Picture This: 15 Paintings that Inspired Movies

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Ridley Scott epic and Oscar-winner, Gladiator. While many fans clamor about the script, cinematography, casting, and all that fighting, have you thought there are paintings that inspired movies like that?

In fact, did you know it was a relic painting from the 19th century that inspired this historic film?

That impressionistic work of art is “Pollice Verso” (meaning “Turned Thumb”) created by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1872. (Remember where that shrill punk Commodus turned down his thumb? Yep. That was it.)

The French painter captured the essence of the Gladiatorial Games in the Flavian Amphitheater better than a Kodak Instamatic could. He also captured the heart of Ridley Scott, according to his producer Douglas Wick in a fascinating article with THR:

“We brought Ridley a painting from the late 1800s of the Roman Colosseum…It was beautifully shaded, and because it was sort of in the blush of the British empire, it was slightly idealized. Ridley looked at the painting and said, ‘I’ll do the movie. Wherever the script is, we’ll get it right. I’m doing this movie.’

Douglas Wick, THR

And thus, the legend was born. Sometimes, it takes a little inspiration to create inspiration. There are several other instances when art has imitated life in film.

Here are 15 other examples of historic paintings that inspired movies:

15. Metropolis (1927)

Source: Universum Film (UFA)
Credit: Pieter Brugel the Edler/Collection of Emperor Rudolf II

In probably one of the earliest memories of paintings that inspired movies, we go all the way to the late 1920s to Fritz Lang’s classic sci-fi film Metropolis. The entire movie was actually inspired by the Holy Bible. To be specific, Genesis 11:1-9 about the Tower of Babel.

See the picture? That is from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel, created in 1563. Everything Lang took on led to the making of his seminal film about society working together to find a way to its own destiny, rather than following a path laid out for them. This was going to the source, literally.

14. Lust for Life (1956)

Source: MGM/Swashbuckler Films
Credit: Vincent Van Gogh Gallery

In the halcyon days of Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli was an eclectic director who spent much of days finding inspiration for his work. Yes, that name is the same surname you think — it’s Liza’s and Christiane’s daddy, and Judy Garland’s second husband. The man directed one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis (where he directed Garland). Whether it was Judy’s voice or Vincent Van Gogh’s work, he was always looking for a muse.

The latter inspired his 1956 film starring the late, great Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The movie is about Vincent Van Gogh, so you would surely expect something the earless, tortured artist did to inspire this film. It did from all the way back in 1888.

13. The Duelists (1977)

Credit: Benjamin Haydon/Tate Museum
Source: Paramount Pictures/Enigma Productions

Once an artist finds an inspiration from a source, count on him to revisit it. With Ridley Scott, works of art is a familiar place of rest and rejuvenation, so naturally he has some room where paintings have inspired movies.

We have already seen Gladiator, but have you have seen his 1977 period piece The Duelists starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel? Two officers in the French army have words and store up years of bitterness toward one another. Eventually, the only way to wrap this up and heal the wounds of honor is a duel.

The film is aesthetically beautiful, so of course, it should start (or end) with a work of art. Keitel’s character arc is tied loosely to the life of his fearless leader, each time looking over the world where they conquered.

12. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paintings that inspired movies, There will be blood
Credit: Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin/Musse de Louvre
Source: Paramount Vantage/Miramax

Paul Thomas Anderson‘s epic film There Will Be Blood is during America’s oil boom at the turn of the century and the fictitious, ruthless wretch at the heart of it, Daniel Plainview (in an Oscar-winning role by Daniel Day-Lewis). Everything is an acquisition, including his son, H.W. Every piece of land and every relationship is strategic in terms of what it benefits him.

There Will Be Blood is a dynamic portrayal of a man full of everything actually walking empty with nothing. This scene of him sitting on the beach on the precipice of a vile discovery reflects that state of life beautifully. The same can be said for “Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mar” in 1836 (translation: Young male seated nude besides the sea) by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin.

11. Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013)

Painting that inspired movies Edward Hopper
Source: KGP Production, ORF Film
Credit: Edward Hopper Collection

This film is all about paintings that inspired movies. In fact, one artist in particular, Edward Hopper, has 13 of his paintings that come alive in certain scenes — the most famous is taken from his 1939 painting “New York Movie.” This indie film directed by Gustav Deutsch serves as an homage to Hopper and explores the culture of the early 20th century.

In this scene, Shirley (Stephanie Cumming) is poised gracefully against a wall to reflect the bored theater usher in the painting. Hopper was known for capturing simple scenes of everyday life and bringing them to artistic palettes that would capture generations. More about him later.

10. Dreams (1990)

Source: Warner Bros./Kirosawa USA
Credit: Van Gogh Museum

The great Akira Kurosawa can find inspiration in any muse, even if it was a painting that inspired movies. The man is a muse, so of course, he needs to go to the greats when he needs a spark. And the legendary Japanese director didn’t have to go far — Vincent Van Gogh and his work “Wheat Field With Crows” (1890).

The art took 100 years to get in front of Kurosawa but this painting that inspired a movie is almost dropped into a scene where we walk through a dream of an artist who imagines this scene inspired directly from Van Gogh. There is movement and tone to this art becoming life. Figures an artist like Kurosawa manages that with adroit flair.

9. Heat (1995)

Credit: Alex Colville/ACI-IAC
Source: Warner Bros./Regency Enterprises

If you understand Michael Mann‘s work, you know it is cerebral and cunning. He wants you to think about the plot, build-up, and tapestry between the characters. Every time you see a character in his or her element, something larger is going on. Mann sees the big picture, and sometimes, he’s even been inspired by one.

In his epic good guy/bad guy film Heat, Mann explores the nuances of cops and robbers. Much of it can be conceptualized beautifully as Robert De Niro stares longingly into the ocean after a bad deal breaks worse. He’s a good guy in a bad way and that feeling is glaring at the audience as the close-up of what he does is in the foreground and the complexities of who he is in the background.

The feeling came was inspired from Alex Colville’s scenic painting Pacific in 1967, and we can relive it whenever we want on DVD. A masterpiece — both of them.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Credit: Francisco Goya/Museo Nacional del Prado
Source: Estudios Picasso/Wild Bunch

If you weren’t familiar with Guillermo del Toro after this film, you should have handed in your cinephile badge. This was the movie that put him on the map as an A-List director, but did you know there was a painting that inspired this movie…and the Pale Man?

Fauno having some lunch via the head of a fairy was created from del Toro’s imagination, but also was an homage to Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” This red chalk on laid paper depicts the Titan Cronus (Romanized to Saturn) who feared — as legend tells us — that one of his children would overthrow his reign, so…he ate them upon their birth.

Not father of the year material, but then again, neither was the Pale Man.

7. Marie Antoinette (2006)

Credit: Jacques-Louis David/Chateau de Malmaison
Source: Columbia Pictures/Pricel

Sofia Coppola is no stranger to artistic license, considering her film pedigree in her own home. In 2006, she created the Kirsten Dunst-headlined Marie Antoinette, which took an Avant Garde gaze into the woman who would be given a permanent splitting headache by her whack-job husband, King Louis XVI of France.

Before Versailles fell to ruin, we note a familiar scene from the onset of the 19th century. For the second time on a list about paintings that inspire movies, Napoleon flashes on the screen as he is seated upon Marengo, his great war stallion, charging ahead to victory, as captured by French realist Jacques-Louis David in 1801. Of course, in the movie, that’s not Napoleon riding across the Alps; that’s Marie Antoinette’s elicit lover (Jamie Dornan).

Both steel-eyed. Both determined. Both psycho-erotic. Enjoy.

6. Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Credit: Edward Hopper Collection
Source: MGM/SLM Production Group

Few professed Steve Martin fans recall the Herbert Ross film, Pennies from Heaven. It makes sense seeing how the film made pennies on the dollar compared to the budget. It was one of Martin’s first dramatic roles and fans were looking for “The Jerk” instead of “the serious actor.”

The movie was set in Chicago during the Depression Era when inspiration hit and another one of the great paintings inspired the movies. This time, it was Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” from 1942. That is a direct replica of the painting in the film. Despite Hopper having painted a New York bodega and in the film it was depicted as a Chicago diner, that’s beautiful art in any frame.

5. The Shining (1980)

Credit: Diane Arbus
Source: Warner Bros./Hawk Films

Those girls. Those damn, haunting girls. Anyone who saw Stanley Kubrick’s polarizing (and remarkable) adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining knows automatically who that means — those catatonic, android ghosts from hell, the Grady sisters. However, if you are a pan of black-and-white photography, you know the inspiration came from Diane Arbus’ photograph “Identical Twins” of seven-year-old twin sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade.

The rumor is film and art schools everywhere is Kubrick studied under Arbus during his days as a shutterbug for Look magazine in the 1940s. The only problem with that is it was two decades before Arbus’ photograph was taken in Roswell, New Jersey, 1967. Ah well, you can’t tell me there isn’t a striking resemblance. So creepy.

P.S. Yes, that’s a photograph and not a painting, but still a work of art and this freaked many the eff out. So, this mirror image of horror gets a pass.

4. Psycho (1960)

Source: Paramount Pictures/Shamley Productions
Credit: Edward Hopper Collection

Just when you thought the lavish Bates Motel was the brainchild of some set designer comes a painting four decades prior that inspired Alfred Hitchcock of make that creepy Victorian cottage. Even in the Roaring ’20s, there were paintings that inspired the movies. Like this ridiculously creepy Gothic farmhouse in the middle of nowhere seen in the classic, Psycho.

In 1925, Edward Hopper painted “House By the Railroad,” which makes a home that is big enough to welcome guests with open arms and still cast looming shadows that you can sense, even with closed eyes. Forty-five years later, that painting inspired one of the most historic horror movies in history. Get this: Hopper was a Hitchcock fan. Nice.

3. The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkin has a painting that inspired movies
Credit: Rene Magritte/MOMA New York
Source: Warner Bros./Hoya Productions

Even art enthusiasts may not be aware of René François Ghislain Magritte’s work. He was a Belgian artist who worked in surrealism. One person who was familiar with the man and was awestruck by his work was William Friedkin, the creator of a horror GOAT, The Exorcist.

A painting that inspired movies list is not complete without “Empire of Light” in 1954. As the story goes, Friedkin “saw this painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had that in mind…and I chose the house to match the Magritte painintg — the streetlamp, the single shaft of light.”

And there it is: the harrowing moment when Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) shows up ready to open a can of Satan whoop ass on Linda Blair’s Pazuzu. What’s interesting about this particular inspiration is Friedkin implied the night, cold fog, and eerieness of the scene. The real image was painted in daytime:

2. Inception (2010)

Credit: M.C. Escher
Source: Warner Bros./Legendary Entertainment/Syncopy

And all along, you thought Christopher Nolan was an original. Well, no doubt he is, but the texture of some of those mind-numbing scenes in his signature brain job Inception were inspired by the master of cerebral art, M.C. Escher. His entire collection is layered “within the architecture of your mind” so, quite simply, structures where you can’t tell where foundation begins and imagination ends.

Nolan was careful to choose areas that reflected Escher’s cognitive pieces, such as ‘Relativity and Penrose Stairs from 1953. His paradoxical structures and influence can be seen throughout the entire film, like ‘Penrose Stairs’ and its 2D depiction making 90-degree turns (four of them). If there was ever a list of paintings that inspired movies, Escher had to make it somewhere.

Climb all you want Cobb and Arthur. You won’t be getting anywhere, any time soon.

1. Scream (1996)

Credit: Edvard Munch/Munch Museum of Art
Source: Dimension Films/Woods Entertainment

The visage. The connection. Even the title. Wes Craven took the idea of this fictitious soul looking like a post-after shave Macauley Culkin in Home Alone into one of the greatest horror franchises of all time.

Edvard Munch used oils like a surgeon with a scalpel to create a genderless person (in 1893!) who is overwhelmed by chaos. Wes Craven takes that mayhem and puts it front-and-center in the film to where whoever is wearing that mask is inspired by the chaos he or she creates.

It’s a classic reference to just the pure horror of parts of the 20th century, or perhaps just human existence

Wes Craven, Mirror, UK

Munch is one of Craven’s favorite artists, and “The Scream” is his favorite work because its inferences are timeless. Consider what we are facing today. Don’t you feel like screaming into the wind? Munch felt like that in the 1890s. Wes Craven wanted audiences to feel that way in the 1990s. Look at the emoji “face screaming in fear”. Look familiar? The art is timeless. The feeling is perpetual. The works are forever.

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