Choose a language
Use Arthive in the language you prefer
Sign up
Create an account
Register to use Arthive functionality to the maximum

Paintings starring on screen. Top-5 canvases that played impressive parts in movies

Paintings look good not only on the walls of galleries, but also on the silver screen. Sometimes they are used simply to decorate the interior, but sometimes the entire plot develops around them, and these are works of art that help us better understand the characters or even predict the ending. The titles of such paintings should appear in the credits, next to the names of superstars. Sounds like a plan! In the first part of the review — paintings, whose partners on the set were Christopher Walken and Ralph Fiennes, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, Mr. Bean and Mr. Bond.

Mr. Bean (1997) – Whistler's Mother

Plot: Mr. Bean, the worst security guard at the Royal National Gallery in London, is sent to Los Angeles for two months under the guise of a highbrow scientist. The Grierson Art Gallery of California (fictional) buys Whistler’s famous painting from the Musee d’Orsay for 50 million dollars. The Americans ask the British museum to send a qualified person to chair the official ceremony of returning Whistler’s masterpiece to its homeland and give a two-month course of lectures. Of course, we end up with a disaster movie: Mr. Bean first spoils the painting by applying lacquer thinner on the main character’s face, then replaces the original with a reproduction (painted over with egg-white to give the appearance of brushstrokes in oil paint), and after that — hangs the original canvas in his bedroom, having restored the spoiled fragment himself. Fortunately, the story is fictional — Whistler’s Mother calmly spends its days at the Musee d’Orsay.
Nuances: James Whistler was born in the USA, but lived in London for a long time, where he created his most famous painting. So the idea to take a British art historian to accompany Whistler’s Mother from Paris to Los Angeles seems quite logical. However, the scientist could have had problems with a solemn speech if he had decided to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The fact is that in 1972, Whistler submitted his Arrangement in Grey and Black (the official title of the painting) to the Royal Academy of Art in London for its 104th exhibition, but the painting was rejected. Whistler got offended and never let British academicians judge his work again. All told, a disaster — no matter which way you look at it.

By the way: In March 2015, Whistler’s Mother visited the United States: it was displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

The Maiden Heist (2008) – The Lonely Maiden

Plot: An elderly security guard at an art museum in America is obsessed with a painting, created in 1875 — The Lonely Maiden. He spends days imagining how he would save the maiden from the thieves. He stares into her sad eyes and thinks about the ways he could help her. He even interrupts the guide to give more details about the role of the painting in the history of "postnaturalism". When it turns out that the Maiden moves to Denmark, and will be replaced by some contemporary art, the man decides to steal the painting. And gets two more middle-age guards as partners in crime. They also have their favourite exhibits, but the girl with sad eyes is the main one here: the comedy film is called The Maiden Heist for a reason.

In the film, the painter is believed to be the fictitious French artist Marcel de Robert. In fact, the painting The Lonely Maiden was created from the scratch specifically for the film by contemporary American realist artist Jeremy Lipking (born 1975). He was asked to create something, bearing the spirit of naturalism of the late 19th century. Jules Bastien-Lepage, George Clausen, Émile Friant — these names were mentioned to Lipking as exemplary. However, the artist didn’t really have time for inspiration: he had only one week to create a painting! In this period, he still managed to find a model, some vintage clothes for her, and a way to quickly dry the paint on the canvas. The result, as planned, mesmerized Christopher Walken’s character.
By the way: the artist Jeremy Lipking, just like Whistler, whose painting has suffered in the above-mentioned comedy Mr. Bean, often experiments with a limited palette, creating exuberant images using just a couple of colours. Here are a couple of examples:

Skyfall (2012) - The Fighting Temeraire

Plot: The shooting of the 23rd Bond film was entrusted to Sam Mendes, a director who has proven himself to be a real intellectual. He won’t tell the viewers point-blank that his main character is sewn as tightly as the perfect suits he wears on screen, and though he is not accustomed to sentiments and fashionable hipster gadgets, he is not going to retire. Mandes uses Turner’s canvas as an intelligible but bright metaphor and sends Bond to the National Gallery in London — not for an excursion, of course, but for a secret meeting with Q. The characters meet in front of the painting The Fighting Temeraire and exchange a couple of lines:

— It always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see? — asks Q.

— A bloody big ship. Sorry, — retorts Bond.

Turner’s painting plays only a bit part in the film, but it is as important, memorable and irreplaceable as the fleeting appearances of the unequaled M at the meetings or a martini glass in Bond’s hands.

Nuances: Even when the plot of the film doesn’t involve damaging paintings, the originals are rarely filmed. Old canvases are afraid of flashes and border lights, and museum workers are afraid of crowds. For example, for a biographic film about Turner, they created copies of all the necessary paintings. But they made an exception for Bond: the dialogue in front of The Fighting Temeraire was filmed right in the National Gallery. We can see the exhibition hall both on the screen and in the candid shots from the set, and it’s even possible to recognize Turner’s neighbours (the paintings below are clearly visible in the main photo of the article):
  • Joseph Wright. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
  • Thomas Gainsborough. The Morning Walk.
By the way: Skyfall features another famous painting. In Shanghai, Amedeo Modigliani’s Woman with a Fan is used as bait for a thief. That choice wasn’t random. In 2010, the painting was stolen from the City Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and, according to rumours, its tracks were lost somewhere in that region. Alas, this is not the case when a movie helps to find a long-lost original.
Amedeo Modigliani. Woman with a fan. Portrait Of Chekhov Lunii

Woman with a Fan hints not only at a fresh and sensational criminal story, but also refers to Dr. No, the first movie of James Bond series, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, when Skyfall came out. In Dr. No, there appeared Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which was also stolen from the National Gallery in London a year before the movie came out which let the viewers, who had read crime chronicles in the newspapers immediately understand what it was all about. That story has a happy ending: in 1965, the portrait was returned to the gallery.

Marc Chagall. The bride
The bride
1950, 68×53 cm

Notting Hill (1999) – The Bride

Plot: Famous movie star Anna Scott finds herself first in a bachelor’s apartment, and then in the heart of William — a humble owner of a bookstore. On the wall of the apartment, which falls short of the scale of her popularity, the star sees a calendar with a reproduction of Marc Chagall’s Bride, and in the end, instead of declaring her love, presents the original painting to a random friend who once sheltered her.
Nuances: The film’s director, Roger Michell, says that The Bride was chosen because it symbolizes the desire for something lost: in 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife Bella — and spent his whole life looking for her, depicting her in his paintings, and it takes the main characters of the movie quite a long time to find a way and courage to be together. Getting even a copy of Chagall’s work on the set was no easier than signing a contract with Julia Roberts. At first, they had to agree on copyright with a private collector from Japan. Then — create a fake Bride. And after filming — get up the nerve to destroy the copy: such was the requirement of the owner of the original, because the copy could get to the art market and cause confusion.

By the way: Mr. Bean with its adventures of Whistler’s Mother and Notting Hill were written by the same screenwriter: Richard Curtis. Not only he’s interested in visual arts, but also calls Chagall his favourite artist.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Boy with Apple

Plot: Having signed an old masterpiece — the painting Boy with Apple — over to a skillful hotel concierge, a wealthy old woman suddenly dies. The number of those, willing to take possession of the canvas is almost equal to those suspected of the murder.

Nuances: In the film, the painting is attributed to an artist named Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger, but in fact it was created in 2013 on the commission of director Wes Anderson, who found modern artist Michael Taylor on the website of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters and requested a portrait. Taylor had a whole year to create his masterpiece. A boy, who posed for him (Ed Munro) was selected after a casting call — just like the actors are chosen for the main roles. The painting had to be made along the lines of works by Holbein and Bronzino — the latter very often portrayed young people in the chosen position.

By the way: In the film, there are ghosts of other artists. For example, the old woman who left the painting as an inheritance (played by Tilda Swinton with an incredible make-up) is wearing a dress, the design on which refers to Klimt’s triptych The Tree of Life. And in her house, there is a painting depicting women pleasing each other — the one that could have been painted by Egon Schiele, but in fact was created in the same style by the modern American illustrator Rich Pellegrino at the commission of the same Wes Anderson.
  • Gustav Klimt. The Embrace, part of the triptych The Tree of Life
  • Gustav Klimt. The Tree of Life
  • A scene from the film with Rich Pellegrino's painting in the style of Egon Schiele.
  • Egon Schiele. Reclining Woman with Green Stockings