Hitchcock, in particular utilizes the idea of the dark portrait to his advantage. So far, we’ve seen it in Vertigo, Psycho and Strangers on a Train. In the case of the former, the work is given a negative connotation. Without this connotation, the piece would not be essentially unattractive. But when Hitch adds meaning and depth to the piece, the art can take on an emotional context that ranges from the slightly dark to the completely horrifying. We’re going to cover one such piece now. In honor of Oscar-season, I’ll turn to Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine (as the Second Mrs. de Winter) and Laurence Olivier.
Rebecca was made in the wake of Gone with the Wind, when a bestselling book was turned into a hugely successful movie. Hitchcock turned to a British counterpart, Daphne Du Maurier (who also authored the original short story that was the basis of The Birds). In Rebecca, the middle-class, second wife of British millionaire, is haunted by the presence of his first, deceased wife, the titular Rebecca. The second wife is never named in the book or the film, and gradually she discovered terrible secrets of the giant country home, Manderley (which was actually a model) and of her own husband, Maxim de Winter.
In a key scene, during a costume ball, the late Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (played to perfection by Judith Anderson), suggests that the Second Mrs. de Winter base her costume on a family portrait of a de Winter ancestor. It is to this portrait that we now turn.
This portrait is of Mr. de Winter’s female ancestors, dressed in a magnificent gown that tragically Joan Fontaine’s character copies and wears. This is a case where the portrait’s subject does not convey it’s full meaning. The painting is a reminder of Rebecca, the dead wife. It is revealed that Rebecca originally copied the dress in this painting, just as the second Mrs. de Winter did.
This is a mood piece, as it conveys the presence of the ghost of Rebecca. First, it’s shown in dark light and darkness adds creepiness to any mood. I’m going to concentrate on its size though, because this is an important element I haven’t touched on before. Size is very important in art, as it conveys importance. However, as in life, something’s that is larger than life can repel just as much as it can attract. When given a negative connotation it certainly will create a repulsive feeling. So, in Rebecca, this giant female ancestor who literally towers over the characters shows the monstrosity of the ghost of Rebecca. In other words, Rebecca’s presence is as large and prevalent as the sitter of the portrait. A small piece of art is something that, in a film, might not be noticed. But a huge painting, even if attention is not being brought to it, will be noticed purely for the scope of its dimensions.
So, even though the ghost of the unnamed ancestor plays no role in the movie, the ghost of Rebecca certainly does. This painting becomes the ghost-portrait of Rebecca and is a beautiful analogy of her domineering presence in the lives of all the characters.
Finally, the painting also establishes a mood for the set. The large home (again notice size) of Manderley, plays a huge role in establishing the creepiness of the piece. The house is dark and sprawling, full of history and certainly secrets. This pseudo-historic portrait establishes the historically-creepy mood that Hitch desired.In the novel, the portrait is described as more 18th century, but in the film, thanks to the costume’s context clues, I’d say it’s a wannabe 19th century aristocratic portrait. Like many “false” portrait,” it lacks not only the subtlety of an actual period portrait painter, but also much of the background information. It was painted by a certain Mary Beavers, a painter I could find no information about. No matter, it was certainly based on a costume by Irene Lentz, a notorious Hollywood designer. And kudos to Ms. Beavers, as it captures the mood of the film as a whole beautifully.