The Famous Artworks That Inspired 15 Films


There is a fascinating interplay between the visual cultures of film and art. Directors have frequently used imagery from painting and other art forms to shape the look and meaning of their works. Earlier this week, website Philebrity appealed to our inner art history nerd and reminded us of a strong visual influence behind Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven. We feature the movie’s art-world doppelgänger after the jump, along with other artworks that informed frames and entire visual themes in different movies.

Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick captured the light, textures, and stillness of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World in his film about a tragic love triangle set on a farm in the Texas Panhandle during the early 20th century. There’s also a fascinating connection between the criticisms aimed at Malick and Wyeth — known as a “painter of the people” — for being too “sentimental.”

Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Diane Arbus’ photograph of seven-year-old twin sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade is echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — the film’s undead Grady twin characters. However, there seems to be some debate about this claim. Reportedly, Kubrick studied under Arbus during his days as a shutterbug for Look magazine in the 1940s — but that was two decades before Arbus’ photograph was taken. Other people, including Kubrick’s widow, Christiane Harlan, say the influence is purely coincidental.

Balthus’ The Golden Days and Louis Malle’s Black Moon

Louis Malle captured the languid, erotic pose (shot from a voyeuristic angle) of Balthus’ pubescent girl in The Golden Days for his surreal story of sexual awakening, Black Moon. Malle’s film shares with Balthus a penchant for phallic/genital forms (Black Moon’s snakes and unicorns) — or perhaps, as Slant suggests, it’s simply a shared “corporeal curiosity.”

Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Hitchcock modeled the ominous Bates house after Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad. He also considered Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, to be a living Hopper painting — the figures of which usually appear isolated or captive with their thoughts in a claustrophobic (psychological) space:

I told him [Perkins] that I felt that Norman Bates, if he were a painting, would be painted by Hopper, and he agreed. So we had kind of that discussion, writer and actor, about the character. He had an incredible grasp on Norman Bates and the situation that he was in. I think Tony Perkins must have known what it was like to be trapped. In some way, somehow, he knew what trapped meant, just as I did. And, while we didn’t talk about that aspect of it, it was clear to me early on that he was becoming Norman Bates.

John Kacere’s Jutta and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s works use visual cues to contribute to the narrative of her characters. The opening shot of Scarlett Johansson in the filmmaker’s Lost in Translation is practically a mirror image of the derrière-filled paintings of John Kacere. The actual artwork shows up later in the film, seen in the hotel.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Fritz Lang made explicit use of Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel, although the story is altered from the Bible for the movie. In one of her sermons, Maria tells the tale of how “one man’s hymns of praise became another man’s cruses” during its construction. With few filmic references to go on while creating the Tower for the film, Lang looked to the annals of art history.

Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth

The tireless Mexican filmmaker discussed the art historical influences behind his dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth in a 2006 interview:

Goya was an obvious reference, specifically with regards to the character of the Pale Man. There is a scene in which the Pale Man bites the heads off the fairies. That comes straight from Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son.

The work of M. C. Escher and Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Nolan’s mind-bending movie makes clear use of M.C. Escher’s drawings, reminiscent not only in the surreal theme of the film, but also the striking geometric visuals where never-ending staircases seem to lead to infinity (Penrose stairs) and buildings fold onto themselves. These optical illusions are the basis of Nolan’s lucid dream world. Pete Postlethwaite’s character’s name (Maurice Fischer) is also an homage to the Dutch artist (full name, Maurits Cornelis Escher).

William Hogarth’s The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

“Kubrick’s vision of recreating the huddle and glow of a pre-electrical age was miraculously put on screen. The stately, painterly, often determinedly static quality of Barry Lyndon was at least in part dictated by this stylistic choice — lit only by candles, the actors in the many sequences of dining and gambling were under instruction to move as slowly as possible, to avoid underexposure. But it fits perfectly with Kubrick’s gilded-cage aesthetic — the film is consciously a museum piece, its characters pinned to the frame like butterflies. For the stunningly beautiful exteriors, in which Ireland plays itself, England, and Prussia during the Seven Years’ War, Kubrick and [cinematographer John] Alcott looked to the landscapes of Watteau and Gainsborough; the day-lit interiors owe a lot to [William] Hogarth, with whom [Barry Lyndon author William Makepeace] Thackeray had always been fascinated.”

Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

We thought we recognized that blue satin getup with ruffles and breeches from somewhere. For some audiences, the outfit was Tarantino’s nod to cinematography and the influential filmmaker F.W. Murnau — specifically his film Der Knabe in Blau (The Blue Boy). However, costume designer Sharen Davis discussed the outfit in a Vanity Fair interview, revealing that she actually showed an image of the painting to Tarantino:

Quentin had it in the script as powder blue. And I said, ‘I just can’t do that. It is very 70s, but that’s going to look like polyester no matter what I make it out of.’ I slipped a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy in the back of the research book. He didn’t say anything, but he saw it. He sort of said later, ‘Oh! Make him look like Blue Boy.’”

John Everett Millais’s Ophelia and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

The image of Justine floating downstream with her wedding bouquet was inspired by Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia — the iconic Shakespeare character who became a symbol of female “madness” during the Bard’s time (mirrored in Von Trier’s troubled Justine).

René Magritte’s The Empire of Lights and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist

The poster image for William Friedkin’s chilling 1973 horror film The Exorcist, taken from a visually striking scene in the movie with Max von Sydow, echoes the eerie glow of Magritte’s painting.

Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets

Scorsese on the influence of Caravaggio in his tale of redemption:

I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio’s] pictures. Initially I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes: he was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action. You come upon the scene midway and you’re immersed in it. It was different from the composition of the paintings that preceded it. It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct. He would have been a great film-maker, there’s no doubt about it. I thought, I can use this too…

So then he was there. He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them. Then that extended into a much later film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The idea was to do Jesus like Caravaggio.

Fragonard’s The Swing and Disney’s Tangled

Tangled producer and original director Glen Keane discussed how animator Kyle Strawitz achieved the painterly look of the movie, which Keane wanted to feel “romantic and lush” like a traditional hand-drawn Disney film:

Kyle helped us get that Fragonard look of the girl on the swing… He took the house from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and built it in CGI, and painted it so that it looked like a flat painting that suddenly started to move, and it had dimension and kept all of the soft, round curves of the brushstrokes of watercolor. Kyle really helped me start to believe that the things I wanted to see were possible… that you could move in a Disney painterly world.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

“Gilliam uses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a vehicle to critique overelaboration and the illusory grandeur of illustration. As a figure divorced from her context, Venus appears embarrassed and self-conscious, her nudity crudely exploited by yet another extending hand tweaking her nipple. In many ways Gilliam uses the free vocabulary of animation to make what may be termed ‘exploitation’ films because he constantly underlines the aesthetic intention of images to re-engage their literal and subtextual alternatives as pictorial forms. He essentially uses animation to progress or regress the narrational stasis of images, bringing them to “movement and an alternative ‘illusion of life.'”