Film & video

20 Artworks That Inspired Famous Movie Scenes

Goya, Dalí, Edvard Munch... discover the famous paintings that influenced some of cinema's most iconic film scenes

There are those who say that the best artists don't copy, they steal. It's an idea that feels problematic on the surface, but perhaps less so when we think of it from the lens that we're constantly creating under the influence of artists who have created before us. Whether as a tribute, reinterpretation, or parody, referencing other artists' works is a way of giving greater dimension and power to a new project.

This is no exception in the world of cinema. Here, we take a look at great directors' famous references to the art world that helped make some of the most iconic and recognizable scenes of their careers.

1. Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro

Reference to: Saturn Devouring His Son, by Francisco Goya

Pan’s Labyrinth helped catapult Guillermo del Toro to international fame. The dark fantasy film tells the story of Ofelia—a young Spanish girl who moves with her mother into her violent new stepfather’s house in Francoist Spain.

Guillermo del Toro's reference to the work of Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
Guillermo del Toro's reference to the work of Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

Blending reality and fantasy, the film combines the real world with a magical one centered around an old labyrinth in which Ofelia has to face all kinds of trials—one of whom is the Pale Man, whose striking features like his white complexion and eyeballs in the palm of his hands aren't easy to forget.

Many people interpret the character—particularly a scene in which he bites the heads off fairies—as a direct reference to Saturn Devouring His Son, by Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

About the work: One of Goya's Black Paintings painted on the walls of his house La Quinta del Sordo (The Deaf Man’s Villa), Saturn Devouring His Son is Goya’s representation of the Greek mythical figure, Cronus. One of the most powerful Titans, fearing he would be deposed by his children, Cronus ate them at birth.

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya.
Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya.

2. Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang

Reference to: The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Austrian-American director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is perhaps the greatest work of German expressionist cinema (and cinema in general). Taking place in a dystopian future, Metropolis tells a story of class struggle in which the world is divided into two social classes: the thinkers, who live in the city, and the workers who live and work underground.

Metropolis references The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel.
Metropolis references The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel.

The city is an intricate web of broad avenues and monumental buildings, including a skyscraper reminiscent of sixteenth-century Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel.

About the work: Breugel’s Tower of Babel is an oil painting that depicts the creation of languages, one of humanity’s shared metaphors. The myth of the Tower of Babel first appears in the bible and sought to explain why people speak different languages. In the original version, Noah’s descendants attempt to build a flood-proof tower that reaches up to heaven. Seeing it as an act of rebellion, God sends angels to confuse the Babylonians by preventing them from understanding each other and leaving them unable to complete the project.

The myth of the Tower of Babel sought to explain why people speak different languages.
The myth of the Tower of Babel sought to explain why people speak different languages.

3. Scream, directed by Wes Craven

Reference to: The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Directed by horror master Wes Craven, Scream is one of the most iconic horror films of all time—with its equally famous screaming Ghostface mask cropping up in popular culture everywhere. The film tells the story of Sidney Prescott, a young woman stalked by a mysterious murderer.

Horror movie Scream references The Scream by Edvard Munch.
Horror movie Scream references The Scream by Edvard Munch.

One of Scream’s greatest successes is the way in which it challenges its audience. A self-aware slasher franchise (not shy of pointing out the genre's clichés), it provokes viewers to ask questions about the impact of horror, giving rise to a new satirical genre of horror.

The film's Ghostface mask also successfully references one of the most iconic works in the history of art: Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s, The Scream. In fact, the killer’s familiar silhouette features regularly in cinema and TV (it was also seen in Netflix's hit TV series Squid Game).

About the work: Edvard Much’s oil painting The Scream (1893) is a globally-recognized work of art, not only famous for its impressive expressionism, but also for its universal representation of despair, anguish, and fear.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893).
The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893).

4. Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese

Reference to: The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt

Scorsese’s neo-noir psychological thriller, Shutter Island, tells the story of a US Marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio) with a shady past sent to investigate a psychiatric hospital where patients have gone missing in strange circumstances.

The Shutter Island references The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt.
The Shutter Island references The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt.

As he works with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) on the case, the film builds feelings of paranoia in both DiCaprio’s character and its audience, who are constantly made to question his sanity.

One of its most memorable scenes shows DiCaprio embracing his wife (Michelle Williams) in the family home. His despair and melancholy are reminiscent of one of art history's most memorable couples: the protagonists of The Kiss, by Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

About the work: The Kiss is an oil painting created during Klimt’s Golden Phase when his paintings heavily featured gold leaf, inspired by the mosaics of the Italian city of Ravenna. Produced between 1907 and 1908, the couple’s luxurious attire and effusive embrace have made the work an archetypal reference to passion.

The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt.
The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

Reference to: The Elephants, by Salvador Dalí

Building on the success of his hit 1980s franchise, Mad Max , Australian director George Miller's 2015 movie Mad Max: Fury Road, stands out for its powerful and carefully constructed visual language. Based on a precisely-curated color palette and masterful use of lighting, the post-apocalyptic film symbolizes the decadence and dystopian state of the world inhabited by its titular character.

Mad Max: Fury Road references Dalí's painting The Elephants.
Mad Max: Fury Road references Dalí's painting The Elephants.

The set design, as well as the color palette characterized by intense reddish and blue tones, bears a strong relationship to the works of Surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí. A scene in which figures with elongated limbs appear against a desolate background strongly echoes the artist's work The Elephants.

About the work: When he painted this work in 1948, Dalí found inspiration in Bernini’s sculpture of an elephant carrying an obelisk on its back in Rome. It’s quite unusual for Dalí, because it lacks the saturation of elements often present in his work. Two elephants tower over a desolate desert landscape, touching the sky, while two figures stand immobile below them, witnessed by a temple-like building in the distance. Dalí's elephants are said to represent the future and symbolic of strength.

The Elephants, by Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1948).
The Elephants, by Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1948).

6. A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick

Reference to: Prisoners Exercising, by Vincent Van Gogh

Based on the dystopian novel of the same name by British writer Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange was brought to the screen by director Stanley Kubrick. What would become one of the filmmaker's canonical films, it deals with the actions of sadistic young criminal Alex DeLarge and his gang of "droogs".

Director Stanley Kubrick references Vincent Van Gogh's work Prisoners Exercising.
Director Stanley Kubrick references Vincent Van Gogh's work Prisoners Exercising.

Exploring the origin of evil, violent behavior, and the ways in which science approaches rehabilitation, the controversial film eventually became a cult classic.

After Alex is sentenced to prison, there's a scene in which the prisoners circle around in the middle of a small space as part of the daily routine—a direct reference to a painting by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.

About the work: Van Gogh painted Prisoners Exercising during a time at which he had voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1890. Created after doctors postponed his discharge, it's evocative of the artist's feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

7. Marie Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola

Reference to: Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David

An artistic biopic of young Queen Marie Antoinette’s last years, this film is one of US director, actor, producer, and screenwriter Sofia Coppola's signatures. Told from Marie Antoinette’s perspective, Coppola develops a visual narrative in which pop and history combine, giving rise to a unique portrait of the ill-fated Queen.

Marie Antoinette features a reference to Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David.
Marie Antoinette features a reference to Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David.

From her arrival at the Court of Versaille to the fall of the French monarchy, the director reviews the degree of greed that characterized the reign of Marie Antoinette and ultimately led to her death.

In the film, Coppola pays tribute to one of the most important works by French Neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, capturing the soldier's embattled spirit.

About the work: Jacques-Louis David created five versions of his portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps between 1801 and 1805. It’s an idealized portrayal of a historical moment that glorifies Napoleon through its use of symbolic gestures.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David.

8. Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier

Reference to: Ophelia, by John Everett Millais

An apocalyptic drama starring two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, this film by Lars Von Trier has been critically-acclaimed for its impeccable cinematographic execution and original treatment of its subject.

This scene of Kirsten Dunst floating on a lake full of lilies is believed to reference John Everett Millais' work, Ophelia.
This scene of Kirsten Dunst floating on a lake full of lilies is believed to reference John Everett Millais' work, Ophelia.

The second part of what many call "The Depression Trilogy", which also includes the films Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac (2013), Melancholia (2011) is a film that defends itself for its incredible performances and the way it takes advantage of the cliché of the end of the world as a resource for exploring the meaning of human life.

In one of the promotional posters for the film, Kirsten Dunst floats in a lake full of lilies, foliage, and flowers, in a pose similar to British painter and illustrator John Everett Millais' work Ophelia.

About the work: Painted in 1851, Ophelia deals with the death of British writer William Shakespeare's tragic-romantic character from one of his most emblematic works, Hamlet. Translating the language of Shakespeare into a striking image that evokes the tragedy of Ophelia, Everett captures the young woman's devastation-induced trance before death.

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais.
Ophelia, by John Everett Millais.

9. Dreams by Akira Kurosawa

Reference: Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh

One of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s most personal films, Dreams is a compendium of eight dreamlike vignettes, based on his own recurring nighttime visions.

Dreams features a reference to Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent Van Gogh.
Dreams features a reference to Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent Van Gogh.

From children’s adventures to apocalyptic narratives, the director’s sleeping imagination is the inspiration behind the feature film that's also filled with artistic references, tributes to other filmmakers, and a visual language that unites its various stories.

Kurosawa plays tribute to Van Gogh throughout the film via direct references to his work—the artist is even featured in the film (played by director Martin Scorsese).

About the work: Wheatfield with Crows is perhaps one of Van Gogh’s most intriguing works, and often believed to be the last work he painted before his suicide in July 1890. The painting is overcast by stormy blue skies.

It's commonly believed that this was one of Van Gogh's last paintings before his death.
It's commonly believed that this was one of Van Gogh's last paintings before his death.

10. The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin

Reference to: The Empire of Lights, by René Magritte

A classic in the horror genre that's been the subject of all kinds of analysis and discussion over the years, American director William Friedkin's story of a twelve-year-old girl possessed by a demon still packs the same terrifying punch as it did when it was first related forty years ago in 1973.

Its controversial premiere still stands out today; the film shocked audiences so much that people reportedly fainted, vomited, experienced severe anxiety, or suffered heart attacks during the screening.

This iconic scene from The Exorcist was inspired by Belgian painter René Magritte.
This iconic scene from The Exorcist was inspired by Belgian painter René Magritte.

Among the most remembered scenes of Friedkin's film is the image of the priest who appears under a shadow in front of the possessed girl Regan's lit room. Both the composition and the lighting of the scene are reminiscent of one of a work by Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte.

About the work: René Magritte, one of the most important artists of the Surrealist movement, was captivated by combining concepts that visually result in an oxymoron. In the case of The Empire of Lights, the night in the lower half contrasts with the illuminated sky in the upper part.

These ten scenes are just some of the many that you can find throughout the history of cinema, where great directors have given a nod to world-famous works of art. If you want to continue exploring more movies inspired by great works of art, keep an eye out for the scenes in these films:

- The Shining, by Stanley Kubrick. Reference: Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, by Diane Arbus

- Viridiana, by Luis Buñuel. Reference: The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci.

- About Schmidt, by Alexander Payne. Reference: The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David.

- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Terry Gilliam. Reference: The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli.

- Pennies from Heaven, by Herbert Ross. Reference: Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.

- The Truman Show, by Peter Weir. Reference: Architecture au clair de lune, by René Magritte.

- Moonrise Kingdom, by Wes Anderson. Reference: To Prince Edward Island, by Alex Colville.

- Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins. Reference: Evening Dress, by René Magritte.

- Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Peter Weir. Reference: At the Hanging Rock, by William Ford.

- The House That Jack Built, by Lars Von Trier. Reference: The Barque of Dante, by Eugène Delacroix.

Let us know about your favorite artistic references in the world of cinema in the comments below. And, continue exploring the world of movies, directors, and cinema on the Domestika blog.

English version by @studiogaunt and @amyvsnelling.

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