8 References to Famous Artwork in Your Favorite TV Shows

From the works of Van Gogh to Frida Kahlo, discover the iconic art featured in Euphoria, Stranger Things, Squid Games, and beyond

Inspiration is an essential part of the creative process, and the work of other artists can be a great place to find it. Some creators even showcase such influences in their own works, whether in the form of subtle decorative details or defining pieces that support a storyline.

The writers of Stranger Things, for example, are notoriously open about theirs. In this social media series, they posted a few of the many movies and TV shows that inspired the fourth season in the lead-up to its release. But what impact do these references have on the end result?

A whiteboard of movie references with “the DNA that makes up season four”. @strangerwriters, via Twitter.
A whiteboard of movie references with “the DNA that makes up season four”. @strangerwriters, via Twitter.

The importance of art in TV shows

Atlantic Studios considers set design to be an essential part of a show’s success: “In many television productions, the set design is the most important part of the concept. The overall look of the set usually gives the audience information…It creates a new world where the show exists and the presenters and actors work.”

Art is crucial to that design and, while we might not realize it, how we interpret a story both on the big and small screens.

In this post, you can explore 20 Artworks That Inspired Famous Movie Scenes, from Mad Max to Shutter Island, but there are many more in TV shows. Keep reading to explore references to famous artworks from your favorite series, along with their significance.

Discover the 8 series that feature famous works of art

1. Euphoria - Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait as a Tehuana

Euphoria has made quite a stir since it hit screens in June 2016. The hit HBO series starring Zendaya, Alexa Demie, and Sydney Sweeney follows a group of teenagers as they navigate challenges like social media, relationships, and drugs during their formative high school years. Described by The Guardian as “so explicit it makes Skins look positively Victorian”, it has earned itself a reputation for its raw portrayal of these experiences and makes reference to many famous works of art throughout its first two seasons.

One of them appears in season 2, episode 4 when Jules recreates a famous work of art by Frida Kahlo, appearing with a portrait of love interest Rue painted on her forehead.

About the work: The original piece, Kahlo’s Self Portrait as a Tehuana, was painted the year of her divorce from fellow artist and ex-husband Diego Rivera and is said to be symbolic of her inability to stop thinking about him. It goes by two other names: Diego in My Thoughts and Thinking of Diego, and presumably makes reference to the intense dynamic between Jules and Rue in the show.

Euphoria's tribute to Self Portrait as a Tehuana by Frida Khalo.
Euphoria's tribute to Self Portrait as a Tehuana by Frida Khalo. Image via HBO.

2. The Simpsons - Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans and others

Currently in its 34th season, The Simpsons needs no introduction. Matt Groening’s creation has become a household name that’s recognized around the world, celebrated for its satirical humor, recognizable catchphrases, and both subtle and blatant references to pop culture since it first aired in the 90s.

The famously elusive artist Banksy even directed the opening sequence of an episode, and there are countless references to the work of famous creatives in the show. One episode features a number of them as part of a dream Homer has after a failed attempt to build a barbecue results in him becoming a contemporary artist. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, Edvard Munch’s Scream, and Pablo Picasso’s The Three Musicians are a few of many pieces that appear as Homer takes a journey through his subconscious mind.

About the work: Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of Warhol’s most famous works. First exhibited in 1962, it’s made up of a series of almost identical painted canvases, each displaying a different flavor of soup by Campbell’s Soup Company. The inspiration behind the piece is multi-faceted but undeniably influenced by his love for the product. He famously said: “I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.”

Homer Simpson dreams of one of Andy Warhol's famous Campbell soup cans.
Homer Simpson dreams of one of Andy Warhol's famous Campbell soup cans.

3. Squid Game - Relativity by M. C Escher

This South Korean thriller is another show that got TV fans talking this year, winning multiple awards, including an Emmy for Special Visual Effects and two Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Actor and Actress.

The Netflix Original follows a group of game show contestants as they are put through their paces in a series of trials for a cash prize that could cost them their lives. In order to reach them, they journey through a complex network of staircases, reminiscent of M.C Escher’s Relativity. According to Apollo Magazine, director Hwang Dong-hyuk acknowledges the influences of the famous lithograph created in 1953. Relativity is also said to have inspired other titles including Labyrinth and Night at The Museum.

About the work: Printed in December 1953, Relativity portrays a world in which the rules of gravity as we know them, don’t apply. It’s made up of a series of prints that combine to provide multiple perspectives and, as stated in Escher's biography, is one of 448 lithographs, woodcuts, and wood engravings made by the artist.

Check out this post to discover 7 References to the Art World in Squid Game.

A scene from the South Korean Netflix series alongside the iconic artwork that inspired it.
The staircase in Squid Game inspired by M.C Escher's Relativity.

4. The Queen’s Gambit - All is Vanity, Charles Allan Gilbert

An eagle-eyed viewer shared this reference on Reddit along with the caption “Foreshadowing. Anyone else catch this?”, highlighting the undeniable resemblance to Charles Allan Gilbert’s All is Vanity. Both images depict a woman gazing at her reflection in the mirror, but Gilbert’s optical illusion also works as the outline of a scull, a fitting double entendre when you consider this is the last scene in which The Queen’s Gambit character Alma is seen alive.

The Emmy award-winning series which follows a young girl and her rise to success as a professional chess player makes several other artistic references throughout its seven episodes, from poets to fashion icons.

About the creative: All is Vanity is one of many optical illusions Charles Allan Gilbert created throughout his career but his body of work extended beyond tricks of the eye. The American artist illustrated books, was published in leading publications including Harper’s and Atlantic, and even worked on early animated films.

This moment from The Queen's Gambit mirrors All is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert.
This scene from The Queen's Gambit mirrors All is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert. @IdontneedtoBonreddit via Reddit.

5. Money Heist - Salvador Dalí

Money Heist (or La Casa De Papel in Spanish), became one of the most popular shows on Netflix following its release in 2017. Owing to its global success, its visual identity is one that is now recognized internationally, with red jumpsuits and masks of famous Spanish artist Salvador Dalí appearing on everything from face masks to phone cases.

While the focus is on the artist himself as opposed to any of his works in particular, Dalí has become synonymous with the series that sees a group of robbers, led by the man behind the plan, El Profesor, take the Bank of Spain hostage.

About the work: The choice of Dalí was no coincidence. Known for his rebellious nature and contribution to the surrealist movement, which changed the expectations of traditional art, he is representative of the resistance that guides the show’s protagonists to challenge the system and the rules it’s governed by.

The Money Heist mask inspired by surrealist Artist Salvador Dalí.
Artist Salvador Dalí inspired the infamous masks that feature in Money Heist. Image via Netflix.

6. Dark - Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Another non-English show that has captured the attention of viewers worldwide is Dark. When a child goes missing, four different families make it their mission to find out why, discovering a supernatural mystery that connects multiple generations in the process.

Like many of the shows on this list, the German series, which is also available to watch on Netflix, makes reference to more than one recognizable piece of art, including Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve.

Daily Art Magazine reflects on why this piece appears in the third season: “In Dark, both Adam and Eve commit terrible acts in order to get what they want, but they also sacrifice themselves so that the good can finally win. The fact that in the painting they both hold the apple could symbolize the dualism of their fault, of their battle, and of their final sacrifice.”

About the work: An important artist of the German Renaissance, Cranach was recognized for his portraiture and painted multiple versions of the biblical duo, as well as other illustrations linked to the Reformation. His work is displayed in galleries around the world, and this particular piece in Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Lucas Cranach painted many versions of Adam and Eve, including this one that featured in Dark.
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted many versions of Adam and Eve, including this one that featured in Dark.

7. Friends - various works by Burton Morris

Despite airing in 1994, Friends remains one of the most popular shows on TV. Its relatable yet comedic storylines make it a firm favorite with people of all ages, and it’s also had a huge impact on pop culture, with Jennifer Aniston’s iconic hairstyle, known as “The Rachel”, being just one of the ways fans have incorporated the show into their lives off-screen.

Central Perk, the cast’s go-to coffee shop, is the backdrop for many episodes thoughts its 10 seasons and is another defining part of the show. A closer look at its decoration reveals artwork by various artists, but none featured more frequently than that of Burton Morris.

About the creative: Known for his pop-style art, Morris has worked on commissions for brands including Chanel, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola. You can see pieces inspired by the artwork that featured in all 10 seasons of the show as part of an exhibition by Taglialatella Galleries.

Burton Morris, the artist who created much of the artwork featured in Friends.
Burton Morris is the artist behind many of the pieces decorate the walls of Central Perk.

8. The Crown - Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland

The artwork featured in The Crown has more than a decorative purpose; at times it’s used to recreate historic events, like this example from season 1, episode 9. As part of the series, which follows the British monarchy through decades of history, painter Graham Sutherland is depicted capturing former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a portrait that became famous for its poor reception.

About the work: Art critic, Alexandra Peers, speaks to aspire design and home magazine about the infamous work of art and why it was so poorly received: “There’s painter Graham Sutherland and his highly unflattering, almost decaying, portrait of Winston Churchill. It was arguably dead-on, according to some critics (both of art, and of Churchill), but so hated by his family that his wife burned it.”

Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill.
Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill was famously received badly by his family.

Did you recognize these art references? If you want to learn how to draw, paint, or print iconic artwork of your own, check out Domestika's online courses in design and illustration, and learn alongside industry-leading creatives.

Let us know your favorite artistic reference from this list in the comments below.

Get inspired with more resources on art and cinema:

1. Photography and Set Design for Creative Visual Worlds: learn to develop creative visual concepts and transform them into set designs in this course.

2. From Van Gogh to Jean-Michel Basquiat, check out these 7 Beautiful Films on Great Artists.

3. Discover the artistic influences behind Rosalía's album, Motomami: 10 of Rosalía’s References to the Art World.


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