6 Cinematographers Who Took Cues from Famous Painters, from Caravaggio to Hopper
The great art house filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni hated when his peers talked about “writing a film.” He preferred the term “painting a film”—telling a story not with words, but colors, camera angles, and meticulously composed frames.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Film, to echo an old saw, is a visual medium, but it’s undeniably a literary one, too. Lean too heavily on dialogue, and your movie could come off prosaic or heavy-handed; concentrate too hard on the beauty of each frame and your final product may end up feeling inert and indulgent, less than the sum of its pretty parts. A painting, after all, is a single image—films consist of thousands of images, which need to be carefully edited together into a story.
Small wonder, then, that many of the greatest cinematographers have referenced paintings. They’ve borrowed from modernists and Impressionists and Old Masters, sometimes recreating specific images and sometimes riffing loosely on the original works, using one of the oldest art forms to inform one of the newest. Below, we share six directors of photography inspired by the works of famous painters.
Manuel Alberto Claro
There are a few popular YouTube videos that identify movie shots explicitly inspired by paintings. Cinephiles call this sort of shot a tableau vivant, or “living picture”—a live-action recreation of a still image. One of the most striking tableaux vivants appears in the prologue to Melancholia (2011), shot by Manuel Alberto Claro, and evokes Sir John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite masterwork Ophelia (1851–52).
It would take an entire article to list all the visual references Claro crams into this 8-minute sequence, in which the film’s two narrative threads—one concerning the lives of a wealthy, wretched family; the other, the destruction of the entire planet—merge sublimely (and ridiculously). Even so, Melancholia’s allusion to Millais merits special attention. In Millais’s painting—and in the original Shakespearean play—Ophelia is the victim of Hamlet’s cruelty, as well as her own unbalanced psyche. How right for Claro to connect Ophelia and Justine, the doomed heroine of Melancholia, whose inner trembling is somehow both an omen and a cause of apocalypse.
As Justine drifts through the dark green waters, her mouth open in eroticized agony, we’re powerless to avert the disaster—all we can do is drink in the horrifying, slow-motion beauty Claro has captured. It’s as if, in the seconds leading up to destruction, the whole world is transforming into a painting.
Cinematographers don’t only recreate specific images, of course; sometimes, they turn to a broader group of paintings in search of a mood no movie has managed to capture. The period film Barry Lyndon (1975) was shot by John Alcott, the gifted cinematographer behind two science-fiction classics, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. In fact, it can be useful to think of Barry Lyndon as an sci-fi adventure set in the 18th century. To convey an era at once familiar and “other,” Alcott immersed himself in the landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough, born in 1727, as well as the caricatures of William Hogarth, born in 1697.
The resulting film was equal parts alluring and ugly, refined and raunchy—in other words, a film about what it was like to live in early modern Europe. Alcott’s depictions of the English countryside are some of the most tranquil since Gainsborough picked up a brush. For the candlelit interior scenes, however, he packs dozens of weird, fleshy faces into each shot, calling to mind Hogarth’s satirical series “Marriage à-la Mode” (1743–45)and “A Rake’s Progress”(1733–34). Widely dismissed as a boring costume drama at the time of its release, Barry Lyndon has since been celebrated as one of the greatest of all films. No small part of that greatness comes from Barry Lyndon’s tension between seriousness and cheekiness—a tension Alcott emphasizes with his shrewd homages to English painting.
In her cinematography for the landmark experimental films Jean Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and News From Home (1977), Babette Mangolte made banality look extraordinary. In her criminally neglected documentary, The Sky on Location (1982), which she shot and directed, she faced a different challenge: rescuing the American West from the prison of kitsch. In essence, her film is a 78-minute essay that tackles one of the visual arts’ most explored (and often cliché-ridden) themes: the beauty of the natural world.
In search of the sublime, Mangolte took inspiration from one of the most doggedly original painters: the documentary, she said in an interview, “captures the mood of the landscape as in a Turner painting.” Like J.M.W. Turner, the English Romantic painter whose images of tempestuous seas and skies remain stunning after nearly 200 years, Mangolte seems to reinvent the natural world as a wilder version of itself, with dizzying proportions and supersaturated colors. The result is a collection of desert footage that might have been captured on Mars, not the United States; a documentary that doesn’t observe the world, so much as it creates one. A quote from Turner comes to mind: “It is necessary to mark…that which addresses itself to the imagination from that which is solely addressed to the eye.”
Few great cinematographers have had longer careers than Conrad Hall, who, in 1970, won an Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969),and decades later nabbed two more, for American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002). Throughout those decades, he’d consult the creations of many notable painters, but none more frequently than Edward Hopper. Hopper modeled several of his paintings off of scenes from movies; it’s only fair that, in his own work, Hall returned the favor.
It was Hopper’s project to convey, in plain, realistic images, the quiet desperation of American urban life. One of the chief marvels of Hall’s cinematography is the way he not only echoes that project, but also extends it far beyond Hopper’s original scope. In some of his most striking early work (the 1967 film adaptation of In Cold Blood, for example), Hall shoots spacious, drab public spaces that would seem empty even if they were swarming with people—not unlike the spaces Hopper depicts in Early Sunday Morning (1930) or Seven A.M. (1948). But in American Beauty, released when he was in his seventies, Hall turned his calm gaze to a suburban world that was still expanding when Hopper died in the 1960s, and found alienation beyond the artist’s wildest nightmares.
Agnès Godard, who has lensed some of the most beautiful films of the past few decades, including Jacquot de Nantes (1991) and Beau Travail (1999), rarely alludes to specific painters or paintings. In one of her most recent efforts, Let the Sunshine In (2017), she made an exception. The main character, played by Juliette Binoche, paints large, Abstract Expressionist works, and over the course of the film, Godard shows her hard at work, fanning colors across huge canvases laid flat on the floor.
For some viewers, these moments will recall the famous photographs of Jackson Pollock from his 1949 spread in Life magazine, images that immediately redefined painting as a macho, intensely physical endeavor. But perhaps a better point of comparison is Joan Mitchell, another Abstract Expressionist and a personal favorite of both Binoche and Claire Denis, the film’s director. In any case, Godard’s filming of Binoche suggests an intuitive, dancelike way of making art, the “meaning” of which can only be grasped in hindsight. It’s surely no coincidence that the same terms are very often used to describe Godard’s cinematography.
Vittorio Storaro—the man responsible for the look of Apocalypse Now (1979), The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Reds (1981), and Dick Tracy (1990)—is both one of the most painterly cinematographers and one of the least. He’s also been called the greatest cinematographer, period: the artist-cum-scientist who made cinematography a full-fledged, codified art form. “When people tell me I am a painter of light,” he said in a 2012 interview, “I say that I am not, because a painter expresses himself in just one single image.” When he published his magisterial, three-volume treatise on cinematography, he saw fit to title it—as if to spite Antonioni—Writing With Light.
Yet Storaro is clearly fascinated by painting: Writing With Light contains reproductions of over 100 paintings, and one of these, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1600), helped inspire him to go into cinematography. In Apocalypse Now (arguably his most visually striking film, though it has some stiff competition), he clothes the actors in sickly yellowish light and baleful shadows, producing a chiaroscuro that would have made Caravaggio jealous. For Storaro, as with Caravaggio, the play of light and shadow isn’t just a nifty effect, but a way of suggesting a figure’s state of mind. Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz straddles madness and civilization, and Storaro’s bold lighting choices render the character’s inner decay visible on-screen.
That, as it happens, is a pretty good definition of what cinematography does at its best: It converts feelings and ideas and unspeakable desires into the visual. Much the same could be said about painting. In all probability, the two arts will continue to speak to each other—sometimes competitively, sometimes cooperatively, but always productively.
Thumbnail image: Still from American Beauty. Photo by DreamWorks SKG/Getty Images.