Sunday, December 16, 2012

Psycho Painting

I just saw a great new movie and I would recommend it to anyone who loves movies. It’s the Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren film, Hitchock, about the making of the Hitchcock classic, Psycho. In honor of the movie, I’ll take a painting from Psycho to analyze.
Susannah and Her Elders

Psycho is one of those movies that non-Hitchcock, non-classics, people either have seen or at least know of. Just mention “the shower scene” and most people even know the iconic screeching music. I hate horror movies- but I love and hate Psycho because it’s creepy but it’s so well done that it’s hard not to admire the mastery of the piece Besides, Psycho’s influence is lasting upon American cinema for reasons too numerous to explain.

The House By the Railroad
Now, like most Hitchcock films, the piece is artfully arranged. It’s a fairly common fact that this famous Hopper painting, The House by the Railroad, was inspiration for the creepily infamous Bates Home. But while, scene by scene, one could argue that each of Hitchcock’s sets are artistically deserving of merit, there is art within the piece that deserves analyzing.

In the movie, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), have this private supper in Norman’s parlor off the motel office. The conversation that ensues plays a very important part. For one, after this little talk in “the parlor,” Marion resolves to return to embezzled money that led her to the Bates Motel. This restores faith in Marion’s goodness and therefore makes her impending murder all the more tragic, as it is much more impressive to the audience when a good person is needlessly killed, opposed to a criminal. Also, the conversation establishes the fact that Norman’s “mother” has issues, and that Norman himself, has a darker side, one not seen in his introductory scene. In the next scene, our artwork is revealed, and our assumptions about Norman are proven.
Norman Bates

So, Norman remains in the parlor as Marion prepares to shower. He lifts his painting, which hides a peephole. He proceeds to watch Marion undress and go into the shower with a childish and sickening delight. While the acts of peeping toms are considered distasteful and disgusting today; in 1960, when the film was released, it would have established Norman as a full-fledged pervert. But what you, and the audience, fails to recognize, is that Hitchcock established this trait before the scene takes place.

Norman Bates
If you look at the picture, it’s a painting of a young woman being raped by a couple of old men. The painting itself is disputed by historians, but TCM, establishes it as a portrayal of the biblical story of “Susannah and the Elders,” a sordid little tale about two old peeping toms who spy on a young woman having a bath, try to blackmail her, and then rape her. In the Bible, it is essentially a story of male sexual aggression and the evil that exists in all-even the elders, or the seemingly sensitive Norman Bates.

Hitchcock himself identified the piece as important to the plot. During the famous trailer, where he leads cameras around the set building suspense, he enters the parlor. He turns to the painting and say, in that famous Hitchcock voice, “By the way- this painting has great significance because…” and in typical Hitchcock fashion, leaves the viewer in suspense. But Hitch knew what he was talking about. The piece confirms what the scene establishes. One of the themes of film is dangers and evils of perversions, and this piece, and the fact that it hangs in Norman’s favorite room, is telling. This piece is a classic instance of painting expressing repressed emotions and characteristics of a main character. In Psycho, these characteristics are certainly, not to the character’s favor.
Hitchcock Trailer

For the painting, I could not find the original. It is possible Hitchcock found either a non-famous piece or commissioned one, but I could find evidence to prove nothing. The piece, itself, is done multiple times throughout history and was a special favorite to many Baroque artists. I could put any piece here, and you’d see the basic similarities, but frankly, it’s unnecessary. The fact that you understand the background and story of the piece means you understand how it shows characteristics and how important it is to the plot. 


  1. This is Mrs. Broden's daughter, Melissa. I am also an art teacher and painter and just needed to tell you that this blog is very impressive. Some day I'll be reading your criticism in ArtNews or Art in America. I hope she's giving you an A!

  2. The painting which covers the peephole is one of the versions of The Rape of Lecrece (Lucrezia Borgia), the most famous one being that of Titian

    1. Kedar-thank you for your comment. From the research I conducted- about half of the sources said it was the Rape of Lucretia, not the Rape of Susannah. However, Lucretia refers to a legendary ancient Roman heroine who was raped by a king's son- not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. I chose to go with TCM's source, because usually, their research is the most accurate- but hey- I'm not sure.

      While you may very well be correct- the point of the painting is that it is a rape of an innocent, if not honorable woman who was taken advantage of by an evil man- a foreshadowing of the events in the movie. Such a painting also introduces Norman as a possible pervert who hangs such sexually-aggressive paintings in his "parlor."

      I hope you continue reading the blog and if you have any suggestions for future posts- let me know!

    2. Kedar: if you look carefully at the jpeg you offered it depicts a woman fending off a man holding a knife while the painting in the parlour room actually has a woman surrounded by two men. Lucrece was raped by one man named Tarquin so a rendition of two men attempting to rape her in the woods doesn't make sense. And Lucrece was raped in her sanctity of bedroom not in the woods. Hitchcock confirmed in an interview that the painting as a rendition of Susannah and the Elders.

  3. The painting IS "Susanna and the Elders", painted bv Frans Van Mieris the Elder.

  4. The best online discussion of the painting I've found is here:


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