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The Art History of Titanic

In the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the two lead characters, Jack and Rose, bond over their shared love of art. Jack is an artist, having just finished time spent sketching in Paris, and Rose collects art, unpacking masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, and Degas to decorate her stateroom. While this shared interest forms one of the bedrocks of their relationship, the specific art chosen to be in the film reveals deeper meaning reflected by the time period, class differences, and two characters themselves. 

There are four works shown and paid special attention to throughout the film’s runtime. They are Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Monet’s Water Lilies, Degas’s Blue Dancer, and Jack’s various sketches. None of these works were actually on the Titanic, a decision to stray from the historical fact that allows the choices of paintings to reflect the historical and artistic context of the film, as well as the individual characters and the different scenes in which they appear. 

Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon

In an early scene in the film, Rose and her fiancee Cal are unpacking their numerous trunks. This scene is made to show their immense wealth, which has been contrasted to the conditions of those, such as Jack, in the lower classes. Rose describes a painting she’d like hung, “one with a bunch of faces on it.” When asked the name of the artist, she responds, “something Picasso.” Cal scoffs, “something Picasso, he won’t amount to a thing.” A tongue-in-cheek reference for the audience, who of course knows who Picasso will become, underscores the importance of choosing Picasso, and this specific painting, to introduce Rose’s taste in art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a group portrait by Picasso painted in 1907, was radical at the time. It broke the traditional picture plane by flattening the figures, turning soft curves into sharp geometric breaks. None of the women are conventionally feminine, and the way they appear to the viewer is threatening and confrontational. They are a group of prostitutes, but the audience is not meant to desire them, but more to confront their own relationship to each figure as well as the picture plane. 

For many years during Picasso’s early career, his works never saw the public eye. Rather than being exhibited in shows, they were passed between wealthy collectors and artistic friends. Therefore, while it may seem ridiculous now to see a masterpiece hung on a ship for a short journey, that is more realistic than it appearing in a museum or gallery during this time. While it would still have been considered a status symbol to own an original modernist painting during this time, it didn’t mean what it means now. It wouldn’t have been “A Picasso,” but merely an original work of art, the choices of which were plentiful at this time. Rose would have chosen this work because she saw something in it, a connection to the women who are traditionally just looked upon as objects of desire, turned rough and confrontational. When asking Jack to sketch her, she says, “the last thing I need is another picture of me looking like a porcelain doll.” The women in the painting have exaggerated features inspired by African and Iberian wood carvings; tough, durable materials contrast to delicate porcelain. When describing the painting, she says, “it’s like being in a dream or something. There’s truth but no logic.” That means that she feels the impact of the painting more so than seeing it. 

Director James Cameron made a specific choice to include this painting. When he asked Picasso’s estate for permission to include the painting in the film, they refused. He did so anyway, and paid a significant fee. In the 2012 remastered version, in a scene in which the painting is shown sinking underwater, it is replaced by Degas’s Blue Dancer. 

Monet’s Water Lilies

When Rose leads Jack into her stateroom so that he can draw her, he is immediately drawn to a painting which she has displayed, Monet’s Water Lilies. Monet painted numerous landscapes with waterlilies over his career, especially towards the end of his career, when he had retired to his home and garden in Giverny, outside of Paris. Contrary to Picasso, Monet’s works were regularly shown in exhibits and salons, especially in Paris, so it makes sense that Jack would be familiar with his work but not Picasso’s. He drags his hand across the canvas, marveling at the use of texture and light. While now it seems like a crime to get so close to a priceless painting, Jack is studying the process that it took to make the art. Monet was one of the first of the impressionists, a group whose philosophy included being able to see the brushstrokes and the physicality of the medium, such as the canvas or the paint. Jack, as an artist, would be drawn to the techniques used to create the work, not just the end illusion. The texture was incredibly important in Monet’s works, a feature which is lost when they are displayed behind glass cases in museums. 

Monet’s airy, pastel-colored landscapes in which the light dances against the water and the flowers seem to fall into place perfectly on the flat canvas, as if everything’s place was predetermined are well regarded now as poster children for quote-unquote “beautiful” art. However, during the late nineteenth century when they were created, they were almost universally despised. By the early twentieth century, though, Monet had become the “acceptable” opposition. His works were seen as harmless in the face of the new revolutionaries such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. 

Degas’s Blue Dancer

In the 2012 remastered version, following complaints by the Picasso estate that Cameron had not gotten proper permission to feature Picasso’s works in the film, a scene with a painting underwater was remade to show Degas’s Blue Dancer. Degas worked in the late nineteenth century, becoming well-known for his paintings of dancers both in action and resting in classes and backstage. Degas was also an impressionist, and painted in a lively, active way, emphasizing movement and light and the delicateness of the dancers. All of these features are multiplied when the painting is shown beneath the water, rippling the colors and distorting the view. Contrary to the chaos of other scenes, with water ripping apart steel and iron and crashing through glass, here it looks almost harmless, gently floating the painting across the screen. This juxtaposition, made more poignant by the inclusion of something so beautiful as a dancer, aids in the film’s challenge of tearing apart the beautiful, luxurious first class lifestyles and attitudes, with the reminder that when you test nature, she will respond. 

Jack’s Sketches

Jack sketches in a realist, romantic style, almost all portraits. He does so in a way that studies movement and life, as seen by numerous scenes in which he watches people as he draws. All the drawings in Jack’s sketchbook were done by director James Cameron, and during the sketching scene, Cameron’s hands were used (fun fact: Cameron is left-handed, so the footage was flipped during post-production, because Leo is right-handed). Rose notes that he “sees people.”

While all the other works of art shown in the film are modern, his look antiquated in comparison. They are only sketches, of course, so no assumption can be made of whether he’d paint in an impressionist or realist style, but the figures are detailed and the lines sharp, far from the tenants of impressionism. He is not attempting to make an artistic statement as much as he is trying to capture the life around him, to experience the world with a positive view and to make memories while he’s at it.

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