Ever Wonder How Art Gets on TV? Here’s How Masterpieces Earned Cameos on Six Shows, From ‘Succession’ to ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

Somebody get these artworks their own IMDB pages.

Kerry Washington as Mia Warren, an art photographer with a complicated past.
Kerry Washington stars as Mia Warren, an art photographer with a complicated past in Little Fires Everywhere.

Are there more rich people on TV nowadays or is the depiction of their lifestyle just getting more accurate? During recent at-home streaming marathons, we couldn’t help but notice a generous helping of art on some of our favorite shows—and not just Picasso knock-offs, but works that appear to be the real thing. A Basquiat here, a Matisse there. 

How did they get there? It turns out their presence is the result of extended negotiation—and often, painstaking reproduction. 

“Yes, they’re ‘real’ artworks you’re seeing—we license the images to many shows. Replicas of the works are created to very specific detail,” explained Katarina Feder, vice president and director of business development of the visual arts copyright organization Artists Rights Society. In order to keep fraudulent works from appearing on the market or making their way around the web, the organization requires the production to destroy the reproductions or return them once filming is over.

Only in rare instances do the real works appear on screen. “Most of the time, I like to make official reproductions as we will need them for an extended length of time, but I do use originals sometimes for short shots,” explained celebrated set designer Fanny Pereire, who has worked on shows from Billions to the recent hit Mrs. America. “Often, sculptures are borrowed as they are harder to reproduce, but with the progress of 3D printing it will become easier.” 

Check out six art-filled shows currently streaming and get ready to play “Where’s Warhol?” next time you fire up the cue.

Billions (Showtime)

Basquiat's Blue Nile in the hallways of Axe Capital.

Basquiat’s nearly 12-foot-long Nile in the hallways of Axe Capital.

What It’s About: This dizzyingly fast-paced show chronicles the ongoing battle between a tenacious US Attorney (played by Paul Giamatti) and a hotshot hedge-fund tycoon, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis).

Real-Life Creative Spark: The central plot is loosely based on former US Attorney for Southern New York Preet Bharara’s dogged investigative pursuit of SAC Capital and Point72 founder Steve Cohen. In real life, Cohen is an avid art collector who owns major works by Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Jeff Koons—so it’s unsurprising that “Axe” has an eye for art as well. 

Art Appearances: The cameos start in the very first episode as we’re introduced to Axe Capital’s headquarters, whose walls are lined with massive, bold artworks that attest to the founder’s own brash persona. Through the seasons, works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pat Steir, Frank Stella, and Yves Klein come across the screen. Producers say the choice of artworks is anything but arbitrary. When the mood turns from bullish to bleak in the second season, the art takes on a more subdued tone, too. “My reference for the second season was World War II bunkers, feeling like he is shut down emotionally, so we went more with photography… things that are more industrial and cold,” Michael Shaw, the show’s production designer, told Artnet News in 2017.

Keep an Eye Out For: A large Robert Motherwell “Elegy” painting that adorns Axelrod’s Manhattan penthouse.

 

Succession (HBO)

Succession promo image with Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Tiger Hunt serves as the background for the Season 1 promotional image for Succession.

What It’s About: An addictively watchable show about the Roy family, a ruthless Murdoch-style media dynasty who spend their days sabotaging one another on the Upper East Side. The unlikable family has cultural ambitions and often tries to parlay their wealth into all manner of stunts. Never forget when Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the bumbling likely heir to the media empire, takes a meeting with a fine-art start-up to hype the democratization of art while wearing a pair of freshly purchased Lanvin sneakers. 

Art Appearances: The first season’s publicity photos picture patriarch Logan Roy, tycoon of Waystar Royco, and his four duplicitous children in front of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Tiger Hunt (1615–17). (The painting never materialized in the show itself.) The publicity shot for season 2 followed up on the trend with William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil (1850), borrowed from the collection of the Musee D’Orsay.

Keep an Eye Out For: An Isamu Noguchi Cube in Season 1, Episode 7. 

 

Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu) 

Cindy Sherman's Untitled #92 (1981) appears in an episode of Little Fires Everywhere. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #92 (1981) appears in an episode of Little Fires Everywhere. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

What It’s About: Worlds collide in picturesque Shaker Heights, Ohio, when a single-mother artist Mia Warren (played by Kerry Washington) and her daughter move to town and upend the cookie-cutter life of the Richardson family, led by matriarch Elena Richardson (played by Reese Witherspoon).

Art Appearances: Art underpins much of Mia’s complex persona and backstory. One of her photographs hanging in her apartment draws lots of attention from the Richardsons for it’s enigmatic, slightly menacing nature. We don’t want to give anything away, but photography plays an increasingly pivotal role as the story comes to a head. One plot point involves Sotheby’s, a New York Times article, and a conversation between Mia and her gallerist in which the latter tenderly reminds the artist that a buyer has the right to publicize a purchase. 

Keep an Eye Out For: One of Cindy Sherman’s striking photographs from her “Centerfolds” series which is projected as a slide in a flashback to Mia’s art-school days, when her professor Pauline encourages her students to discover what is “repulsive, terrifying, and uncanny” about themselves. 

 

Mrs. America (Hulu)

Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) at launch for Ms. Magazine at the Guggenheim. Courtesy of Mrs. America

Ms. Magazine at the Guggenheim. Courtesy of Mrs. America

What It’s AboutThis riveting miniseries focuses on the stories of the women behind the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and stars Cate Blanchett as the delightfully dangerous Phyllis Schlafly—the woman who led a conservative backlash against the feminist movement. 

Art Party: Watch out for Gloria Steinem’s trip to an opening at the Guggenheim Museum for the launch party of Ms. magazine. 

Behind the Scenes: The filmmakers were allotted just three hours to shoot the sequence at the Guggenheim and rushed to replace the contemporary signs with period graphics and artworks. “Shooting inside the Guggenheim, with its own art collection, was a surreal treat,” Pereire told Artnet News. “The task was to get clearance from all the artworks created before 1972 which is when the scene takes place.” Her team also created Guggenheim period posters with Mondrian artworks from the collection, which they posted on site to conceal other anachronisms.

Keep an Eye Out For: Those with a keen eye for Guggenheim exhibition history will notice that Lawrence Weiner’s wall drawing To the Sea/ From the Sea/ Bordering the Sea/ At the Sea/On the Sea, from the museum’s 2019 “Artistic License” show, is visible. But rest assured, it’s chronologically plausible: the 1970 work predates the launch of the magazine (even if it might not have been in the museum at the time).

 

Genius: Picasso (Hulu)

Pablo Picasso, Femme Assise Robe Bleue (1939). Courtesy of National Geographic.

Pablo Picasso’s Femme Assise Robe Bleue (1939) on the set of Genius. Courtesy of National Geographic.

What It’s About: The second season of Genius focuses on the life of that temperamental 5’ 3” Spaniard, Pablo Picasso. With the leading man played by Antonio Banderas, the show traces the tribulations and triumphs of the artist, from a young man discovering his talents to his later-in-life worldwide celebrity.

Art Plotline: You’re right to assume you’ll see a lot of Picasso’s own works (one episode is devoted to the creation of Guernica). But there are a lot of other artists’ works to marvel at, too—including the colorful creations of Picasso’s close friend Henri Matisse and the dreamily surreal works of Henri Rousseau.

Keep an Eye Out For: The pivotal scene when Picasso finds inspiration in the African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris and creates Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as his first encounter with the paintings of Matisse, which he calls “all wrong” and yet “magnificent.”

Leading Ladies: Dora, Olga, Marie-Thérèse, Francoise—all the women of the philandering artist’s life take the stage, and often steal the show in this campy miniseries.

 

I Am The Night (Hulu)

Journalist Jay TK has a horrifying realization while looking at some Surrealist Masterpieces.

Journalist Jay Singletary has a horrifying realization while looking at some Surrealist Masterpieces. Courtesy of TNT.

What It’s AboutThe six-episode miniseries is based on the real-life story of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), a young girl who was given up by her birth mother and sets out to retrace her past. In the process, she winds up following the trail of the infamous Black Dahlia slaying of an aspiring actress in 1947 Los Angeles. 

Macabre Masterpiece: Dr. George Hodel, a gynecologist with a twisted mind, finds morbid inspirations in the work of the Surrealists… need we say more? (Disturbingly, the real George Hodel was friendly with Man Ray in the 1940s.) 

The Art of Enlightenment: Journalist Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) has an “aha!” moment about the case while wandering through a museum.

Keep an Eye Out For: German Surrealist Max Ernst’s painting Celebes (1921), which appears hanging in the museum’s gallery. (In real life, it’s owned by the Tate.)


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