I’m really proud of the following paragraph from my Scorsese 15 page Final Paper:
“There is a good argument to be made for how the reader/viewer never really gets a clear understanding of who Ellen is because all that we see of her is mediated through Newland’s point of view who, as an aesthete, has a view of Ellen that is very much romanticized and mediated through the art he loves and fetishizes. This is seen in how almost all of his major meetings with Ellen is preceded or followed by an art form of some sort that informs his manner of interaction with her. He is in attendance at Gounod’s Faust during the daisy scene when he is reintroduced to Ellen for the first time. The next time he sees her at Mrs. Mingott’s is preceded by a shot of The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn. In Ellen’s house, decorating her drawing room is a painting of a woman with a parasol but no face from the pre-Impressionist Macchiaioli School of Italian painters (Scorsese 189). Their sorrowful parting after he convinces her not to divorce the Count is followed by a highly melodramatic scene, also about departure, from Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun (1874), which he then rewrites in a wish-fulfilment fantasy at the Patroon house at Skuytercliff. In his final meeting with Ellen before his marriage, hanging over the fireplace is a Fernand Khnopff painting called The Sphinx or The Caresses (1896). At the Mingott house in Newport, right before he is asked to call Ellen from the shore path is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema titled Expectations (1885). And finally at the Louvre, 26 years later, Newland is appreciating Peter Paul Rubens’ Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624), which contains a complex blend of an allegory of the times and mythological elements (Adeline), when he comes to the realization that Ellen had become to him ‘an imaginary loved one in a book or picture,’ ‘the complete vision of all that he had missed,’ more ‘abstract’ than real.”
Here’s a break down of some of the paintings in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993):
Title: The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn
Significance: Newland sees Ellen as a captive of the aristocratic tribe in New York
Title: Signora seduta all’aperto by Giovanni Fattori
Significance: Ellen’s motivations remain inscrutable to the end of the film. The figure in the painting has no face because she doesn’t let you see it? Or is it a matter of the blankness inviting the viewer to impose/imagine an expression in that blank space?
Title: The Sphinx or The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff (1896)
Significance: Ellen is a sphinx that Newland can’t understand. She is a female mystery, and enigma. But she is also threatening as in the original oedipal myth. She is also a myth and an unreal conception of the male imagination (Newland’s). The painting is also called The Caresses and this is also the scene where Newland and Ellen share that odd embrace:
Title: Expectations (1885) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Significance: this is the painting Newland sees right before he goes to fetch Ellen from the shore path. Ellen is posed the way the woman is posed in this painting with both of them looking out to sea in anticipation of something. This casts Ellen in the position of art object to Newland’s subject position. The title of the painting is also ambiguous. It is unclear whether the woman is expecting to see something or whether we are expecting her to see something? Sort of like how Newland expected Ellen to turn around while she simultaneously expected him to come to her. So it’s a matter of who’s doing the expecting and whose point of view is privileged that becomes important.
Title: Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624) by Peter Paul Rubens
Significance: the painting contains both allegorical and mythical elements making it a blend of both history and fiction. The allegorical element in the painting refers to how the woman on the right in the throne is supposed to be Marie de Medici who had to assume the throne after the assassination of Henri IV (Louvre). The point being that this painting is a blend of both historical fact and myth just like how Ellen had become to Newland – “Whenever he thought of Ellen Olenska, it had been abstractly, serenely, like an imaginary loved one in a book or picture. She had become the complete vision of all that he had missed.”
To find out more about the other paintings in The Age of Innocence and in other movies, checkout the following website: Paintings in Movies