The Artist’s Wife Uses a Modern House as a Metaphor

Director and cowriter Tom Dolby says he “unconsciously” wrote The Artist’s Wife to fit a modernist home with a white exterior once owned by friends of his in East Hampton, New York. “When we looked for the perfect white modern house [to film], my mind exploded when we saw it,” he tells AD. The 1970s-era dwelling had been painted black since he’d last been there. “I had a come-to-Jesus moment and realized maybe it was supposed to be black all along. We looked at over 50 houses with modernist architecture and there was a lot of junk, and this house had such an elegant design to it,” he says. Filmed against a striking white snowfall in the dead of winter, it provided the perfect setting for the home of the fictional celebrated abstract artist Richard Smythson (played by Bruce Dern) and his wife Claire (Lena Olin).

The drama (available on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Laemmle Virtual Cinema now) tells the tale of an eccentric artist in the twilight of his career facing the early stages of dementia. His faithful wife and muse, who gave up a successful career as an artist to become the proverbial woman behind the man, begins to look for her own identity after years of staying in the shadows. It’s a story that hits close to home for Dolby. “My father had been diagnosed with dementia right around the time I started writing a story about the unsung heroine,” he says. “I had seen so many creative relationships, such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, where the wife was so supportive. Hitchcock would not have been Hitchcock without his wife, and she never got the credit she deserves.”

<div class="caption"> Since Richard and Claire are contemporary art collectors, a painting influenced by the works of Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell graces the walls of the dining room. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Michael Lavine</cite>

Since Richard and Claire are contemporary art collectors, a painting influenced by the works of Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell graces the walls of the dining room.

Photo: Michael Lavine

The house provides subtle details in this character study filled with metaphors and idiosyncrasies. One peek into Claire’s well-ordered Sub-Zero gives us a glimpse of anal-retentiveness at its finest. It is where she finds a semblance of control among the chaos. “Claire was anal and highly regimented, so it’s a simple look at how her mind worked at that time, as her creativity needed some way to come out,” says production designer John El Manahi. “I had to find these little ways to portray things like this.” The house pays homage to Richard’s work and that of contemporary artists. His studio is messy, cluttered, and as the designer notes, “a metaphor for the state of his mind” as he repeatedly paints a canvas white. Conversely, Claire’s soothing barn studio becomes a “womb” where she retreats and paints against a color palette of warm browns, burnt sienna, and ochre.

<div class="caption"> Richard’s studio, a contrast to Claire’s, has a gray-and-white color palette. The designers added a motorcycle, stove, and cowhide rug that came with the house. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Michael Lavine</cite>

Richard’s studio, a contrast to Claire’s, has a gray-and-white color palette. The designers added a motorcycle, stove, and cowhide rug that came with the house.

Photo: Michael Lavine

<div class="caption"> Claire’s barn studio serves as “her womb, a nurturing space where she could create her paintings,” says Dolby. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Michael Lavine</cite>

Claire’s barn studio serves as “her womb, a nurturing

Read more