivants in film can allow viewers to linger and fix their gaze on the individual image as in contemplating a painting, and that both art forms are synaesthetic: Film combines image(s), sound(s) and music while painting often employs the collage technique (see also the collage technique used in the editing of a film), particularly Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. In the same context, it has been pointed out that the way a moving image appears within the frame of a TV set-especially when it is a flat object on the wall- resembles the traditonally framed painting (Martin Warnke in Hensel, Das bewegte Bild 76-77). Finally, there is the creative tension betweeen a number of binary opposites such as black and white vs colour = drawings vs watercolour or oil on wood/canvass, and the colourisation of film vs the restauration of paintings.


Bearing all this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the claim has been made—and not only by Peter Greenaway— that some painters actually helped ‘invent’ the cinema, the usual suspects being Rubens, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer among potentially many others. Bruegel the Elder should also be included. His Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1568) is an action sequence whose whole fleeing, diagonal direction is as much filmic mise-en-scéne as painting:


And McIver (7) lists Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Scotland Forever (1881) as an example of what she terms “the ‘cinematic’ in painting”:


Equally unsurprising is the fact that by now film and painting have become so intertwined that it is by no means uncommon for painters to admit they’ve been influenced by the cinema. And to complete the circle, numerous directors such as Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Jean Cocteau, Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway and Kathryn Bigelow were painters before they turned to film making, a list which expands if directors are added who at least studied painting at one time.


As a website in progress this will be updated with further details on a continual basis. Although the language of the website is English, bloggers are more than welcome to write their entries in German. And suggestions as to which other films could be included in any of the categories are more than welcome, particularly in the areas of African, indigenous, Islamic and lesbian filmmaking.


A final point about biopics. It would be no exaggeration to say that almost every single one made about a painter reproduces her or his painterly style in its use of lighting, colour and mise-en-scène. This is stated here to avoid constant repetition later; particularly striking examples will still be mentioned briefly. At the same time along with the obvious aesthetic pleasure of such an approach, the problematic nature of this should not be ignored: “By emphasising visual correspondences between the artists’ works and the world around them” there is the implication that the painters “represent the world as they are perceiving it.” The art of the painter is thereby grounded in the way they perceive the world “and is not presented as the result of an artificial construction” (Jacobs 53). This may well be connected with the biopic’s proclivity to present an artist’s work “as an aspect of the artist’s personality and biography: a limited conception of art as subjective expression, diary or autobiography” (Walker 19). All the same, numerous biopics have emerged that break this mold.



i/ Film Titles are then followed (in brackets) by the production country, year of release, sometimes the genre, the director, and the actress/actor who played the painter when relevant.


ii/ The decision on which films to upload was made in favour of relatively little-known ones. The decision on which clips from and trailers for films to upload was made in favour of those showing paintings and drawings in the act of being created.

    1 comment Write a comment

    1. This is something I found really inspirational. I was searching on the internet for such a topic and at last I found it. Love reading this post. Keep posting and spreading good thoughts.

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