More TV art history: the paintings in Downton Abbey are maybe anachronistic?

[Disclaimer: I have no training in or formal education about art history – I’m just an art enthusiast. If I’m wrong about something, please let me know!]

I want to do a post on the art in House of Cards season 2, but first, a quickie on Downton Abbey Season (or “Series,” if you’re British) 4. Notably, the season finale/Christmas special was principally set at “Grantham House,” the Granthams’ house in London.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham with her son’s mother-in-law, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, photographed in the Octagon Room at Basildon Park, in West Berkshire, England.

The scenes that took place in this room – the “Octagon Room” of Basildon Park – were perhaps undermined, in my opinion, by this set of distractingly arresting paintings. It really took only the most convoluted of scheming to turn my attention back to the story.

The paintings are by the 18th century Italian painter Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. In the Vanity Fair photo above, clockwise from top left, the paintings depict Saints Thomas, Peter, Matthew, and Philip. I wish this selection of saints serve as a foreshadowing for next season, but I doubt it. Anyway, some interesting stuff is contained in the National Trust descriptions of the paintings; for example, these pieces were not likely to have been exhibited in the time and place depicted in the show:

It is more unusual, as Francis Russell has said, that they should have been painted as a set of pictures for a private collection (though Rubens painted a set for the Duke of Lerma around 1611-12, and Van Dyck another for an Guilliam Verhagen around 1620/21 , for which there were precedents ), and even more so that the major part of one such set should adorn an English country house . If anything – despite the fact that the Apostles were amongst the saints that the Anglican church continued to recognise – sets of Sibyls were more common as an adornment of English country houses than were the Twelve Apostles. One reason for this was, perhaps, that paintings were very rarely collected in England for their content; if anything, they were collected in spite of it (otherwise, not only the profusion of Madonnas and Saints, but also the early English taste for Murillo, with his proliferation of child-angels, would be inexplicable). Yet even in Italy, where these particular Apostles once formed part of the greatest single concentration of Batoni’s work – the Merenda collection in Forlì – it was unusual to commission religious subjects specifically for a picture-gallery as opposed to collecting them après coup – and it normally betokened, if anything, a weakening of religious sensibility, that such was the destination for which pictures of the kind were painted. [Source]

The oval painting shown in the photo above appears to be “Cleopatra, Mark Antony and the Pearl,” by Giovanni Battista Pittoni the younger, a Venetian painter just about a generation ahead of Batoni. This painting also seems a little anachronistic to be included on the Downton set – all of these paintings didn’t come to Basildon Park until the late 1960s. However, it does illustrate an interesting and thematically resonant episode, about Cleopatra’s profligacy, which should maybe be discussed with Lord Grantham.

Somewhat relatedly, I also came across a great blog that discusses anachronisms in dialect and word usage, including an interesting post on Downton Abbey season 4.

 

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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!


SNL on Linsanity and the media’s inability to deal.

Last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Maya Rudolph opened with a bit on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, and happily, it was a surprisingly sophisticated take.

As I’ve said before, I have not been crazy about SNL‘s portrayal of Asians in the past, so this is more good news. Given the varied public reaction to Linsanity in general, and ESPN’s horrible “chink in the armor” headline in particular, I can’t help but wonder how many SNL watchers out there didn’t immediately get that the joke was not racial humor itself, but the double standard. If you know me, you may know that one of my favorite hobby horses is when people (usually conservatives) freak out over the alleged excesses of political correctness run amok. If you know me, you probably also know that I am not overly optimistic about humanity’s ability to not be racist, or Internet comments to be anything but cesspools of idiocy. Yet I was still astounded that anybody – including heaps of Internet commenters with handy links to definitions and previous media usages of the phrase – could think that the headline “chink in the armor” could, in this context, be anything but completely unacceptably racist. To complain about the outcry over the headline is to suggest that your obsession with the fantastical political correctness police, or your freedom to be edgy or make asshole-ish jokes, is more important than the ability of Asian-Americans to be free of racial harassment, and that is truly absurd.

Personally, I think what’s most offensive about the headline is that so many people at ESPN apparently failed to recognize that it featured a highly offensive racial slur. Even assuming that the headline writer is not racist and did not intend to pun on a racial slur, he’s still guilty of being ignorant — not that he’s the only one, of course. I grew up in central Connecticut, not far from Bristol, where ESPN is headquartered, and got called “chink” (and taunted with “ching chong” nonsense) plenty of times on the playground in recess and, most memorably to me, in middle school gym class, and not once did the (all white) playground aides, teachers, or other school authorities ever intervene or respond when I complained. I think that’s why it’s important that there be public accountability for this – so that people learn that really, it’s not okay.

The guy at ESPN who actually penned the headline has been fired, although he claims it was an innocent mistake – of course, the issue is, if you accidentally use a colloquialism in the wrong context such that it becomes offensive, you still messed up. And furthermore, if it’s your job to write for the nation’s premier sports outlet, it’s also your job to not make such mistakes.

Back to the point: at The Nation, Dave Zirin summed it up well:

No one at ESPN would talk or write about a lesbian athlete and unconsciously put forth that the woman in question would have a “finger in the dike.” If an African-American player was thought of as stingy, it’s doubtful that anyone at the World Wide Leader would describe that person as “niggardly.” They would never brand a member of a football team as a “Redskin” (wait, scratch that last one.)


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:


Angry Asian Man endorses SNL’s spoof of Japanophiles

Actually, I don’t know if “Japanophile” is the right term, but you know what I mean, right? Angry Asian Man calls it “the over-excited, obsessive (and often misguided) American fans that populate otaku culture.”

I agree with AAM that it was dead-on — and surprisingly complex, especially with the inclusion of the disavowing “Sensei Mark” character and “I’m not racist. My girlfriend is Japanese!” bit. I’ve found Saturday Night Live to be pretty tone-deaf (if not outright racist) on Asian/Asian-American issues on the past, most recently with its portrayals of China’s President Hu Jintao, so this is a marked improvement.