Monday, August 26, 2013

The Museum Scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986): A Tribute to the Art Institute of Chicago

Every now and then, a director pays homage to his or her love of art by "indulging" in what I call an "art montage." It can consist of a superbly decorated apartment, an art show, or even an art museum scene. What first comes to mind when I talk about museum scenes is obviously Hitchcock's eerie scene in front of the Carlotta portrait at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Vertigo (1958). The second film that comes to mind is a little less esteemed because I'm obviously thinking of the John Hughes' classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Who can forget that intimate portrait of the Art Institute of Chicago that John Hughes places in his classic coming-of-age film, just prior to the more famous and more lighthearted "parade scene."
In case you've forgotten, as Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are traipsing through the Windy City, one of their stops in the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the greatest art museums in the United States. Hughes shows them coming into the museum with a grade school trip. Then, Hughes indulges in a number of shots of some very iconic artwork including, to mention only a few of my personal favorites, Picasso's The Old Guitarist and Hopper's Nighthawks.

Of course, the scene is not just a documentary view of paintings and sculpture, the various characters are seen posing, watching, pondering and even kissing in front of the art. While there are scores of famed artworks I could describe, I'm only going to mention a few of the pieces I feel are very important namely because they allow me to indulge in some character study.

1. Portrait of Balzac by Auguste Rodin

The first piece I'm going to mention is a sculpture by the French master, Rodin (of Thinker fame, if you don't recognize the name). This piece is only important because the characters pose in front of it with their legs outstretched and their arms crossed staring at the famed author set in bronze (see above). Let's move on. 

2. The Picasso Portraits

The next shot after Rodin is very similar. The characters all stand in front of three Picasso paintings. Each was painting at a different time in slightly different forms of Cubism. Perhaps Hughes wanted to the characters to be seen observing these paintings because they visually represent some of the disjointed feelings felt by high school seniors. While they're pondering Picasso's abstractions, are they also pondering their just as abstract, but inevitable, futures?

In case you were wondering, the paintings can be identified as the following. From left to right: The Red Armchair(1931), Portrait of Sylvette David (1954), and a third painting which I can't seem to find anywhere else. I think the Art Institue must of sold it or something, because I can't find a Picasso matching the description in their database. If you know what it is, just let me know and I'll add it.

3. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Our next two works are the most important pieces. The first is the painting right above this which I'm simply going to abbreviate as Sunday Afternoon from now on. In this scene, Cameron stands alone right in front of this great pointillist painting, staring at it dead center. Gradually it's shown that he's fixating on this little girl who stands in the center of the painting. And Cameron just stares at her and gradually focuses in on her to find... nothing.
I don't know how much you know about Pointillism- but it's a pretty specific style of Post-Impressionism most associated with Georges Seurat. Seurat famously composed his paintings of a number of single color points, or dots, which the eye would blend together to form a painting like the one you see above you. When you are very close to the canvas, all you can make out is the separate dots which are nothing too extraordinary, but when you step back the finished result is quite often breathtaking. It was meticulous work, but you have to say that it is beautiful.
Now, Hughes spoke of this scene a lot because he really loved paying homage to this great museum because he apparently spent a lot of time there when he was a kid. This painting in particular he loved because it reminded him of a movie. Without stepping back and witnessing the whole thing, you don't get anything out of this painting or a movie. On a more personal level, Cameron is focusing in on a small section of the canvas only to find bland dots! And the whole idea behind this scene is that Cameron is questioning himself. He is associating himself with the little girl and wondering if, like her, when you get close to him if there is anything of solid content. And it becomes increasingly clear that it is because of this reason, his fears in himself, that he is so insecure.

4. Marc Chagall's America Windows

The final piece I'm going to mention is a unique piece of art in itself without mentioning that it is now a famed piece of movie art as well. I'm referring to Marc Chagall's America Windows, beautiful example of modern stain glass work. In the film, Hughes indulges in his most touching scene thus far in front of these Chicago landmarks. While Cameron is pondering his existence and feeling very teen-angst-y, Sloane and Ferris enjoy a moment alone and can be seen kissing in front of the windows. The beautiful blue light created by the windows creates a lovely aura in the scene.
Chagall's America Windows are one of the most unique and prized holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chagall made the windows specifically for the Art Institute after he was so impressed by the city when he visited for an installation of his own works. The windows, which were dedicated to then-Chicago Mayor Daly, celebrate the bicentennial of the United States and the rich tradition of the arts, religious freedom and other liberties that is fostered in the US. While famous by their own right, the Windows became immortalized after their intimate appearance in Ferris Bueller.  
To conclude, I'd like to remark that while it is slightly slower and deeper than the rest of the film, Hughes enjoyed it tremendously, not only because it allowed him to showcase his favorite museum but because it allowed him to add depth to his teenage characters. Granted, it does seem rather out of place and out of pace with the rest of film, but I feel like its a welcome slow-down. Just as a side note, originally, the scene was featured with a slow classical guitar solo and placed after the parade scene. The preview audiences hated it and therefore Hughes modified the format. He moved the scene before the parade and added an instrumental version of the song in an attempts to pacify audiences while preserving his scene. The end result has obviously become quite famous and quite frankly for a great reason. To current audiences, this museum scene may drag or seem out of place, to art lovers it provides a venue on screen for some famous paintings. More importantly, it allows us to associate with the characters as they associate with the art- and what's better than that??

Source Material
The Washington Post
"John Hughes video explains 'Ferris Bueller" scene at Art Institute" (11/16/2011)

Wikipedia: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"'s_Day_Off


  1. I just went to the Art Institute of Chicago with my sister this past Tuesday and saw the third picture along with the two Picasso's. It is called Max Herrmann-Niesse by artist Ludwig Meidner. We both thought it looked uncannily like the incomparable Stephen Hawking...

  2. Upon closer inspection I may be remiss.

  3. The music that was used in this scene was by Dream Academy not The Smiths.

  4. The song is "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" performed by Dream Academy, but written by Morrisey and Marr of The Smiths

  5. I will re-create the kiss in front of America Windows with a special girl

    1. Not exactly......they have moved the windows from the original location when the movie was made.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. The 3rd Painting by Picasso on that wall was titled "Femme Assise" (1949). It was auctioned at Sotheby's in New York on May 6, 2004 for approximately $4,264,000 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium. Hope that helps.


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