Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Midge Portrait in "Vertigo:" The Parody of Carlotta

One of the first subjects I ever wrote about was Vertigo's Carlotta portrait. And why not? For me, the Portrait of Carlotta epitomizes the importance and weight that art in film can hold. It was my beautiful, mysterious summary of the "Art in Film" theory. I love this portrait- I truly do. So, in a way, I'm returning to it, almost a year after I first wrote about it. Specifically, I want to talk about the Carlotta-inspired portrait that Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) paints. For reference, I'll call it the "Midge Portrait." If you are looking for my Carlotta update, scroll down to the next paragraph.
Before, I talk about the Midge Portrait, I want to return once again to the Carlotta Portrait. As I wrote in my original post, Carlotta represents a lot of thematic factors of Vertigo. It becomes the embodiment of the ghosts of Carlotta and (later) Madeline. It represents the mysterious, but beautiful. It represents the object of love and desire and (more importantly) obsession. Madeline's obsession with the picture is the first clue of the supernatural element of the story, the first hint of the creepiness that lies in store: the matching hair, flowers, posture. The famous nightmare sequence forcefully establishes the importance of the portrait when Carlotta haunts Scottie in his sleep.
When I first wrote about Vertigo, I claimed that John Ferren, a frequent Hitchcock collaborator and Abstract Expressionist artist, painted the final Carlotta portrait. I am certain that Ferren is the artist of the Carlotta portrait, not only because of my knowledge of his relationship with Hitchcock but because it has been confirmed by a number of sources, including two separate interviews with Howard Coleman and Dan Aulier, respectively (see sources). Strangely enough Italian artist, Manlio Sarra, is credited in studio records for painting the portrait and, indeed, was commissioned by Hitchcock to paint the portrait. Piecing together a number of conflicting and overlapping stories, I believe that Sarra was originally commissioned to paint the Carlotta portrait when Vera Miles was still the supposed star. I am guessing that his portrait was both unsatisfactory to Hitch and out-of-date once Kim Novak replaced Miles. Carlotta is, after all, a reflection of Madeline's character. Like I said, I cannot be sure this is what happened, but this is my best explanation for why there are multiple sources for the Carlotta portrait. Apparently it was quite a mess getting settled and there were a lot of Carlotta portraits floating around in 1957, yet it seems that today, we can't find one of them. Check my sources for more information.
One painting that was found (but subsequently lost again, as far as I know) is the Midge Portrait. Midge is one of the tragically, thrown-aside girls in cinema. She and Scottie obviously had a past, but now they are caught in that terrible awkward friend-zone. Midge obviously loves Scottie and the feelings are certainly not reciprocated, especially when Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline. One scene in particular expresses Scottie's obsession and Midge's tragedy. At one point, when Scottie is just being drawn into Madeline, Midge invites Scottie over to her apartment and shows him her new painting. She is incredibly proud of it and thinks that he is going to love it. It is the Carlotta portrait, with her face (glasses and all) superimposed on Carlotta's. Scottie becomes offended, hurt, and upset and storms out of the apartment, leaving Midge alone and furious at herself.
Midge imitating the painting imitating the portrait that Madeline imitates
In a rational sense, the scene doesn't make sense. I think that the painting, like most art parodies, is funny and coy. I don't know exactly what psychological explanation can be given for his actions. Clearly, he is obsessed with Madeline at this point that he refuses others to mock his ideal of beauty. But the fact that the Carlotta portrait is associated so clearly with Madeline establishes the fact that Scottie is in love with an image, and a false image at that. It also establishes how connected he (and the audience) believe that Carlotta and Madeline are. The painting is only an imitation of Carlotta, but we (Scottie and us) view it as a cruel imitation of Madeline, or at least, her possessor. It introduces the important themes of the deceptiveness of images and the false allure of beauty.
It also suggests how much Midge does not understand Scottie. She is unable to see how in love and emotionally vulnerable that he is. She sees the painting for what it is- a lovely portrait- while he sees it as a ghostly reminder of his own love's fragile psychological spirit. She believes that he is genuinely interested in the painting, not the subject. Or more accurately, not who he perceives to be the subject. The danger of assumption and perception is also an important thematic element of the film as Madeline is, of course, not Madeline, not a possessed spirit, not even a relation of Carlotta. She is a false ideal built up on a foundation of lies, and is therefore completely destructive to herself and those around her. The Midge portrait both reestablishes the importance of Carlotta in the understanding Madeline's character and Scottie's obsession with her, which separates him from reality. His reaction to the Midge portrait is almost as important as Madeline's reaction to the Carlotta portrait.

Apparently, the Midge painting was sold in a Hollywood auction a few years ago for a very high price (I'm sorry that I don't have more details). I don't know what happened to it, who bought it, or how much it sold for. I don't even know who painted it. It doesn't necessarily have to be Ferren, but I'm guessing that it probably was. It is certainly a very interesting painting, and its high price tag, suggests just how important it really is.

Sources (click on title for link)
Vertigo by Katalin Makkai

Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts by Steven Jacobs

The Wrong House by Steven Jacobs


  1. Wow, just wow... you continue to amaze me, ArtofFilm. I loved loved loved this post-- "Midge imitating the painting imitating the portrait that Madeline imitates" roflmao
    and thanks (what a service you perform!) for reminding us of the great BBGeddes-- i appreciate so much you invoking her too-often overlooked work on this benchmark film--
    Barbara Bel-- she was a lioness among the sheep
    now excuse me i have to run gotta watch 'Vertigo" for the thousandth time!!!
    your fangirl,

  2. Hello, I just found your blog. I don't think you have the likes and dislikes of an old man even though you are young. These films are timeless, and everyone should enjoy them. I love analyzing them in any possible way, but I had never thought of analyzing movies through their visual art pieces! That is fantastic! So I will be following this blog. Vertigo is my current obsession. I'm a Boomer who remember my parents watching these movies and TV shows, and now I have come to love them myself, though at the time, I was much more into David Cassidy and the like, ha ha! But now I have come to my senses (no slam on anyone from the 70's, though). Thanks for your insights.

  3. If ever there is a way to buy a print of this painting, I'll get it in a heartbeat.


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