Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reel Connections: The Miss Piggy Portrait in "The Muppets"

I discovered a John Singer Sargent connection quite by accident the other day. I was a really big fan of The Muppets (2011), starring Jason Segal, Amy Adams, and all my favorite Muppets. My love of the film came from my love of the Muppets, which came from my mom, who made my sibs and I watch all the classic Muppet movies. Truth be told, after Disney, the Muppets probably introduced my earliest love of film.
Miss Piggy as Mrs Hugh Hammersley 
by Peter Savieri 
When I watched that fantastic little film, besides feeling really great about life, I was struck by the one scene. Kermit, contemplating a return, goes into his... portrait gallery... and begins reminiscing about his old entertaining days. He's full of regrets about the "pictures in his head" and as he views old paintings of his old friends, he recalls the great times with them. As he's remembering/singing, the paintings come to life, and the sitters become "real" and join him in song. It's a song that's very sweet and very sad, but certainly very excellent.
The Muppets (2011)
Towards the end of the song, as Kermit slowly and sadly finishes, he lifts a sheet covering one painting, very briefly. The audience gets a quick glance of the painting: it's a gorgeous portrait of Miss Piggy, decked out in red, looking stunning as always. And then the scene comes to a very melancholy close. Wonderful!
"Pictures in my Head"
The Muppets (2011)
Besides being just another instance of the wide versatility of the Muppets, it's a scene that's full of paintings: made for the Art of Film! So I began doing a little research about the paintings in the film and I was delighted by my findings. Before I continue, I'm including the link to my source, written by the artist himself, available on one of the best Muppets sites: Tough Pigs: http://www.toughpigs.com/savieri-muppets/. If you're interested in the Muppets, the movie, or, in particular, the artistic process: check out the article.
Scene of the Miss Piggy painting from the film 
First of all, only the painting of Miss Piggy is a "real" painting. The other portraits must have been created digitally. According to the artist, Peter Savieri, originally all the paintings were intended to be painted the "old fashioned way" but for some reason, probably budget constraints, they decided that they just wanted the Miss Piggy portrait to be the real deal (only the best for Piggy of course).
Mrs Hugh Hammersley
John Singer Sargent (1892)
According to Savieri, the filmmakers had one portrait in mind for their "Piggy Portrait." And this is the Sargent connection: because the painting they were so enthused over was Sargent's Mrs Hugh Hammersley, a lovely portrait from 1892, currently residing in the Met. It's a gorgeous painting, typical of Sargent's style at the time. His sitter is portrayed gorgeous, wealthy, and very much alive. It's fashionable portraits like these that made Sargent so fabulously popular.

Savieri, who also was influential in helping redesign Piggy's character a little bit, was absolutely thrilled to be commissioned to do the painting. He loved the designer's Sargent inspiration, and he obviously borrowed heavily from the master of portraits for his own. Obviously, the red palette was used, as was Piggy's position. What struck me most, though, was Piggy's gaze. In Sargent's portrait, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley has this slightly aloof look and she holds her head back in almost an act of alluring defiance. Piggy shares these same characteristics, which just so conveniently, fit perfectly into her character.
Maybe it was just me, but the defiance I perceived from the portrait reminded me of the famed Scarlett portrait in Gone with the Wind. The sitters are certainly somewhat similar: defiant, independent, vain women, so its certainly not too much of a stretch. Perhaps it's Kermit's connection to the painting that reminded me of this as well. Recall, that portraits of beautiful women often represent feelings of strong, but absent love. In Rhett's case, the absence came from Scarlett's cold personality, but Kermit's separation from Piggy was physical. Remember, paintings have a strong but limited emotional context, so these repeated motifs: love, ghostly presence, etc: are easily found in all films: even one as seemingly simple to understand as The Muppets. Maybe my Scarlett connection was simpler: at first viewing, Piggy's sumptous red dress reminded my of Scarlett's infamous scarlet dress at Melly's party. Either way, I had a GWTW connection.
I just had to include a picture from the Devil Wears Prada parody from The Muppets
which was one of my favorite scenes from the film. 
Savieri wrote that he is a huge Muppets fan, and according to his article, he felt like he was giving back to the Muppets, who had given him so much in his childhood. As a fellow Muppets fan, not only do I envy his first hand experience in working with that great film, but I'm so impressed by the quality of his work (according to him, it took less than a week). His passion for the Muppets shines through and its a fitting and beautiful tribute to the Muppet's tradition of parody and homage. I'm sure even Miss Piggy would approve of her own-screen, portrait treatment.

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