Inside Alfred Hitchcock’s Art Collection, from a Fake Picasso to Authentic Paul Klees
Alfred Hitchcock plays with a magnifying glass on the set of his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1956. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images.
The decor was unusual, to say the least, at Norman Bates’s 12-room motel in filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror movie, Psycho (1960). Menacing taxidermied birds framed the walls of the office parlor, hovering above an assortment of painted female nudes that included a reproduction of Venus with a Mirror (ca. 1555) by Renaissance artist Titian. A strategically placed copy of Susannah and the Elders (ca. 17–18th century) by Dutch artist Willem van Mieris concealed a peephole used for peering into room number one. Like a Baroque version of Psycho’s famous shower scene, Susannah and the Elders pits a vulnerably nude bathing woman against the violent voyeurism of a male predator.
The motel office interior and its display of portentous art was envisioned by Hitchcock, who designed detailed sets for the more than 50 films he directed during his six-decade career. “In many of his films, Hitchcock gave very specific indications to production designers and set decorators [about] what to use,” said Steven Jacobs, an art historian specializing in connections between film and the visual arts, and the author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock (2007).
A landscape by French 19th century painter Rosa Bonheur hangs above the bar in Dial M for Murder (1954), framing the murderous husband’s silhouette as he pours an inquiring police inspector a brandy. The psychiatrist’s office in The Wrong Man (1956) is aptly decorated with Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne’s The House of the Hanged Man (1873), visible when the lead character learns his wife will be committed for her catatonic condition. A Pablo Picasso still life hangs above the fireplace in the home of the wealthy socialite couple in Suspicion (1941), suggesting fine—albeit inscrutable—taste.
All onscreen details were important to Hitchcock, and he wanted audiences to notice both the background scenery and the foreground characters. After all, his fans were trained to look for the director’s famous cameo appearances in nearly every film (even when they came after the one-hour mark, as in 1946’s Notorious). The artworks integrated into his set designs always serve to underline and amplify the themes of his films.
How the famed director chose to decorate his own abode was another story. One might imagine interiors reflecting his British upbringing or, alternatively, a love of the macabre. But offscreen, the artworks Hitchcock chose to surround himself with were incredibly eclectic and more conventionally bourgeois; perhaps unexpectedly so, given the master of suspense’s infamous penchant for murder and intrigue.
A collection “of variable interest and quality”
A painted portrait of his daughter, Patricia, hung above the fireplace of the Bel Air home he moved into during the early 1940s shortly after relocating to Hollywood, and lived in until his death in 1980. The portrait of Patricia shared living room real estate with a mahogany grand piano and a Salvador Dalí drawing, Le Chevalier de la Mort (1944), inscribed to the director as a gift after the two collaborated on the dream sequence for the psychological thriller Spellbound (1945). In the hallway and bathroom, a Chinese terracotta figure stood near a lithograph by Expressionist painter Georges Rouault, an artist Hitchcock admired because, just as he repeatedly made films around the same themes, he felt that Rouault “was content with judges, clowns, a few women, and Christ on the Cross.”
In the master bedroom, an angular floral still life by modern artist Bernard Buffet joined the company of Persian miniature watercolors of maidens preparing ladies for bath and bed. The guest room had an opera scene attributed to FauvistHenri Matisse and a crayon sketch of a young girl by figurative artist Marie Laurencin. A Pablo Picasso still life also hung in the director’s home for decades, until a 1970 art appraisal revealed that it was a forgery; the artist himself reviewed a photograph of the work and scribbled faux (French for fake) across the print. A multitude of stylistic plots were interwoven throughout the Hitchcock home.
“The Hitchcocks’ collection reflects a wide variety of styles, artists, and subjects, more indicative of a lifestyle than a deliberate approach,” noted Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who collaborated on the exhibition “Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences” (2000–01). “Works in their eclectic collection are of variable interest and quality.”
This hodgepodge collection began around 1944, and Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, chose new acquisitions together. The selection criteria were straightforward and loose. “Mrs. H and I never acquired a painting unless it was liked by both of us,” Hitchcock told one of his biographers. Thankfully they had similar tastes, leaning mostly toward colorful modernists. Alma’s favorite artist was Parisian painter Maurice Utrillo (the couple owned two of his painted street scenes), and Hitchcock singled out Swiss modernist Paul Klee (by whom the pair owned three works). “Klee could have made good storyboards, you know,” said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock was an art connoisseur, an interest that began when he took art history and painting classes in London as a teenager. His first film industry job, in fact, was as an illustrator of intertitle cards for silent films. And he was an avid collector of art books, stockpiling them at home and at work. “His office at Universal Studios contained a surprising number of art books, which Hitchcock liked to regularly consult, often choosing some illustration or other to show his art director and/or his cinematographer to indicate what he wanted in a particular shot,” explained Ken Mogg, author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999). “Undoubtedly Hitchcock’s lifetime interest in art fed directly into his filmmaking.”
“Above all it is the picture which is the thing”
Hitchcock understood art, incorporated artworks of historical significance into his films, and was a collector. And his approach to filling the blank canvas of the silver screen was that of an artist. “[I]t’s just like designing composition in a painting,” Hitchcock said. “Or balance of colors. There is nothing accidental.”
Accidental or not, Hitchcock’s critics accused him of favoring image over content and compared his films to live-action comic strips. (The director didn’t disagree.) Scriptwriters sometimes complained about working with him because he imagined visually powerful scenes, but was less concerned with how they connected to each other in a convincing narrative.
“A film has got to be ocularly interesting and above all it is the picture which is the thing,” Hitchcock wrote in 1936. “I try to tell my story so much in pictures that if by any chance the sound apparatus broke down in the cinema, the audience would not fret and get restless because the pictorial action would still hold them!”
At home, the pictorial action of Hitchcock’s personal art collection must have held his attention. He liked selecting paintings about which he could make up stories, perhaps mentally constructing a sequence of storyboards to follow—the image of an ominous tree by French artist Chaim Soutine that hung in his dining room, for example, or the mosaic of birds designed by Cubist George Braque that he commissioned for his garden.
It is tempting to imagine that Hitchcock planned his famous film, The Birds (1963), while enjoying a sunny day on his patio and studying that mosaic, but the director never spelled out any direct link between his personal collection and his work. It remains a bit of a Hitchcockian mystery.
“Oh by the way,” Hitchcock did say in his trailer for Psycho, while pointing to Susannah and the Elders and looking directly into the camera, “this picture has great significance because…” The director paused, averted his eyes downward, and then looked back at the camera. “Uh, let’s go along to cabin number one.” The meaning is never quite made clear.
Of the paintings he chose to spend his life with at home, Hitchcock said simply, yet cryptically, “they become a part of you.”