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!

Advertisements

J. Crew vs. Celine

Lately, I’ve been coveting this gorgeous red satchel version of the Celine Luggage tote seen on Atlantic-Pacific:

She also has a bigger version of the Luggage tote, seen here. However, this purse is far, far outside my budget. But, J. Crew is not! And their new Tillary tote is a great alternative, ringing in at a still substantial $328 – a good digit less than the Celine:

It turns out I’m not the only purse-appreciator who has noticed the similarity. Some have been calling it a knockoff, but I think it’s a legitimate inspired-by reinterpretation.

I was also happy to find that someone else has basically written the blog post I meant to write, on the law of inspiration vs. piracy. According to The Fashion Law, the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act (IDPPPA) would permit this kind of reinterpretation. IDPPPA, introduced by Sen. Schumer of New York and endorsed by CFDA, was apparently reported favorably out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010 but then languished; it has since been re-introduced in the House in the 112th Congress by Rep. Goodlatte of Virginia. I haven’t read and analyzed the bill(s), but the opinions on the Internet are,  unsurprisingly, divided: one fashion lawyer/commentator I found thinks IDPPPA will only harm the fashion industry by adding burdensome litigation costs, and that originality standards will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove or enforce. This is not my area of expertise, but from what I’ve read and observed in the arena of art and copyright, courts are extremely ill-equipped to judge what amounts to original reinterpretation, fair use, or artistic appropriation.

Anyways, my foray into the world of purse blogging today has yielded a couple other high/”low” purse observations:

The Reed Krakoff Atlantique tote ($1,490) has a pretty similar silhouette to the Celine:

And compare the Reed Krakoff Boxer in coral or black ($1,290):

…to the Kate Spade Bow Valley Rosa in pink (apparently sold out everywhere) and black ($425, on sale for $297):


Founding Fathers on film.

On his blog, Hendrik Hertzberg seconds the sensible call for a Alexander Hamilton biopic. I am likewise pretty amazed that this has never been done, as Hamilton is clearly a fascinating and dramatic character. Relatedly, I am a bit surprised at how many times J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed in the cinema. (In his New Yorker review, David Denby notes that in addition to Leonardo DiCaprio, “Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hoskins have played Hoover.”) He’s undisputedly an interesting character — it’s just that he’s such a relatively recent historical figure. You’d think we’d have long since exhausted the cinematic potential of the Founding Fathers’ stories, but Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested.

Although it’s not a film, HBO’s 2008 John Adams miniseries deserves a mention in this discussion. I missed it when it first came out because I’m not an HBO subscriber, but I recently watched it on DVD. I found it to be pretty poorly dramatized, but it did a decent job of narrating the politics of the revolution and the founding. By the end – or the middle, really – of the miniseries, I was pretty sick and tired of John Adams, and would have gladly welcomed a spinoff on Hamilton (or Jefferson!). I’d also be really interested to watch a movie about John Madison, who sounds like a delightful crank.

Anyways, the other reason for making this blog post was to share with the Internet this fabulous screencap I took while I was watching John Adams. In light of current events, it seems appropriate to put this out there. I think the supercommittee should have a giant still of this projected over them, so that they may better imagine how they’re making John Adams roll in his grave, or at least make this tragic face (in reaction to hearing Hamilton’s pitch to create a national debt):

I saved this image months ago, thinking that eventually I would come up with some brilliant image macro for it, but alas, image macros are not really my medium. I did make it a little more Internet-appropriate though: