The ‘Simpsons’ Guide to Art History


The Simpsons have been on air since 1989. Just think about that for a second. Over 500 episodes chock-full of pop culture references, current event bits, film allusions, and art history homages, so very many art history homages. Ay caramba!

Alright. Let’s approach this the only way one can — with conspicuous subjectivity. From Bosch’s hell to Warhol’s wrath to Dalí’s delights, behold: Our ten favorite art history moments from The Simpsons, selected for their authenticity, context, visual loyalty, and utter ridiculousness. Feel free to argue. Really, do.

Season 2, Episode 10: Bart Gets Hit By a Car

After being run over by Mr. Burns’ automobile, Bart’s near death experience sends him into hallucinations of Hell, an homage to the great olde Hieronymus Bosch — the Hellish bit of his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504). Isn’t it more terrifying when the “Tree Man” with the eggshell body full of drunkards looks back with a Simpsonized mug?

Season 2, Episode 17: Old Money

When Grandpa’s retirement home girlfriend dies and leaves him with $106,000, he thrusts himself into a fantasy of all the things he’d do with the money, including hanging out inside of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942). It’s a very faithful cartoon replica of the scene. Except for the smug old dude with the Shriners hat. The allusion repeats in Season 8’s Homer vs. the 18th Amendment, as the film noir bootlegging investigator Rex Banner celebrates his birthday. Ahh, that diner — the go-to old timey place. They even got the triangular shadows of light right. Kudos!

Season 10, Episode 19: Mom and Pop Art

Homer’s malformed BBQ grill crashes into an art dealer’s car, launching his accidental career as an “outsider artist.” Oh, so many references. Marge takes Homer to an art museum. And may we add, compliments to the Springfield curators who’ve managed to snag up a Turner, a Picasso from every period, a Mondrian and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can . Fancy.

Homer takes a nap, and is attacked by various famous artworks; Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man smacks him up, Pablo Picasso’s The Three Musicians bust out with machine guns, and Andy delivers the final threat: “Soup’s on, fat boy!” Homer wakes up from the terror. “Oh, Marge! Why does art hate me? I never did anything to art.” Aw, everyone in the art world feels that way sometimes. Everyone doesn’t wake up with a fist through a Warhol though.

Season 5, Episode 5: Treehouse of Horror IV

Here’s another one of those loaded sequences — the intro to the Halloween special featuring the Simpsons family in a self-portrait by Van Gogh, Munch’s The Scream, David’s The Death of Marat, Magritte’s Son of Man and, most appropriately, Maggie Simpson in The Sleep by Salvador Dalí. The ever-silent Maggie is upheld by on Dalí’s signature sticks, her mouth seemingly clasped shut by them and stuffed with a pacifier. There are also elements of The Persistence of Memory, warped clocks replaced by more pacifiers. The two paintings seem reflective of Maggie’s very inner world — a world of silence, of clocks forever stopped. Ooh, we’re getting deep all of a sudden.

Season 22, Episode 3: MoneyBART

Did Fox really air the Banksy couch gag accusing the network of keeping sweatshops in South Korea to animate the cartoon and producing merch with slaughtered kittens and dolphin heads? Well, it was a bit overwrought, and hence, safe. Yet, what a classic! That doesn’t mean we can’t poke fun. There are the self-references, like the crafty rat — one of Banksy’s identifying motifs. OK, we see you. In case we didn’t, there are also the numerous Bansky tags. C’mon, buddy, you’re a street artist, not a graffiti writer!

Season 5, Episode 5: Treehouse of Horror IV

We’re cheating a bit here, but Homer’s critique of “the most terrifying painting of the evening” is too good to pass on. The Dogs Playing Poker Paintings, or, A Friend in Need by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, is referenced over and over on the show, but only this particular moment expresses how we truly feel about this piece. Ah!!! It’s so awful. Thank you, Homer.

Season 6, Episode 12: Homer the Great

Speaking of clichés, here’s another great couch gag à la Relativity by M.C. Escher. Hang that in your dorm room, next to the Dogs Playing Poker. Ah, you like that? There’s also the M.C. Escher Ascending and Descending in Season 2, Episode 18: Brush With Greatness in form of the infinite Mt. Splashmore line. You don’t like that? Let’s move on.

Season 13, Episode 10: Half-Decent Proposal

There. There must be something sophisticated enough you can find in Marge’s old almost-boyfriend Arty’s opulent shrine de Marge. The Lichtenstein? The Warhol? The Calder?

Season 8, Episode 3: The Homer They Fall

Homer’s storied boxing days, yes, of course. This particular sequence shall delight both the art aficionado and the cinephile. This is a direct homage to George Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo (1924). The black and white, slow motion sequence itself is a direct homage to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). How’s that for the old one, two?

Season 23, Episode 15: Exit Through The Kwik-E-Mart

Of all the criticism flanked upon street artist Shepard Fairey by the author of this post, his Simpsons cameo was alright. Timely! Not only did Ron English, Kenny Scharf, and Robbie Conal all briefly unfurl their signature styles, that’s a Keith Haring in the back. Respects paid. Excellent. All in all, it was all very much in the vein of the Mom and Pop Art episode, only this time Bart was the artist, ’cause you know, the new generation and all that! OK. So The Simpsons is trying to be hip. Who isn’t.

What was your favorite art reference on The Simpsons? Drop us a comment.