Feature Archive
Missing the Picture: Desperate Housewives Do Art History

By Joseph Phelan
There are from time to time films and television programs which merit mention in this column for their adroit use of works or imagery drawn from the history of art . Many people may be missing the picture and so we decided to start a new feature which nails down the work, its author and its source letting you learn more about some of the greatest works of art ever created.

Desperate Housewives (ABC, Sunday, 9PM EST) the biggest hit of the current television season has many creative assets not the least of which is its excellent ensemble of actors and clever scripts. But it is above all in its opening title, an animated sequence of delicious images chosen from the history of art to illustrate the extremes of anxiety that wives have been driven to by their husbands that this series grazes perfection.

Quiz: Watch the animation here (which you can stop and replay) and try to identify the works or their authors. Answers are given below.

Answers: Here are the titles of the major works used, their artists, and where you can find the image and information about the work online.

1. Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). Especially the version at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Note: Cranach was the court painter to the Elector of Saxony, who in turn was the protector of Martin Luther. Thus he has been called the chief artist of the Protestant Reformation. This weighty obligation did not prevent him from depicting some of the most personal and seductive nudes in the history of art.

2. Egyptian wall paintings: Combination of three Egyptian wall relief images of woman and children. Image from Corbis.

3. The Arnolfini Portrait (The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami), by Jan van Eyck. National Gallery, London.
Note: Most viewers initially think the wife is pregnant, but Northern Renaisance scholars tells us she is holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion. The Latin inscription on the back wall of the room which reads "Jan Van Eyck was here/ 1434" was interpreted as the artist's witness to the marriage.

4. American Gothic, by Grant Wood. Art Institute of Chicago.
Note: Whether Wood intended to celebrate the ordinary virtues of American rural life or send it up, this work has come to be the most iconic of all images of man and wife. According to Wood scholars, the painter's models were his sister and his dentist.

5. World War II "I am Proud" poster, artist unknown. Image from Corbis.

6. Campbell's Soup Can, by Andy Warhol. One can see that the word "Campbell's" is omitted from the can in the animation; thus this is a nod to Warhol, but not a reproduction of his actual work.

7. Couple Arguing and Romantic Couple, by Robert Dale. Image from Corbis.
Note: Even those readers who have studied art history may be forgiven thinking these are by Roy Lichtenstein rather than Robert Dale. Who is Robert Dale?

The title sequence was created by the company yU+co. You can read an article about its creative team and download the animation at

Artcyclopedia entries for artists mentioned in the text:


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