Before motion pictures, there were only pictures. Then came the Lumière brothers, who showed the world how an intricate assembly of stills could converge with one another to create an art form unlike any other. As their revolutionary invention continues to advance, many filmmakers keep looking at artists from different eras for inspiration. Here are five examples of how art history influenced film.
1. Caravaggio’s Influence on the Great Filmmaker Martin Scorsese
Arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time, Martin Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of the art world is truly unparalleled. While he is normally associated with his expertise in film and music, his proficiency in classic art is also quite apparent in his work. At times it is blatant as in the 1993 Age of Innocence where he painstakingly recreates the artwork, landscape, architecture, interior design, and wardrobe of 1870s New York. Though more often than not he implements these influences more subtly, as is the case of his first substantial film Mean Streets.
Set in 1970s New York, the film is about the animosity between young Italian-Americans as they walk the line between upstanding citizenship and Mafia allegiance. Most of the scenes take place in bars where the characters, namely Robert De Niro in his star-making role as Johnny Boy, seek to have their debts paid and loans increased. These scenes are designed similarly to Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes in terms of how the shots are framed and lit. Despite its stillness, the painting by the controversial artist clearly illustrates the story that has occurred before, during, and after the image. The same can be said about Mean Streets in that the visuals of bar sequences reveal the relationships between the characters before the dialogue has even started.
Scorsese himself admits that Caravaggio sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences… He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. This approach also applies to the manner in which both artists use violence in their respective works as it is never gratuitous or tasteless. They emphasize the authenticity of the moment by showing a quick glimpse of the shock as opposed to dwelling on it. Caravaggio’s fingerprints can be found throughout Scorsese’s filmography.
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2. Michael Mann Adaptation of Pacific by Andrew Colville
In contrast with the previous selection, this is an instance of how a painted image can be recreated on the silver screen due to the sheer power of its aesthetic. Not many think of Michael Mann when it comes to the all-time great filmmakers, but between the 1981 film Thief, the 1985 Manhunter, the 1991 Last of the Mohicans, and the 2004 Collateral, his filmography may be as eclectic as any other. However, his best-known film is the 1995 crime epic Heat and its most iconic frame is drawn directly from Andrew Colville’s painting titled Pacific.
The most engaging quality of Colville’s work is its intellectual ambiguity as he makes the viewers pose a series of questions as they observe the image. Who is this man? Is he a criminal? Is this his house? Did he just use that gun? While Mann has never publicly discussed Pacific’s influence on Heat, it is apparent that he is an admirer of the mysterious piece of art.
In Heat, which stars Robert De Niro as skilled bank robber Neil McCaughley, Mann takes what would be an ordinary cops-and-robbers story and amplifies it with detailed characters who navigate their human behaviors. This is shown early on when an uneasy McCaughley returns to his beach house after a new partner of his turns reckless and abandons the crew; an unordinary error for a man of his nature. He places his gun and keys on a table and walks up to a window that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It is with this frozen moment in time that, like Colville, Mann challenges the viewer to question themselves in the same way that McCaughley does and to make an honest judgment of his complicated antagonist.
3. The Influence of Hippolyte Flandrin in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films
Similarly to Scorsese, the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson (known as PTA in the cineaste community) is rich with references to literature, music, and art. He has a propensity of basing his cinematography on iconic pieces of art, the most famous one easily being one from his film Inherent Vice which cleverly recreates Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper for not much reason other than amusement. Yet it is in his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood that his affinity for paintings gracefully mixes with his love of film.
Study (Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea) by Hippolyte Flandrin, whose work was made during the Second French Empire, is similar to Pacific in that it depicts a figure whose story is vague. Whether the young man has been shipwrecked on this beach or is just the lone wolf of his pack, his anguish is palpable. The fashion in which Paul Thomas Anderson adapts this image in There Will Be Blood is fascinating as he allows the protagonist Daniel Plainview, played by the striking Daniel Day-Lewis, to react to the visual in a way that also informs the audience’s reaction. The tragic figure on the scenic beach is already a powerful visual in itself, but the moment at which it comes in the story (a key focus in Flandrin’s piece) only heightens its strength.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those filmmakers who does not talk much with the press about his films upon their release, an admirable decision on his part as it is up to viewers to judge his work without any explanations. After all, artists like Flandrin did not have to give interviews on their work after it was completed so why should Paul Thomas Anderson?
4. Terrence Malick’s Use of Andrew Wyeth’s Realism
If there was one notable filmmaker who could have easily been an impressionist painter in another life it would most likely be Terrence Malick. Known for his arduous filmmaking process from writing the script all the way to editing the final cut, to say he is a perfectionist would be a massive understatement. But for how precise he is as a visualist, his approach with characters is more organic as he often lets his actors improvise the way they move through a scene.
The same feeling derives from Andrew Wyeth’s beautiful painting Christina’s World which depicts a young woman laying in a grassy field. It is another instance where the viewer must wonder how and why Christina arrived at this spot. Essentially every character in every Malick film has this exact same quality—the sense that they are always, figuratively and at times literally, connected to the Earth.
While the themes of Christina’s World apply to all of Malick’s work, its influence is most obvious in the 1978 romantic drama Days of Heaven. The film is about travelers in the American midwest at the dawn of the 20th century where everyone is looking to strike some kind of fortune. There is an engaging story at the heart of it but ultimately the most impactful scenes are the slice-of-life moments where characters simply walk through the expansive landscapes beyond them and connect with all of the life that is around them.
5. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s Use of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Art
Seemingly an artistic savant since the day he was born, Stanley Kubrick began making feature films at the tender age of 23 and explored a variety of different genres throughout his accomplished career. From the absurd comedy of Dr. Strangelove, the epic fantasy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the visceral horror The Shining, there was no type of film Kubrick could not make.
Given the diversity of material Kubrick dabbled with, he was forced to heavily lean on his expertise in traditional art to influence his work. The most obvious example of this is the 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon which quite literally feels like a series of 18th-century paintings having come to life, but the most intriguing in terms of its relation to traditional art is his enigmatic final film Eyes Wide Shut which was completed just days before his untimely death. As one of his toughest films to decipher, it is up to viewers to thoughtfully scan every frame and uncover its artistic mysteries.
Eyes Wide Shut is about a married couple played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who face the perils of escaping their comfort zones, with Cruise’s conflict involving a creepy sex cult. During a scene where he encounters a revelation in a cafe, there are paintings scattered across the walls with one of the most prominent being Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Not only is it a portrait that vaguely resembles the look of Kidman’s character, but its themes of exoticism and sensuality permeate throughout the film. Though it may seem like mere set decoration it is better to assume that Kubrick’s selection of this was emphatic as there is not a single detail in his films that was not given intense thought and care.