HBO’s Succession is not a TV show with many memorable images—you often come away remembering biting one-liners and familial betrayals instead of individual shots. But one composition from the Season 3 finale of the prestige drama, an image featuring three members of the Roy clan on a Tuscan road, has gone viral on social media. In the way certain stylized images from popular films and shows often do these days, that shot has since drawn comparisons to Renaissance and Baroque paintings, which are likewise dramatically composed.
In the shot in question, we see a downcast Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who had a spectacular fall this season after an unexpected rise in the previous one. He is shown being comforted by his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), who bends down to place his hands on Kendall’s shoulders, and by his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), who checks her phone while petting Kendall’s head. (For the sake of this article, I’ll leave the context at that, and set spoilers aside.) The composition is a surprisingly tender one for a show that’s often austere, with glassy boardrooms and luxe mansions acting as stand-ins for the hard interiors of these feckless characters.
But is this shot really like a Renaissance or Baroque painting? Would an Italian from centuries ago—like, say, Artemisia Gentileschi—approve? At least one art history professor appears to have thought so—one Twitter user posted a slide from an art history class where Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (ca. 1620) was taught alongside the Succession still.
Other armchair art historians concurred. Another Twitter user also singled out a less striking image from the episode’s final moments and wrote, “These are fucking Renaissance paintings.” Yet another poster overlaid the Fibonacci spiral, as if to suggest that the shot really was composed that way on purpose, and said, “It’s the renaissance composition for me.”
Lots of things have been compared to Renaissance paintings over the past few years—shots of the G7 summit, images of soccer players getting rowdy, pictures of a fistfight in the Ukrainian parliament, photography of the Trump administration’s lowest moments. There are articles comparing contemporary photography to art of the sort on websites like the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and other outlets, and there’s even a Reddit called r/AccidentalRenaissance, where users can post images that are upvoted based on how much they look like paintings from yesteryear.
None of these things really look like Renaissance paintings, however. Photographs and film images are meant to be composed in evocative ways; comparing these shots to centuries-old artworks is an unintentional means of complimenting their makers without saying a lot more than that. “Likening every viral image to a Renaissance painting only makes sense when they are both perceived first and foremost as images untethered to material supports or different kinds of artistic labor,” my colleague Rachel Wetzler wrote in an Outline essay in 2018. “So please, just call such images what they are: great photographs.”
And why not just call the Succession image in question an example of good cinematography? It’s a handsome image that communicates exactly what it should: that the Roy siblings actually do love each other, even when they seem hateful. In clustering them together, Mark Mylod, the episode’s director, has shown us visually that these people are emotionally closer than we—and they—thought they were. That someone could suggest this is the stuff of Renaissance and Baroque paintings evinces the fact that anything and everything can be memed, and that, in the process, those memes need not have been borne out of deep thought.
All of which is not to mention that the Succession shot that went viral is actually a crop—there’s more negative space on the left and right sides in the shot that actually aired. The squarish redo of this still appears to have first been shared by HBO Max this past weekend and then picked up as if it were the shot within the episode. Only when you view the image this way, in its modified form, can you even make the somewhat outlandish claim that there’s a Fibonacci composition at play.
In any case, there’s already been a backlash to this clout-friendly line of thinking. Some people simply suggested others were getting their art history wrong. The writer Raina quote tweeted the Fibonacci composition post, and wrote, “Sorry but every time someone says this I think they mean it looks like a Baroque painting. And I’m finally speaking up.” Others took a more mocking tone. The comedian Rajat Suresh tweeted, “Every frame of succession is like a painting from the resonance (sp?).” The paintings Suresh was jokingly alluding to: semi-abstractions that seem better fit for a hotel wall than a museum.