The House of Art in “House of Cards”

[Spoiler alert: This post mentions a couple of plot points in House of Cards.]

Whenever a TV or film scene is set in a museum, Art Historians are likely to jolt to attention. It’s a Pavlovian response: the art bell rings and we salivate.

And so it was recently while I was watching Netflix’s much-ballyhooed House of Cards, a series whose art-historical resonances began with its promotional material. Picture an enthroned Kevin Spacey posing in the manner of Abraham Lincoln. But–spot the differences!–this wannabe president is actually Frank Underwood, a congressman and the House majority whip, and he has blood streaming down from his guilty hands. They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Daniel Chester French, Abraham Lincoln (from the Lincoln Memorial), 1920.

As the series progresses, Frank, who is married, develops a professional and sexual relationship with a political reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and strategically leaks information to her. They develop the habit of arranging assignations around Washington D.C., and two of these take place in the west building of the National Gallery. (Film buffs may recall how effectively Hitchcock used the same location in his Strangers on a Train.)

Guy and Anne in the National Gallery, from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

In the National Gallery, Frank and Zoe are, we are supposed to believe, hidden in plain sight: two apparent strangers who happen to be sitting on the same bench and looking at the same painting at the same time, or pretending to look. To the audience, the work is visible only at the beginning of each scene, in an establishing shot, and at the end, in a series of close-ups. The editing of these close-ups indicates that the painting is being looked at by one or both characters.

In episode one of the series, the painting in question is Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872).

House of Cards, episode one, around 42 minutes in. Zoe and Frank in front of Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing.

And in episode nine, the work is Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). Notably, both paintings are nineteenth-century paintings by American artists. We might also add that they are both (broadly speaking) realist artists with strong connections to Paris and Philadelphia.

House of Cards, episode 9, around 17 minutes in. Frank and Zoe in front of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

The two scenes balance each other nicely. The first occurs near the beginning of Frank and Zoe’s relationship: the second towards its end. In the first, Frank sits to the right of the bench and Zoe to the left; in the second, it’s the other way around. In the earlier scene, we find Frank waiting at the gallery bench for Zoe and, after their conversation, he gets up to leave first; in the later scene, the reverse occurs: Zoe waits for Frank and is first to leave. But it is Frank who gets the last words in both scenes, and since these words elaborate on the imagery of the paintings, he comes across as the more engaged viewer.

Watching the House of Cards prompted me to come to three broad conclusions about what tends to work, or not work, in these sorts of museum scenes. Here they are.

1. From an art-historical perspective, films or TV programs get brownie points for recognizing that particular objects are associated with particular locations.
I will immediately add that I don’t hold it against, say, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair for playing fast and loose with which objects can be found in the Met. Still, as I watch such a film, a voice in my brain (let’s call it the voice of the inner art history pendant) will always be interfering with my valiant attempt to suspend disbelief. “But,” the voice will hector me, “Cézanne’s Lac d’Annecy hangs in the Courtauld Institute, not the Met!” And I love Kurosawa’s Dreams, and recognize that the director’s dream logic gives not a fig for the practicalities of the museum world. Still, the voice of the art history pedant inevitably interrupts the beginning of the “Crows” section of the film, and asks unreasonably: “just when were all those Van Goghs hanging together on the same wall? Never!”

Gallery scene from the “Crows” section of Kurosawa’s Dreams (around 1 hr 4 mins.)

Conversely, I appreciate–even overvalue–films that respect the bond between a location and its artworks. Consider the way John Hughes allowed Ferris Bueller to see some of The Art Institute’s finest artworks during his day off, and how the objects add to the specificity of this Chicago film.

Similarly, since the Eakins and Cassatt works are indeed to be found in the National Gallery, I give credit to The House of Cards for its choices. The paintings help to create a plausible D.C. setting, particularly for those viewers with memories of looking at the paintings in the National Gallery. Even so, the scene’s staging is a little forced. How often is such a major gallery so deserted? Or paintings isolated in this manner? Why the strangely archaic lighting system? Is this even the gallery itself or, as I suspect, another location doubling for it? (The National Gallery is not thanked, or even mentioned, in the credits.)

2. Directors: If you’re going to draw attention to an artwork, it’s a good idea to forge connections between it and other aspects of the film.
With the paintings’ dominant blues hues, and the steely greys of the museum spaces, the gallery scenes fit in well with the chilly palettes beloved by the cinematographer of the House of Cards. But beyond these aesthetic commonalities, Frank’s dialogue serves to focus our attention on broader links between the paintings and elements of the dramatic situation.

Before their first meeting at the National Gallery, Frank calls Zoe to establish their meeting spot and, we might reasonably assume, did so by naming the gallery and the Eakins painting. (“Meet me by the Biglin Brothers!”) Did he even choose that painting partly in order to send a message to his companion? Perhaps. After giving Zoe an important document in the gallery, his parting remarks draw on the work’s imagery and, if we choose to believe him, seem to indicate his prior acquaintance with the work. “I just love this painting, don’t you? We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Take care not to tip it over. I can only save one of us from drowning.”

“We’re in the same boat now, Zoe.”

By contrast, the second gallery meeting is called by Zoe, who proceeds to inform Frank that their sexual relationship is over, even while she attempts to continue their professional association. Did Zoe choose the Cassatt painting for their rendezvous in order to make a point about female achievement and creativity? Or, if we focus on the subject matter rather than the maker, was it to stress her youthfulness? (They are not brothers in the same boat; rather Zoe is young enough to be Frank’s daughter.)

Whether or not this was her intention, it certainly becomes the drift of Frank’s thoughts when, after Zoe has departed, he looks at the painting and treats us to this sour monologue: “She was never more than a faint blip on my radar. We’ve served each other’s purpose. She wants to be an adult. Let us see how she can fly when she leaves the nest.” As far as Frank is concerned, Zoe, like the girl in the painting, is on her own now. Or, put more positively, by suggesting an affinity connection between Zoe and the girl, the painting seems to comment on Zoe’s willful and youthful independence.

“Let us see how she can fly when she leaves the nest.”

Frank’s words sound as though they come from a tough father as much as an embittered lover. But he is no father. He and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), have not had children together, a fact that Claire increasingly regrets. The Cassatt painting, in other words, also makes visible an important absence in their lives. The image conjures up not just the kind of child that they might have had, but the kind of comfortable, sprawling domesticity that a child might bring. In this respect, the interior scene offers a sharp contrast to the stark domestic spaces of Claire and Frank’s own townhouse.

Claire also becomes implicated in the first gallery scene–at least retrospectively.  She buys Frank a rowing machine, as though she has somehow intuited what happened in the gallery and would rather direct her husband towards a boat for one, not a berth for two. Besides, she tells him, he needs to work out. Frank resists at first, but, by the end of the second episode, is dutifully rowing hard but going nowhere–a bit like a Biglin brother.

Franks rows, Claire watches (screen left). House of Cards, episode two.

3. Gallery scenes + drama: how obvious is too obvious?
The appearance of the rowing machine indicates how House of Cards risks seeming overly arch and artificial. It’s easy to push too hard on these connections between artworks and other dramatic elements. House of Cards can get away with more of this than is usual. As Frank’s direct addresses to the camera remind us, the series embraces a generous amount of stylistic artificiality. So, in terms of image selection, where might the limit lie? Is there a painting that would be too obvious to include?

It was probably wise not to show an actual image of a house of cards in House of Cards, even though it just so happens that the National Gallery possesses an extremely good painting of this subject. It is by Chardin, who made several other versions of the theme.

Chardin, House of Cards, 1737(?), National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

In general, it is surely better to keep an image of the governing metaphor of your series safely off screen or, if you prefer, hidden up your sleeve. (What if the characters should become aware of it?!)  And I imagine that the makers of House of Cards will only consider playing this card, will only consider including this painting in a scene, near the conclusion of their story.

It will be played, if at all, at the end of some future series, when Frank has built his political empire up to its maximum height. And at that point, his house of cards will either stand or fall.