50 thoughts on “SNARK WEEK: Shitty Historical Movie Portraits

    1. With the lotion, here’s a brandy and when do these atrocious pics of dog poo get burned. Let’s have a bonfire and toast marshmallows over it while we contemplate P&P with Colin.

  1. “Oh no, we can’t show the ACTUAL painting, because then she wouldn’t look like Kirsten Dunst and the audience would have an aneurysm!”
    I am an artist and I had the aneurysm of laughter reading this post.
    I just started watching “Desperate Romantics” and I was very happy they were using the ACTUAL THINGS but something in me just died a little with Bocca Baciata.
    Bravo, girls.

    1. As an art historian, “Desperate Romantics” drives me batty with the art. Some of them are basically the glazed canvas prints that look real from a polite distance, like “The Scape Goat”, the beginnings of “Dante & Beatrice”, and “Christ in His Parents’ House”, but then there’s “Bocca Bacciata” and the portrait of Jane Burden that are awful hack jobs.

      I had a theory that it could be that some of those pairings, mainly Rossetti’s, were somehow tied up in copyright and they were forced on a limited budget to crank out repros. It’s the only thing I can think of that would explain the unneveness between Rossetti’s paintings vs. Hunt’s or Milais’.

  2. The terrible repaint of the Rosetti painting just reminds me of the Monkey Christ fresco “restoration” that has become a meme.

    1. I scrolled down to say the same thing, LMAO. It’s so bad that I can’t stop laughing now that I’ve seen it again.
      It’s a truly stunning example because, if anything, the actress resembles the original painting really well anyway! I think if they’d included the original painting and told people it was painted after Rebecca Davies, people who don’t already know the picture would believe it…

  3. I found the Belle movie portrait to be highly disappointing because the original shows so much liveliness and love between the two women. It’s absolutely splendid, a dynamic and elegant portrait, whereas the movie version looks like a photograph.

    I have been a portrait painter and artist for many years, and I have specialized in colonial style paintings. I can tell you the one of the reasons this might happen is because there are VERY FEW artists out there who know how to paint a great portrait, let alone paint like the Old Masters. It takes years of apprenticeship and study to learn. I know, firsthand, and I couldn’t even come close. It takes months to produce such a painting, with layers of fine glazing, color blending and special oils and mixtures to produce the depth of shadows and fineness of skin tones. The modern paints and mediums most artists use today cannot thoroughly replicate the formulas of centuries past. Even the painting supports cannot be truly replicated – fine linens and special rabbit skin glue preparations.

    I feel that the modern artist has been jaded by photography, and the average viewer expects the portrait to look exactly like the person, and this has been the case in your examples. But as you so clearly pointed out, a sitter’s features were often slightly altered and idealized according to the standards of beauty at the time. Someone’s not learning their art history! That’s why we see such blatant photorealism as in the Marie Antoinette movie portraits. The Girl with the Pearl Earring movie makes a good attempt, and at least the movie is respectful of Vermeer’s artistic genius, but it’s a movie about the relationship, and less so the art. I think the real blame lies with the “creatives, et al.” who have to source the paintings and find an artist to paint the movie portraits. Obviously, historical accuracy and respect for fine art is not their main concern.

    1. I could understand that reproducing actual art is hard, in the more recent films, we have the technology to fake it. PhotoShop, ppl! Canvas print paper! Creative lighting & quick pans! I think of the cottage industry on Etsy & elsewhere inserting cats & dogs into famous paintings — they look pretty good. Esp. compared to the shitty quality of these paintings in often big-budget films.

    2. I was thinking a lot of this as well. And not only does it require a very particular and intensive kind of art education to be able to do this kind of work, I think there’s barely anywhere that you can learn it! My undergrad degree is a BFA in Visual art, including paining, at a quite reputable university for it and there was actually little to no proper technical training. By far the primary emphasis was on self-expression and abstract concepts. It’s not that I have any problem with those, it’s just there was no balance, almost like the belief that natural-born talent was sufficient and it was a waste of time to attempt to hone it into real skill. Ok, rant over.

      It also seems to me that with a lot of these “portraits” there’s some kind of mash-up of photography and painting going on. Some of them (such as the Dido & cuz portrait) look like photographs of the actresses faces were pasted to the canvas and then brushed over to make them look like they were painted. So weird and awkward-looking.

      1. Oh wait, I have one more little rant-y bit. Again, in terms of training, there’s also the issue that representational art is now considered basically inferior to highly conceptual-only art within the contemporary art scene (disclosure: yes, I have a pretty big issue with the contemporary art “scene” for multiple reasons). Hence why there is so little emphasis on building skill and teaching techniques to help you make art look like actual things and people. I’m pretty sure I received more of this kind of training in my highschool art classes (I had a particularly extraordinary highschool art teacher) than my university ones.

  4. YESSSSSS this always drives me absolutely CRAZY!! The paintings always look so fake and awful and totally throw me out of the story! The paint filter in photoshop does not equal Gainsborough people.

    1. Gainsborough, Reynolds, Titian, Ramsay, Winterhalter, Landseer and Sargent were masters of portraiture. The copyists are merely meh and don’t even try to copy the style of the original work of art. Girl withal Pearl Earring’s portrait at least could be considered a striking copy. But they used the original at the end, I believe.

      Charles V with his yucky chin was flattered by Titian. Wished these modern works didn’t look like they were painted by a demented two year old on acid or crack.

  5. The only thing I can think of is that they perhaps couldn’t get permissions to use some of them?

    The one from bell looks like an over-paint, why would the director ask them to remove the arm???

    Did the directors/set designers not have google? most of these do not have the quality of light the originals have. Why?!?! That alone would have fixed half of the non-period-ness of it all.

    1. For things the age of the Marie-Antoinette paintings, they’re out of copyright. And many countries have shorter / less asinine copyright laws than the U.S. (yes, that’s my professional opinion as a writer & editor).

      And yeah, why don’t more directors google this shit!

      1. Well the UK is hardcore and basically asserts the copyright of art belongs to the museum that holds it, but I know at least one (period) copy of the MA en chemise portrait is at the US National Gallery…

        1. That’s what I suspect is at play with the Rossetti portraits in “Desperate Romantics.” I wonder if the Rossetti family holds the copyright for “Bocca Bacciata”, Jade Burden’s portrait, etc. and that’s why a direct digital print wasn’t available and they had to reproduce it.

          Whereas Hunt’s and Millais’ paintings were available for direct-digital. It’s just SUPER obvious when you see them all on screen and Rossetti’s paintings, who was way ahead of his time with composition and technique, looks like a high school student’s final art project.

          1. No, it’s the museums that have copyright, as the artists have been dead for over 70 yrs. It may be that those are in private collections. Andrew Lloyd-Webber has massive Pre-Raphaelite collection.

  6. the Darcy portrait weirds me out everytime I watch P&P but the Wickham miniature is the worst imo

    also i’m a long-time lurker! hi!

  7. North& South really is the gift that keeps on giving. Hugh Grant pronouncing Downey’s painting as “excrement” in Restoration needs to be a gif. Just sayin’

  8. Yes, the changing of famous portraits is awful in film. What is more I think they paste photos of the actors onto the canvas then paint over them.

    I think the reason of not using the original is just a matter of image rights. As in film companies don’t want to pay royalties on the image use.

    In regards to Marie Antoinette, she had very, very, VERY agreeable painters in her employ. They definitely minimized the pronounced underbite that she despaired over.

    This young portrait of her is probably as close to life as we’ll ever see.


    I’m thinking the natural beauty people admired in her was more her flighty, breezy personality than her physical features.

    Weirdly enough, I attended grammar school with a girl who looked almost exactly that portrait. She had skin so white, you could see blue veins on her temple, platinum blond hair, huge eyes, high forehead and an Hapsburg lip. She wasn’t so much beautiful as arresting. Nature really does recycle faces.

  9. Weirdly, the miniature of Colin Firth as Darcy looks so much better than the full-lenth portrait.

  10. Hello, as an art historian and photographer this is a subject that has always interested and peeved me, so thanks for the article !

    If I remember well in “Farinelli” (seen a long time ago), there is a male portrait that is discussed rapidly, of a deceased person. It’s an actual 18th century italian painting, but as there is no actor no need for ressemblance. Later in the film another portrait of the same gentleman is shown and they seem to have taken the head from the first painting, inverted it digitally and pasted it onto another portrait. I remember this as being very obvious, but also thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea. I’ve never seen this done elsewhere…?

    My best friend was the assitant decorator for Versailles on a few early episodes, and worked on the bedroom and early Versailles set. He bought most of the digital copies of period works from the French museum resource that handles most national museums like the Louvre. They were extremely attentive to place works that were actually in Versailles at the time (these details we not handled by the director or mentioned in the script). The pictures were printed onto canvases and places in faux plaster frames. He wanted to have them varnished to look more authentic but the decorator didn’t find it necessary, and they do look pretty flat on screen.

    I don’t know about the portraits because he wasn’t on those episodes but there was a problem with a castle view, in a scene where the project is shown to the king, on an easel in a hall. The view is an actual painting of the palace ( http://tinyurl.com/j6upy5y ) in its first state, before the making of the hall of mirrors (there was a kind of large flat balcony). When the director saw the finished set a few days before filming, he wanted the painting altered to show the façade as we see it today ( thus suggesting Louis had the idea right away, which is historically false ). An assistant had to modify the picture on photoshop really quickly and they had it reprinted. These kind of last minute changes and technical problems could explain some of those very dubious-looking digitalised pictures.

  11. Eeeeeeeee I finally have something of worth to contribute!!! The Dona potrait in the 98′ version of Frenchman’s Creek is a lot better while also being actresslike. The whole thing is on Youtube!

    1. Then there’s the promo still for the Broadway production of Evita with Ms LuPone decked out for Don’t Cry for Me Argentina & a photo of Evita Peron in formal dress. They were so close as to be scary.

  12. My personal favorite is the Leonardo da Vinci style portrait of Drew Barrymore/Danielle in Ever After. I thought they caught the feel of the style without doing an exact pasting of her face over the original. I think it’s really pretty, and I always kind of wish I could get a print of it. Especially since I love that movie and that character. http://everaftercostumes.com/portrait.shtml

  13. As a professional illustrator I know that there are quite a few artists who’d be qualified to do a better job — but the problem is that the budget is just too low for better art. It is treated as an afterthought, as something the audience supposedly won’t notice. So no budget is made for the artists who’d actually be really good at it. That skill and style of painting is highly specialized, takes years to learn, so it’ll cost accordingly.

    1. I don’t even think the artists chosen were bad. But the direction and the style, and possibly the time they have to do the deed (and the fact that they have to portrait actors) doesn’t make it possible. It’s specially silly when it happens in Desperate Romantics, where they actually found actresses that looked like the models in the paintings, and where we can see Millais’ ophelia sketch in the first episode, and Holman hunt’s goat. So that Bocca Baciata of Rossetti is a bit WTF.
      In the case of Marie Antoinette and Belle, I can just imagine a producer/person in charge giving endless feedback. Could you heighten the cheekbones? could you make the nose thinner? Could you copypaste the head of the actresses and just paint on top?
      No one cares anyway!

  14. That awful portrait of Darcy! At least the miniature they show is a bit better. The first thing this post made me think of is the portrait of the two brothers in Wives & Daughters (1999), which happily someone has screenshotted:


    I’m not versed enough in art history to know how this stacks up against British portraiture of the period (1820s or 30s, I think?), but — especially given that it’s prominently shown and the supposedly excellent resemblance discussed in the film — its total unlikeness to actors Tom Hollander and Anthony Howell is really, really noticeable.

  15. you know, if the movies were REALLY interested in picturing correct period art, they could simply hire a forger to do it. they replicate masterworks and could put in kirsten Dunsts face with ease and skill AND make it look right at the same time!!!!

  16. Oh yes, the “NORTH AND SOUTH” bashing continues. It’s amazing that you can be kinder to “GONE WITH THE WIND” than the 1985-1994 miniseries trilogy.

  17. As an artist who actually does have traditional Old Master atelier training, this post made my whole damn day. There was tea spitting from laughter! (Also, I’m a little like…how do I get these gigs?! There’s a niche I need to break into haha.)

  18. Am I the only one to notice that actress Jenna Coleman (Victoria) has a right eye which is higher than the left one ?

  19. Some notes.
    I think that in “Pride and Prejudice” the portrait of Darcy is looking perfectly period although with the problem, that it’s looking old. like a old painting and as the Fashion on Darcy is exactly the same like in the Episode, it should be new! I was surprised how well they positioned him in a typical scenery and made the face looking very accurate.

    I think that the portray of Grace in “L’anglaise et le duc” is OK. There were portrays of that quality out there and the portray by Gainsborough must not be the only one of her. The painting in the film have a French touch, similar with some French miniaturists.

    There was some painters with not the fine brushwork you wanted for “Outlander”. But hey, the costume of the old guy is looking a bit shitty too (look on the waistcoat – is the waistcoat Long or short – it seems as the tailor didn’t know what he wanted to do?). Therefore the painting is perfect for the occassion. ;-)


  20. Listen I hope you won’t kill me for commenting on old post, but let me bring to your attention: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. There’s two portraits, both of which fall into the SO Not Period Appropriate – which is a shame as the film is LITERALLY ABOUT PAINTING A PORTRAIT

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