Art history in ‘House of Cards.’ (Spoiler-free!)

The new Netflix original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Much of the attention has focused on its innovative business model, but it’s also been pretty widely critically acclaimed for its writing and acting; Fresh Air‘s TV critic notably called it “the best TV series about American politics since The West Wing” (also now streaming on Netflix).

One thing that seems to have been under-discussed is its great use of art (something which is generally under-recognized in TV criticism in general, I think – see, e.g., the excellent pieces featured in the recently-ended Gossip Girl). Although House of Cards is set in Washington, D.C., it seems that much of the show was shot in Baltimore and its environs. Since Baltimore is the one place that I’ve lived for the most consecutive years since college, it’s pretty near and dear to my heart, and I’ve enjoyed picking out scenes that I recognize and remember from my life there. For example, in one of the first few episodes, Robin Wright’s character goes for a run through Wyman Park Dell, right past a patch of vegetation where my dog often used to poop.

Other scenes seem to take place in and around the Baltimore Museum of Art. In the first episode, a key scene (pictured in the top photo here) occurs where the characters played by Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara have an incognito meeting at an art museum; they trade secrets while staring at a painting of two rowers, while Spacey’s character, Congressman Frank Underwood, talks of how they are now like the figures in the painting: in the same boat. I was intrigued by the painting but didn’t recognize it; I went to Quora to ask if anyone knew who painted it but didn’t get a responsive answer, so finally got around to digging it up myself:

The Biglin Brothers Racing.

The painting is called The Biglin Brothers Racing, by the American painter Thomas Eakins, and it’s in the collection of (and currently on view at) the National Gallery of Art. It was painted in 1872, and the NGA’s page notes that at the time, following the Civil War, rowing became a hugely popular spectator sport. This painting depicts the champion rowers racing on the Schuylkill River, a tributary to the Delaware River, in or around Philadelphia. This seems like it might be an oblique reference to the hometown of Congressman Peter Russo, another character who later introduces a bill related to the Delaware River Watershed (more on that fictional legislation later, perhaps).

In the ninth episode, Zoe and Frank meet again in front of a painting, although their relationship and circumstances are much changed. This time, they sit in front of a very different painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt:

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

This is a pretty curious composition, and contrasts greatly with the Eakins, even though, interestingly, they are both from about the same time. Little Girl was painted in 1878, just five years after The Biglin Brothers, but the styles are so markedly different that they almost seem to come from different eras. Which makes it all the more interesting, then, that Cassatt and Eakins were not just contemporaries but were both native Pennsylvanians (like Congressman Russo).

I won’t get into unpacking the symbolism of either painting in the show’s narrative, as it’s fairly obvious and I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who’s just starting. I will say that I think Little Girl is about a girl’s unseen interior life (which, happily, prominently features a dog) while The Biglin Brothers is more about movement and concerted action.

Also, the NGA’s website says Little Girl is not on view, and in House of Cards, it appeared to be hung inside the Baltimore Museum of Art. It looked to me like it was right outside the gorgeous Atrium Court.

There are a lot of amazing specimens of American art hanging in the various politicians’ offices too – maybe a topic for a future blog post. And I’m not an art historical expert by any means, so please chime in if you have corrections or anything else to add!

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3 Comments on “Art history in ‘House of Cards.’ (Spoiler-free!)”

  1. Sneha says:

    Thanks so much! Was Looking for the name of painting ever since. I am really enjoying the obscure art references in this series!

  2. […] use of art in this show is one of the most delicious aspects of it for me. Here is some great research on the subject for those who are interested.Remember Zoe Barnes? One of their first meetings is in front of a painting of two men rowing […]


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