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Fictional Painting

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"The tapestries wove a tale of chaos ignited, an orgy of fire and pain. Undead beings, with rotted skins caked with sulfur and ash, beckoned at me through a burning abyss. Their tortured stares were a testemonial to the price of weakness.

Their fate would not find me. Yet blood calls to blood."
-Kain, encountering some of the paintings in Vorador's Mansion, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain

What happens when a work focuses on art, but the story itself is entirely fictional? You get this: the fictional painting, which only exists in-universe. Often these paintings are quite important to the story to where the plot hinges on them, so creative control over the exact details of the painting can be very helpful. If one of the characters is a painter themselves, chances are they'll end up making one of these paintings, but more often they're treated as famous historical works found in museums and galleries.

More notable examples such as the eponymous portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray tend to be prone to Defictionalization, sometimes resulting in several different contradictory versions by different artists.

Sister-trope to Fictional Document, Fictional Video Game, Fictional Board Game, and the Show Within a Show. Using this method can avert Artistic License – Art. Related to Anomalous Art.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Black Lagoon, the crew is hired to retrieve a fictional Nazi War Propaganda painting that went down with a U-boat after the fall of the Third Reich off the coast of Thailand. Of course, Neo-Nazis are also after it.
  • In Hellsing, there is a passing mention of a fictional painting, Battle on the Mammon Plains, by Kaster, depicting the clashing front lines of two armies.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne has a painting that's supposedly an early example of the Hudson River school despite not looking like anything from the group. Damian destroyed it in the pages of Robin (1993).
  • The Franka album "De Blauwe Venus"note  sees Franka become involved in preventing the theft of the titular De Blauwe Venus. It's a blue-toned painting of an armless woman sitting against a window, hence her resemblance to the Venus de Milo. The thief-to-be turns out to be the owner of a tech company, who got involved in a car crash with his parents at a young age. They died and he lost his arms, giving him a lifelong obsession with arms, lack thereof, and shoulders. Thus he wants the painting for himself. Once the case is over, the story closes with the painting's owner, the very woman depicted, taking it back from the museum that had it on loan. It's revealed that back in the day, she and the artist shared a room in Nice and one afternoon, just before sunset, she sat by the window and draped her arms behind her to rest against the warm outside wall. The artist liked the pose and turned it into a painting he gifted her.
  • In volume #7 of Meridian, Sephie describes a work of art kept on Cadador, the island her Uncle Ilahn rules:
    There's a famous painting in Cadador. It's an image of a beautiful woman cradling a child. When you look again, you see a terrible beast, snarling and about to strike. Once you spot the beast, you can never see the beauty again without flinching.

    Fan Works 
  • Rocketship Voyager
    • The Caretaker shows off various artworks and technology plundered by his Space Pirates, including a sculpture called Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.
    • Voyager's wardroom is decorated by a framed 2-D painting; a Chesley Bonestell pastiche of Voyager flying over the rings of Saturn, its silver hull reflected by the ice crystals beneath (a Mythology Gag on the Title Sequence).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Animal Crackers: In both the Broadway show and the film, the entire plot revolves around a painting, "After the Hunt," by the fictional artist Beaugarde, and two student copies of it, one of them quite good, the other not.
  • Art of the Dead: Centres around a series of seven painting by Mad Artist Dorian Wilde. Known collectively as 'The Animals', each of the paintings depicts an animal representing one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The paintings are said to bring madness and misfortune to whoever possesses them.
  • Candyman: Daniel Robitaille was a portrait artist in life; his paintings are central to the plot of the third film.
  • Ghostbusters II: Features a portrait of Vigo the Carpathian, a sixteenth-century tyrant from Moldavia. The painting becomes central to the plot when Vigo's spirit inhabits the painting and uses it to order museum worker Janosz to do its evil deeds.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: Has the Boy with Apple, which becomes central to the plot once it's mentioned in a will.
  • Matilda: Small roles but symbolically important ones: When Miss Honey was a child a portrait of her father hung over the fireplace in her childhood home. When said home is taken over by her cruel aunt Agatha Trunchbull, the portrait is removed and replaced with one of the Trunchbull in her Olympic Prime. When Matilda uses her newfound powers to scare the living daylights out of the Trunchbull, she telekinetically throws the Olympic portrait into the fire and re-hangs the one of Mr. Honey (there's even a great cinematographic moment where camera rapid cuts between the portrait's eyes and the Trunchbull's eyes staring into each other).

  • Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception has "The Faerie Thief", which depicts an elf trying to snatch a human baby from its cradle. Legends say the painting was stolen soon after completion and has only ever changed ownership through theft; as a result, its existence is known only to a few of the world's most experienced art thieves, and ownership of it is considered a badge of honor and testament to one's skills as a criminal.
  • Discworld: Featured in several books, Leonard of Quirm's "Woman Holding Ferret" is the Disc's equivalent of the "Lady with an Ermine", and "Mona Ogg", which is obviously the Disc's equivalent of the "Mona Lisa" (which portrays a young Nanny Ogg). The most plot-significant one is "The Battle of Koom Valley" by Methodica Rascal, which plays a significant role in Thud!
  • Duma Key: The main character is an artist, who describes several nonexistent paintings. Many of them sound beautiful, or at least intriguing in their surrealism and spookiness, until you realize what the paintings do...
    • King's short story "The Road Virus Heads North" is about a man who purchases the titular painting, which depicts a sharp-toothed man sitting in a truck, from a yard sale. The woman who sells it to him mentions that it used to belong to her uncle, who recently died under mysterious—and violent—circumstances. As is par for the course with King, the buyer realizes that the painting is transforming as time goes by: specifically, the backdrop is changing as if the truck is actually driving. When the man sees that the background is the yard sale, now utterly destroyed with the woman's bloody corpse nearby, he turns on the news and discovers that the real yard sale suffered the same fate. The story ends with the buyer looking at the painting one final time: the truck is empty, with fresh bloodstains on the seat, and his own house is the backdrop...
  • The Emperor's Soul: "Lily of the Spring Pond" is a famous masterpiece, painted by the great artist Han ShuXen for a woman he loved, eventually donated by her children to the Imperial Gallery, and finally stolen by the protagonist Wan ShaiLu. She actually burned it at the request of ShuXen, who reviled the Rose Empire and could not bear to have his work displayed in the palace.
  • Far Rainbow: The painting "Wind", the Magnum Opus of a famous artist visiting the title planet, is the only inanimate object transported off the planet before it is devastated by the Wave.
  • Known Space: The Kdatlyno are blind aliens who create artworks called "touch-sculptures".
    • At the start of the short story At the Core, Beowulf Schaeffer is looking at a touch sculpture called FTLSPACE by a Kdatlyno named Hrodenu. It looks like a mishmash of a painting, a relief mural, and a sculpture.
    • In the short story "Grendel", space pirates kidnap the famous Kdatlyno touch-sculptor Lloobee and Beowulf Schaeffer helps to rescue him. In thanks, Lloobee creates a set of touch-sculptures depicting Schaeffer and the pirates.
  • The Labours of Hercules: Hercule Poirot takes on twelve cases that correspond with the titular Labors from mythology. The ninth case, "The Girdle of Hippolyta," is about a fictional Rubens painting depicting the Amazon queen presenting her girdle to Hercules. The painting goes missing and Poirot must track it down while solving the apparently unrelated case of a schoolgirl who, after vanishing from a train she was riding with fellow students, turns up miles away with no recollection of what happened.
  • Light Verse: Light-sculptures, a form of Hologram art, are generated by light-consoles. Despite being a popular medium of artistic expression, Mrs Lardner is widely celebrated as one of the best artists and her art is the biggest draw to her parties.
  • The Mezzotint: This short story by Montague Rhodes James has the eponymous engraving of an English country house, which turns out to be a Creepy Changing Painting.
  • My Last Duchess: This famous poem by Robert Browning is a dramatic monologue in which the Duke of Ferrara displays a painting of his late wife to an ambassador who is there to negotiate a remarriage, revealing his many irrational grievances with the good-natured Duchess and, eventually, his arrangement of her murder.
  • Pickman's Model: Focuses on the paintings of Mad Artist Richard Pickman, who is ostracized by the art community for his violent scenes of hideous monsters. When he gives his friend Thurber (the narrator) a tour of his studio, Thurber is extremely unsettled by the level of realism in one particular painting, which depicts one of the monsters gnawing on a human corpse. He's even more unsettled to learn that the reference image he pocketed is a photograph of the model.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray: The eponymous portrait is probably one of the most famous examples of a fictional work of art. The titular character obtains it as part of a Deal with the Devil to gain eternal life and youth, commenting that he wishes he could remain as beautiful and unchanging as his painted visage. True to form, Dorian remains completely physically unchanged—but the painting itself having becomes gradually more distorted and grotesque as time goes on, mirroring the real Dorian's own moral decay. The ending of the story reveals that the painting also functions as a Soul Jar—when Dorian stabs it in a fit of rage, he dies and instantly becomes the aged, monstrous version of himself from the work, while the painted Dorian goes back to its original form.
  • Thrones, Dominations: In this Lord Peter Wimsey novel, the artist Chapparelle paints two portraits: The first is of Harriet, and its in-story purpose is to show her character and to let her see the second portrait in-progress. The second portrait is of Rosamund, and is destroyed by her murderer to hide the clue it portrays: a papier-mâché mask that the murderer used to fool a witness into thinking the victim was still alive — and thus provide the murderer with an alibi.
  • The Two Georges: The titular Thomas Gainsborough painting depicts a meeting between George Washington and King George III that led to a peaceful resolution of the issues between Great Britain and her American colonies. Two hundred years later, the territory that never became the United States is still under British dominion as part of the North American Union, and the painting is considered a powerful symbol of unity. Terrorist group the Sons of Liberty steal the painting, and the protagonist must recover it before it is destroyed.
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Loose example. The painting in question has no long-term effect on the plot, but it is the portal that the characters travel through to reach the world of Narnia, thus setting the entire plot in motion.
  • We Also Walk Dogs: A painting called "The Weeping Buddha" is mentioned to have been created by an artist named Krantz.
  • Whateley Universe:
    • The painting of Lord Paramount in Whateley Academy's Homer Gallery, which all students are required to see, annually. It also has an enchantment to hide his presence to those who've seen the picture.
    • The painting of Lady Jettatura in the Green Witch's lair, flipped so it's facing away from the room, enchanted so Lady Jettatura cannot scry into her lair.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A painting called "The Fallen Madonna With the Big Boobies" is a Running Gag in 'Allo 'Allo!.
  • CSI: NY: One of the three cases in "Tri-Borough" centers around a fictional early-American painting called Immortality by fictional artist Jacques de Suis. At first it is thought to be a forgery, but turns out to be real in-universe.
  • Death in Paradise: "An Artistic Murder" centers around The Girl from the Mermaid, the final painting by Saint Marie's most famous artist.
  • In The Dick Van Dyke Show episode "October Eve," a painter does a portrait of Laura. While the painting is never shown to the camera, we can infer from their reactions that Laura is depicted as mostly or entirely naked, to her shame and Rob's embarrassment.
  • Doctor Who:
  • Midsomer Murders: In "The Black Book", the sale of a previously unknown painting by an 18th-century painter sends Barnaby into an investigation of murders as well as art forgery. The episode features an entire fictional catalog of paintings by this artist.
  • Two Murder, She Wrote episodes set in the art world feature paintings that turn out to be clues to the murder: an untitled nude in "Simon Says 'Color Me Dead'" and "The Roommate" in "Portrait of Death".
  • The Series Finale of Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide features a trip to a museum to see a fictional painting called "The Wild Boy".
  • The first episode of Night Gallery featured a segment about a rich man who owns a large painting of his property. After his Evil Nephew kills him for his money, details in the painting start changing to reflect the dead man's grave, and then him slowly rising from it and coming toward the door. The nephew panics and ends up accidentally killing himself, at which point the family butler gloats over his trick—he was the one secretly adding the new elements to the painting so he could steal the fortune. But the end of the episode shows the painting changing on its own, with the nephew now making his way toward the house, spelling a grisly end for the butler.
  • Star Trek
  • An episode of Warehouse 13 involves a Van Gogh painting called "Stormy Night", which has developed dangerous magical properties. Artie retrieves it and uses another artifact to make a perfect, non-magical copy. It's implied the Warehouse has done this for a lot of famous and non-famous pieces.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu
    • Campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. Several rooms in the lodge hall of the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight have a number of murals with horrible images that can cause any viewer to lose SAN (sanity) points.
    • The Asylum And Other Tales, adventure "Westchester House". The MacGuffin of the adventure is a $15,000 painting called "The Hunter". It depicts a man on horseback with two dogs at the horse's feet. The dogs are looking back over their shoulders at a primal forest. Some viewers say they can make out something in the forest looking out at the unsuspecting horseman.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has had a number of magical paintings over the years.
    • "Blue on Bronze". An abstract swirl of deep blues and violets. If anyone studies the painting for 20 minutes, the painting will correctly answer any yes or no question.
    • "Dragonnel-by-the-Cliff". A picture of a dragonnel (monster) perched on a rocky cliff over a river valley. If a person viewing the painting says the command word "fuga", the dragonnel will leave the painting and serve them.
    • "The Gladiators". A large painting depicting four gladiators facing off against each other in a sand-covered arena. Anyone who passes in front of the painting without saying a password will be taken into the painting and have to fight the gladiators to the death.
    • "Glorindel's Gates". A set of small paintings created by the wizard-bard Glorindel. Each one acts as a Gate spell, transporting the viewer to the place depicted in the painting.
    • "Glorindel's Living Paintings". These large paintings each show a scene that acts as a TV picture, with things moving and changing as if they were real.
    • "Igraine's Portraits". Each one of these pictures allows the viewer to telepathically communicate with the subject of the painting. If the subject is dead, there is a 50% chance of contacting their soul or spirit.
    • "The Watchers". This work depicts a wooded area with heavy undergrowth. Anyone who looks at it carefully can see the eyes of creatures looking through the brush. Anyone who looks at it for too long can have their mind transferred into that of a small woodland animal living nearby.
    • "Widow's Walk". This painting is of the crowded dockside of a busy port. Anyone who looks at it for 10 minutes becomes immune to all divination magic and psionics directed at him for the next eight hours.
    • Dungeon magazine
      • Issue #13 adventure "Going Once...Going Twice". At an auction, one of the items is a painting called "The Seeker" by Michalardo L'Angelo. It's oil-on-wood, about 300 years old and measures two feet by three feet. The subject is a couple of adventurers wearing old-time clothes, holding a map and pointing at a far-away mountian. The minimum bid for the painting is 5,000 gold pieces.
      • Issue #68 adventure "By Merklan's Magic". In the wizard Merklan's house are four paintings. "Thunder God" shows a bearded man standing in the clouds holding a thunderbolt; "King of Birds" has a giant eagle standing on a mountainside; an untitled work depicts a unicorn head with a golden horn, and "The Trap" is of five fairies caught by an Entangle spell.
  • Dungeons & Dragons, D&D Expert adventure DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. The Comeback Inn in Blackmoor has a number of paintings on its walls. One is called Blackmoor Hostel. It shows the Inn itself. Five paintings depict events in the life of King Uther Andahar of Blackmoor: Uther the Justifier, Uther at the Berne, Uther and the Thin Black Line, The Raising of the Royal Banner at Blackmoor and The King and His Companions. Pictures of three of the paintings (Blackmoor Hostel, Uther at the Berne and Uther and the Thin Black Line) are provided in the adventure for players to look at.
  • Shadowrun supplement Tir Tairngire. Jenna Ni'Fairra is one of the members of the Council of Princes. She has an extremely old painting which depicts her with thorns growing out of her skin. This is a portrait of her when she was Alachia, the elven Queen of the Blood Wood in the Earthdawn setting.
  • Unknown Armies has The Ascension of the Magdalene, a medieval scenario in which an eponymous painting of the ascension of a woman into the archetypical Invisible Clergy has reality-warping powers, paralleling the standard modern setting in which a videotape fills the same conceptual role.

    Video Games 
  • Arcanum: In one quest, your character is tasked with recovering the painting "Kerghan and Persephone", recently stolen from the estate of the Garringsburgs, a family of Tarantian aristocrats.
  • Dragon Age II has a couple of examples:
    • If Bethany is the surviving sibling, there is a minor quest in Act 1 in which Hawke presents her with an old portrait of their mother Leandra, from long before any of them were born. The picture is not shown to the player, but Bethany is thrilled with how beautiful and happy their mother looks in the painting.
    • In the Black Emporium DLC, one of the codex entries found in the eponymous location talks about the "Velvet Cailans," a weird collection of portraits of King Cailan of Ferelden on black velvet canvas. It's an in-universe riff on the real-world phenomenon of portraits of Elvis Presley on black velvet.
  • One of Hotel Dusk: Room 215's big mysteries revolves around the missing painting of the artist Osterzone called "Angel Opening a Door".
  • Ib is about the various artworks of a fictional artist named Guertena.
  • Kirby:
    • Kirby: Canvas Curse: The Big Bad Drawcia is revealed to be a painting brought to life, and turns back into a painting in the end.
    • Kirby: Triple Deluxe introduces one of the bosses, Paintra, who used to be a normal painting until Taranza gives her life. Her Flavor Text mentions that she and another painting are described as "a pair of sisters separated at birth".
  • The plot of Layers of Fear is driven by the increasingly unstable painter protagonist's attempt to finish his last portrait which he believes will bring back his wife, who he Drove To Suicide with neglect. A few other paintings by him also make appearances, including Baby Face, a portrait of a child with hypertrichosis. Subverted in that most of the paintings, even the ones that the Artist painted, are real works of art painted by others (Baby Face, for example, is actually Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez by Lavinia Fontana).
  • Minecraft lets you craft paintings to decorate your base with. While most of them are based on real paintings by Kristoffer Zetterstrand, one is original to the game, depicting the construction process of the Wither. You can modify them or even create your own paintings if you access the game's texture files for the in-game paintings, and some mod or texture packs come with their own modified paintings.
  • Persona 5 has the 'Sayuri', a painting of a young woman looking down and smiling, which delighted the art world in its mystery - who is that woman and why is she smiling? The painting was produced by Yusuke's mother as a self-portrait, and the original version showed her holding the baby Yusuke in her arms. When Madarame took advantage of her death and took Yusuke on as a protégé, he painted over her arms so that the baby was no longer visible on the correct prediction that the ambiguity of the image would make it more appealing (and profitable).
  • In the third and fourth installments of The Sims, the player's Sim can gain the Painting skill if they have an easel. More artistic Sims have an easier time painting. When a Sim is finished painting, they can hang it on their wall or sell it for money. Different styles of paintings, such as abstract art or portraits, are unlocked the higher their Painting level is. Emotional paintings can be made if the Sim feels sad, excited, or angry, among other feelings.
  • Most of the paintings in the Princess Toadstool's castle in Super Mario 64 are entrances to worlds in Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario has to recover the stars and save the princess from Bowser.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation
    • SCP-151 ("The Painting"). SCP-151 is a painting of an underwater scene. Anyone who looks at it will slowly drown over the next 24 hours.
    • SCP-800 ("An Eastern History"). SCP-800 is an East Asian paper scroll painting that alters its appearance to symbolically represent current armed conflicts in Asia.
    • SCP-1074 ("Stendhal's Nightmare"). SCP-1074 is a painting called Stendhal's Nightmare that consists entirely of a grey background. Anyone looking at it suffers from Stendhal syndrome (increased heart rate, sweating, and vertigo). They will describe seeing a highly detailed painting, but each person will give a different description.
    • SCP-1753 ("Vertigo"). SCP-1753 is a painting of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It causes the viewer to perceive a drop of any height as being a 2,000-foot high cliff face. If the viewer jumps over the drop, they will impact the ground as if they had actually fallen 2,000 feet.
    • SCP-1891 ("Constructeur"). SCP-1891 is a painting of a humanoid clothed in construction tools (wrenches, hammers, etc.). If any other painting is brought into the same structure as SCP-1891, the other painting will change into a depiction of large industrial machines. The humanoid will disappear from SCP-1891 and appear in the other painting, maintaining the machines.
    • SCP-2071 ("Sir Michael Cavendish, in the Guise of the King of Serpents"). SCP-2071 is a painting of a snake man wearing an 18th-century British military uniform. Anyone touching the painting dies from snake venom created by their own body. All reptiles within 5 kilometers of the painting try to move toward it if possible. There are three other anomalous paintings by the same painter: The Rood and the Pit, The Hunting Party and Celia Penrose, in the Guise of a Fountain.

    Western Animation 
  • Archer: Gustavo Calderón has what appears to be a blank canvas prominently displayed in his mansion. Calderón explains that it's actually a colorful masterpiece that's been covered with layer after layer of white paint so no trace of the color shows through. Sterling and Malory Archer are stunned to learn that the piece is worth $40 million.
  • Fillmore!: In "Masterstroke of Malevolence", Mrs. Lawson's field trip to the Modern Contemporary Natural History, Art, Science and Miniature Museum takes a horrifying turn as someone draws a mustache on the priceless painting "The Lobster Man at Port".
  • The Simpsons: In The War of Art, Homer and Marge purchase a painting from a yard sale which is appraised as a lost work by the (fictional) 20th century artist Johann Oldenveldt. It’s eventually revealed to merely be a forgery done in Oldenveldt’s style, but so convincing that it could have sold for $100,000 if the fraud was never uncovered.