Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s immensely popular satirical drama, follows the Roy family’s dynastic battles over Waystar RoyCo, a crime-tainted media conglomerate headed by toxic patriarch Logan Roy. Really, though, this show is about how terrible wealthy people can be. And you know what wealthy people love? Art collecting.
It is fitting, then, that the sterile white walls of Waystar’s Manhattan offices and the Roys’ swanky high-rise apartments are bedecked with paintings and sculptures. Many of them are deliberately unremarkable, camouflaging unsuspectedly in the ingeniously staged, aseptic modern interiors that echo the protagonists’ empty personalities. But other artworks in Succession appear to reveal a deeper significance, channeling narrative and visual strategies to heighten tension and foreshadow key plot lines.
In advance of the third season’s finale this Sunday on HBO and HBO Max, we discuss five especially compelling curatorial choices that paint a picture of power, deceit, and unfettered capitalism — from Baroque paintings to an imagined contemporary art installation in New York City’s Hudson Yards. (For those who haven’t watched the show, be warned: there are some spoilers below.)
Peter Paul Rubens’s Bloody Tiger Hunt
The first promotional poster for Succession famously featured an artwork to set the stage for what was to come. Logan Roy and the four contenders for the Waystar RoyCo throne stand in front of Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Tiger Hunt” (1615–17), a dynamic composition in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes that pits man against beast in an evocatively vicious confrontation. Inspired by an allegedly destroyed Leonardo masterpiece, “The Battle of Anghiari,” Rubens depicted a dense knot of charging hunters and bloodthirsty felines with no clear victor or distinction between predator and prey. The canvas is one of four in a cycle seized by the French from the Old Schleissheim Palace in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, a 12-year struggle for European domination that was almost as ruthless and contentious as the Roy kids’ battle for control of their father’s media empire. (Bonus: a fan of the show discovered an image of Kendall apparently dressed as Napoleon in a recent Season 3 episode.)
A Contemporary Photograph That Hints at Total Collapse
An image of a towering glacier in the show’s pilot episode appears as inconspicuous boardroom art in Waystar RoyCo’s headquarters, but a closer reading reveals an ominous subtext. The photograph is artist Frank Thiel’s “Spegazzini #01” (2012/2013), a crystal-clear portrait of the eponymous mammoth glacial ice formation in Argentine Patagonia. It’s part of a series that reflects on the natural world’s “strength and majesty” as well as its “fragility and endangerment,” explains a press release from Thiel’s gallery, a binary that conveniently also describes all the egos in this show. Also, if you ask me, nothing says impending doom like a giant piece of ice. The chromogenic print hangs during a meeting for Kendall’s failed Vaulter acquisition, when Logan unexpectedly walks in and asks his son to sign “housekeeping” paperwork. The request makes Kendall, who expects to be announced as the new company CEO at his dad’s 80th birthday later that day, visibly nervous … and we all know how that turns out.
A Dutch Portrait of Louis XIV’s Spy
In the fifth episode of Season 1, Kendall begins to scheme a vote of no confidence against his father, while Tom Wambsgans, Shiv Roy’s fiancé, enlists Cousin Greg to shred documents related to Waystar’s cover-up of egregious crimes in the company’s cruise ships division. Logan’s brother Ewan Roy is invited from Canada to celebrate Thanksgiving, resulting in a bitter exchange between the two siblings. Amid this kerfuffle of backstabbing and betrayal hangs Dutch Baroque painter Peter Lely’s portrait of Louise de Keroualle, a spy for Louis XIV of France before she became the favorite mistress of King Charles II of England, and subsequently Duchess of Portsmouth. According to the Getty Museum, where the work is housed, De Keroualle strategically used her influence to strengthen ties between the two monarchs. From Logan Roy’s living room wall, she witnesses the catastrophic family dinner with amusement, playing sensually with a strand of hair as Ewan confronts his brother: “Everything isn’t about money. Haven’t you heard of ethics?” (Evidently, he hasn’t.)
A Telling Scene From Dante’s Inferno
As in the show’s debut, the artwork chosen for a poster advertising the second season of Succession is anything but subtle. The embattled Roy siblings, along with Tom and Cousin Greg, are seated around a dining table with Logan at the head, the only figure standing. William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Dante and Virgil” (1850), an oil canvas depicting a scene from Dante’s Inferno, hangs on the wall directly behind him. And not just any scene: set in the eighth circle of Hell, reserved for counterfeiters and impersonators, the painting shows the author and his guide Virgil looking on as two damned souls have it out. One of them, the heretic Capocchio, is bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, an Italian knight who usurped the identity of a deceased man and falsified his will to claim his inheritance. Could this be a sly nod to Logan’s character, whose death is an always-looming fantasy in the eyes of the megalomaniac Roy kids? Adding to the suspiciously specific reference, Bouguereau made the work as his third entry for the Prix de Rome after having failed to win the prestigious prize twice before, and the Musée d’Orsay, where the work resides, says the artist was “hungry for revenge.” (Spoiler: he lost again.)
And Finally, an Immersive Vagina Installation
In episode 7 of Season 3, as part of his increasingly desperate bid to appear socially relevant, Kendall Roy hosts his 40th birthday party at none other than the Shed, the multidisciplinary arts center located in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. (The neighborhood is the largest private development in the US, built to the tune of $25 billion, and has been mocked as an ultra-luxury billionaires’ playground; it is also home to the controversial Vessel structure that has seen four deaths by suicide.) To enter Kendall’s sad rich boy jubilee, guests including siblings Connor, Roman, and Shiv walk past video screens showing squirming sperms, and through a tunnel-like art installation made of pink inflatable material. At the end, they’re greeted by a woman in a nurse costume who exclaims, “Congratulations! You’ve just been born into the world of Kendall Roy.” The immersive environment was imagined for the show, but it’s evocative of the gimmicky, made-for-Instagram art “experiences” that wannabes like Kendall would likely flock to, along with expensive “street art” and NFTs. (The installation is also a likely nod to Nikki de Saint Phalle’s far more incisive “Hon” (1966), in which visitors stepped inside an enormous sculpture of a pregnant woman’s body via a tunnel, or cervix.) In a particularly zeitgeisty moment, the episode engages with intellectual property issues when Roman asks Kendall if he secured permission from their mother to create the piece. “Call me old-fashioned,” Roman says. “But I think you should ask before you construct a giant replica of someone’s vagina.”