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I’m no art expert, but you don’t need to be to join me in today’s WTF-ery. WHY, I ask you, WHY do filmmakers feel the need to recreate — BADLY — historical portraits??!! There you are, trucking along through a perfectly decent historical movie or TV show, and they decide to show a painting. Generally, it’s a portrait depicting the main character. And unfortunately for the filmmakers, it’s usually an INCREDIBLY FAMOUS PAINTING THAT WE ALL HAVE VISUALLY MEMORIZED. And instead of just using an image of THAT ACTUAL PAINTING, they decide to hire someone to recreate the portrait, generally to look like the actor playing the role instead of the actual historical person.
And I get it. For those who DON’T know the painting (read: most non-history/non-art geeks), it might be a little weird to see a painting that is supposedly of a person whose face you’ve just spent an hour+ memorizing and to not have it match. And, of course, there are times when it’s a fictionalized story and no such painting exists. But the problem is that the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to hire an artist with a totally modern sensibility who can’t paint in the correct style of the period… or who just can’t paint for shit. Because instead of going “hey, that’s Marie Antoinette except it’s Kirsten Dunst!” I’m thinking “DID MY 7-YEAR-OLD NEPHEW PAINT THAT WTF??!!”
Okay, so I admit to feeling a little bit bad about writing this post, because I’m not trying to say that the artist who created it isn’t talented. It’s not THEIR fault that they paint in a totally different, modern style versus a painter from the 16th or 18th or whatever century. And, I’m sure they were told “Make it look sexier!” repeatedly and ended up sobbing into their beret and smock.
But listen, people. Portraits (pre-20th century) were generally incredibly detailed and attempted to be as lifelike as possible. There was no cubist/post-modern attempt to stylize things (okay, unless you’re talking flat medieval art). Nor was there any attempt to show the reality of the person. If your sitter had an unfortunate Hapsburg chin, you minimized it/painted them from the best angle so as to flatter your subject. (Side note, just how scary must those Hapsburg chins actually have been, given that we can assume that the portraits we have must make them look 100x better than they did in real life??!!).
With all that ranting in mind, I’ve selected some stellar examples of “why the hell did they decide to fuck this up” portraits from historical movies and TV shows. I’ve sorted them into categories, just to help you wrap your brain around the What the Frock-ery:
Just Plain Ugly
Our first category could include all the portraits in this post, but I’m putting a few choice items here showing fictionalized characters where I feel like the painter went out of their way to make the subject just look UGLY. I mean, yes for verisimilitude and all, but who the fuck makes Colin Firth look that shitty??!!
War and Peace (2016)
I called this one out in my recap — no, Pierre isn’t particularly a hottie:
But he’s also rich as fuck, so how he would let an artist make him look like his face was riddled with acne scars, I have no idea:
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
I don’t think we need to debate whether or not Colin Firth is the hottest hottie to ever heat up our screens as that paragon of Regency male perfection, Mr. Darcy, in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice:
But every time they flash on his portrait (which Elizabeth Bennet contemplates while touring Pemberley), I find myself wondering why they made Mr. Darcy: 1. look like a werewolf (okay, so he has sideburns, but he doesn’t have SIDEBURNS); 2. look like he has a ponch; and 3. have the ultimate diaper crotch:
SO Not Period Appropriate
Our next group of portraits all share a common theme: they were painted in a style that SO doesn’t look like that of the era. I get it, you’re a modern artist and you have your own style. But there HAVE to be a few artists out there who studied “old master” art and can do a detailed, representational portrait… right?
Poldark (2015- )
Okay, so Uncle Charles Poldark isn’t much of an inspiration:
But in what world does this possibly-done-with-pastels-in-a-proto-Gaugin-way, or maybe-just-run-through-a-Photoshop-filter painting work from a late 18th-century perspective?
Compare it to this very-fine-brushwork painting of three British gents from the 1780s:
But you might want to argue that the Poldarks are just gentry living in the out-of-the-way Cornwall. Okay, then let’s look at some more “primitive” art like that done in the American colonies, where you usually get this very flat style of painting that still doesn’t have pastel-y brush strokes:
Instead the painting is just missing some more yellow paint and a creepy sexual relationship with a “native” woman:
Frenchman’s Creek (1944)
Obviously, this story about a fashionable London lady who heads off to Cornwall to get slutty with pirates in 1688 wasn’t trying very hard for historical accuracy:
But here’s a quick shot of a portrait of our leading lady:
Which just looks nothing like portraiture from the late 17th century:
The Lady and the Duke (2001)
Okay, so this one is sort of a nitpick. Because their portrait of Grace Elliott, late 18th-century mistress to the duc d’Orléans:
… is clearly referencing the famous portrait of Marie-Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (it looks like they took the dress straight out of this painting and just turned it green):
And the artist did a good job of making the painting look like lead actress Lucy Russell:
But why the fuck did the artist emphasize Russell’s eye bags??!!
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Sarah here! Kendra couldn’t get worked up about this portrait, so she’s having me write this for her. Like I told her when she proposed this idea for a post, the Scarlett O’Hara portrait was the first thing that came to my mind.
Now, I’m not saying it’s shitty in the sense that it’s badly painted or doesn’t look like Vivien Leigh. On those two accounts, it’s actually a damn good portrait, especially compared to all the crap Kendra’s already listed. What I am saying is it’s shitty because it’s not even trying to look like a portrait from the 1860s. It’s got more in common with the portrait of Hélène Charlotte de Berquely-Richards by László, painted in 1935.
Compare it with the style of Ernst Moser’s portrait of Philippine von Edelsberg, who is sporting the much more subdued 1860s bustline.
The “Portrait of Scarlett” was painted by Helen Carlton and given to the Margaret Mitchell Elementary School where it hung in the cafeteria. Imagine trying to eat with Scarlett O’Hara judging your food choices the whole time! It’s now on loan to the Atlanta History Center where it’s on display at the Margaret Mitchell House and hopefully not causing any lasting eating disorders.
Alright, now back to your regularly scheduled Kendra rant!
Did a 7-Year-Old Paint This?
Versailles (2015- )
Oh, Versailles. Versailles, Versailles, Versailles. You’re trying so hard to be both so true to the real people and history, and yet to modernize and sex things up. No, it’s not the travesty that The Tudors was. But once you’ve tweaked the costumes and the hair, well you can’t just use the actual portraits of Louis XIV, because then the audience would see that you’ve changed things!
Now, I am (mildly) impressed that they’re going for actual surviving portraits of Louis, like this equestrian one where he’s in armor:
And they couldn’t use the real deal, even from faraway/in a quick shot, because if nothing else, it’s super obvious how different the hair is:
But CHRIST ON A CROUTON I am very unclear in what world this beginner-art-student likeness of George Blagden as Louis is supposed to be 17th-century-esque:
Then they double down with yet another copy of a surviving portrait:
Which is clearly referencing this follower-of-Le Brun portrait, which again has very different hair from that shown on the show:
BUT I FEEL LIKE I’M LOOKING AT A PORTRAIT OF A TWILIGHT ACTOR POSTED ON DEVIANTART.
The Borgias (2011-13)
Okay, so this show had gorgeous costumes and amazing hair. And clearly, the paintings shown weren’t really focal items — they flash by super quickly. I mean, it is nice that (again) they reference an actual historical painting:
…when they show Giulia sitting for her portrait while holding a goat:
And these paintings flash by on screen — they’re clearly not meant to be seen for very long. But WHAT… THE… HELL…. are these some kind of paint-by-numbers deals? Did they only have access to the 15-color box of Crayons? WHY DID THEY EVEN BOTHER THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO SHOW THESE AT ALL THEY WERE NOT INTEGRAL TO ANYTHING
Unnecessary Face Lift
Okay, so you’re going to repaint the portrait to make it look more like your lead actress. I can deal (with some deep breathing). But why do you then give said portrait-of-the-actress an unnecessary face lift, so that the resulting painting no longer even resembles the actress??
Alright, so the real Queen Victoria was very round of face in what was considered soft and pleasing in her era, as you can see in her coronation portrait:
And no, Jenna Coleman in Victoria does not have that same soft, round face — instead she has pretty sharp features:
But is the miniseries’ version of the portrait on screen enough (no), or shown in enough of a close-up (no), to warrant a repainting? ESPECIALLY one that gives Coleman-as-Queen-Vickie even less eyes, more cheekbones, and more chin point than she has in real life?
Marie Antoinette (2006)
This one LITERALLY kills me. Partially because as many of you know, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is one of my favorite movies of all time — if not the favorite! While by and large the visuals are amazing, sure, there are some wobbles. But then we come to their version of the “Marie Antoinette with a Rose” portrait by Vigée-Le Brun.
And as seems to be par for the course, someone said, “Oh no, we can’t show the ACTUAL painting, because then she wouldn’t look like Kirsten Dunst and the audience would have an aneurysm!”
So instead, they inserted this Shitty Ass Version which has higher cheekbones than Dunst has ever dreamed of having. I don’t even care about the “Beware of Deficit” graffiti stuck on it, I’m still reeling from just how scary-plastic-surgery her face looks.
The sad thing is that I think part of the problem is how the painting was filmed, because here is a clearer image provided by the actual artist — Jenna Gribbon — and actually, it’s not half bad here:
The major problem seems to be the rouge and the cheekbone highlight — look at the real Marie-Antoinette’s cheek color, which goes down to her jawline, then look at Dunst-as-MA’s more on-the-cheekbone rouge PLUS the highlight/glare on her cheekbones which make them look like she had horns implanted:
But then we come to the next gem, based on another portrait by Vigée-Le Brun:
…in which Dunst’s eyes seem to have completely disappeared in favor of her apparently GINORMOUS cheekbones:
In this group, we have Repaintings That Just Have No Reason to Exist. Other than to annoy me.
Another one that just really chaps my hide: Belle. The whole movie was based on a nonfiction biography, which was inspired by the fact that there is this totally rare thing: a portrait showing two upper-class, late 18th-century women, one of whom is a woman of color:
There’s a ton to unpack in this portrait, including the fact that 1. Belle isn’t depicted as a servant but is wearing fancy clothes and clearly has a high station, 2. Belle is the more dynamic and interesting figure in the painting, and yet that 3. Belle is still exoticized, particularly through her turban.
The movie itself is largely successful, particularly in their casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle:
And once again, I get that they wanted to make the painting look like the actresses — and kudos to them for showing the real painting at the very end of the film. But WHY did they have to de-exoticize Belle by removing her turban, when that’s a really important element (the fact that she was totally English and yet totally considered exotic) that’s directly addressed in the movie — AND why did they remove the impish pose and saucy facial expression from the original painting, which is a huge part of what makes her image so intriguing?
It just REALLY seems unnecessary to me to remove these two elements, when again, they are directly addressed in the film itself.
Desperate Romantics (2009)
Yet another “why did they bother??!!” Desperate Romantics is all about the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, so it makes perfect sense that the show depicts them in the act of painting as well as the result.
But given that the model for Bocca Baciata (Fanny Cornforth) is on screen for a hot minute…
And given how non-representational the real painting is:
And given how little the show’s redo of the painting resembles the actress they cast to PLAY Cornforth:
WHY, I ASK YOU? WHY?
Why I Can’t Even
I can’t even introduce this category, because my ass has gotten so chapped it has literally Fallen. Off. and is now rolling around somewhere in my house screaming “WHYYYYYYYYYY?????!!!!!!”
The Affair of the Necklace (2001)
PEOPLE. IF YOU’RE GOING TO INCLUDE YOUR OWN VERSION OF A PORTRAIT OF MARIE-ANTOINETTE, WHY THE FUCK DO YOU 1. GIVE HER AN OUTFIT THAT SHE WAS NEVER PAINTED IN (okay, yes, they’re referencing the outfit that the prostitute who posed as Marie-Antoinette wears in the scene where she meets Cardinal Rohan in the garden and mashing that up with the Vigée-Le Brun “Marie Antoinette with a Rose” that we’ve looked at twice above)
AND 2. MAKE IT LOOK LIKE A PAINT-BY-NUMBERS SPECIAL:
North & South (1985? 1986?)
There have been multiple series based on the North and South books. I’m not sure which one this gem is from:
But here is the literal behind-the-scenes conversation we had at Frock Flicks HQ about this image:
Trystan: Kendra – a shitty portrait from 1985’s equally shitty North & South! I stumbled across a TON of North & South pix just now. omg, the poly baroque satin. the mullets. the jugs.
Kendra: One of us needs to snark week this one of these years
Kendra: OH now I see the painting! Yes! Will include!
Trystan: what, couldn’t see it past the perm?
Kendra: I was distracted by poly baroque satin!
Kendra: OMG THAT LACE
Trystan: there is so much wrong. and yes, there are more.
Trystan: also, notice how slutty the portrait is!
Kendra: And the person in the portrait looks like Debbie Reynolds!
Sarah: WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON WITH THOSE SLEEVES????
If you can explain the relevance and/or quality of any of these portraits, please do. My chapped ass awaits you.