White Collar – Art Nearly Forged

Neal and Mozzie

This is where I started. I included the sketch for this painting in a Dickens tribute. Dickens is mentioned a couple of times in White Collar. Neal calls Mozzie at one instance Oliver Twist (though I rather think he fits the role of Oliver Twist better)  and he tutors on A Tale of Two Cities quoting the opening lines “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. And while he does so, one can but see that these lines are the perfect description of his own situation, this paradoxical free captivity, the legally sanctioned illegal life.

Back to the painting, it is Pop Art given the use of a well known imagery or symbols – here characters from a popular TV series. And as such one can say that it is loosely based on Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych of 1962. Or any of the other pictures featuring celebrities that Warhol created, as Warhol loved celebrities. He was a working class kid who, before becoming successful in fine arts, had a career in advertisement – in selling dreams. I imagine he did not just share the artistic talent with Neal Caffrey, but also a fascination of the life in the clouds with money, attention and respect.

Of course, the use of well-known iconography in Pop Art is also meant as an opposition to the individualism of Expressionism. And with TV and movies starting to govern our viewing habits, it is an attempt to give easy access to the fine arts. Yes, it is hard to capture interest and minds when the attention span of the majority shrinks constantly to wink size and photoshopped, maybe color-changed photos on Tumblr become the epitome of expression. Pop Art is a bridge. Yet, the castle in the air aspect should not be underestimated. Artists – con men or not – hold permanent residency there. I can show you my passport.

El and Peter

American Gothic was painted by Grant Wood in 1930. While the people in rural Iowa, where Wood lived and where he saw the house, were less than amused by their depiction, critics favored it as a satire of rural American small-town life. It fit the starting trend of critical perception of that life style. Wood thought of the man and woman (modeled by his own sister and his dentist) as a father and his spinster daughter. He added the fork as symbol of hard manual labor and mimicked the structure of the Gothic window in the man’s face.

While I left the colors and patterns of the clothes as they were (and I am really sorry, Mrs. Burke aka Tiffani Thiessen as I know you would never wear such a hideous patterned top), I added the mug and cell phone as a touch of modern life. I kept the house with the iconic window, partly to keep the structure of the picture alive, partly because it reminds me a bit of the Burke’s house. Sure, it is not located in rural Iowa, but in Suburbia, NY, but isn’t that as satire worthy?

And I kept the fork. For one thing, Peter has a certain work ethic that fits the idea of the fork in the original painting. Right in the pilot he explains Neal that the way it is supposed to be is that you can expect only a certain income from certain work. It is expecting everything for nothing that brings Neal in trouble.

Furthermore however, the symbolism of the fork is broader. Many will think of the devil when seeing it, and Peter definitely has a puckish side that Neal is an expert to put to use. But even older is the association of the three spiked fork and Neptune, the god of water and the seas in Roman mythology. Brother of Jupiter and Pluto, he presides over one of the three realms of the universe, Heaven, Earth and the Netherworld. And – fun fact – he was also worshipped as the god of horses and patron of horse-racing. Well, Peter definitely resides over his realm and expects a certain degree of obedience. Often enough he threatened Neal to put him back behind bars if he wouldn’t behave (not that all his worlds always fall on futile grounds). And horses and horse-racing – he grew up up North and might have picked up some things…


There is this one painting in Neal’s apartment that I love more than all the others. When you enter the place it hangs straight ahead between the windows and the davenport/cupboard with the loose panel behind which the police found the tape that Mozzie stole from Sara’a place. It depicts a woman in profile. She wears a purple hat and a bright coat. In the background seems to be a lake or sea. And if I had to place it on a time line I would say it is late Impressionism. I would settle for Max Liebermann, given that he was mainly influenced by Manet ,yet his lines have a blurry, rushed touched that reminds a bit of Nolde.

I couldn’t find the exact picture (that is also because I am yet to be invited into Neal’s place to look at it more closely). Yet, when working on this mini series about famous art and White Collar characters the image wouldn’t leave me. I found something comparable in Liebermann’s painting ‘Wannsee’ of 1932, focusing on the lady in yellow in the foreground.

Most of the women featured in Liebermann’s work wear some kind of hat. Set in the 20s and 30s and focusing on scenes of the bourgeoisie hats were fashionable accessories. The hat thing makes me always think of the one conversation between Peter and Neal in the Pilot about Diana and Neal’s hat: She digs the hat. – She rather wants to wear the hat. Well, she got the hat. And the trousers, women started to wear in the 20s and 30s as a visible sign of the fight for equal rights for women.


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was for 4 months in 2006 the most expensive painting ever sold. It changed hands for $135 million. One can only hope that for this price it was the real one and not a forgery.

Klimt finished the portrait in 1907 after working on it for three years. It shows elaborated and complex ornamentation as seen in the Jugendstil style. The heavy use of gold and the halo like extension of the dress behind Adele’s head give the painting the feeling of a Russian icon, making Adele an icon of femininity – not as in damsel in distress, but as in self assurance and strength of the full moon. That was my first connection between Sara and Adele. Sara, though I want to feed her anything that would stick to her bones whenever I see her, is the kind of woman who is a match to whoever she meets without trying to be the better man.

The story of the painting reminded me of Sara’s job with the insurance company, reclaiming art and expensive goods for her clients. The painting was a commissioned work for Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy industrial from Vienna, Austria, who made his fortune in the sugar industry. His wife Adele died in 1925 of meningitis and ask her husband in her will to leave the painting to the Austrian State Gallery upon his death. When the Nazis took over Austria, Bloch-Bauer had to flee to Switzerland. His property including the painting was officially confiscated or to put it into straight words – it was stolen from him. Given the turn of history he wasn’t inclined to bow to his wife’s wish and left his property in his 1945 testament to his nieces and nephews. As Austria only recognized Adele’s will, Bloch-Bauer’s inheritors went to court in Austria and the USA. They won in 2006 and subsequently auctioned the art off. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I became the centerpiece of the Neue Galerie, New York exhibition.


The print ‘Jasper Johns’ designed by Shepard Fairey in 2009 for Obey is based on a photo by Michael Tighe. Fairey is also the one who designed the ‘Hope’ poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. So, though you might not know the name of this contemporary graphic designer, who emerged from the skateboard and street art scene, you most probably have seen his work.

It was the play on the names Jasper Johns – Clinton Jones that brought me to the image in the first place. Once in a while the initial idea is very shallow, I admit to that. The target in the original print is an apropos to Jasper Johns’ own work. Though better described as a Neo-Dadaist because of his play with opposites, contradictions, paradoxes and ironies, he is often included into Pop Art compilations due to his artistic use of classical iconography that he split from its symbolic connotations and makes it stand as something in itself.

That said the target reminded me of the opening sequence of a long running German crime TV show called Tatort. This non sequitur provided a link to the FBI and crime shows and consecutively to the character of FBI agent Jones.

But what finally sold me to this particular print was the ‘OBEY’ that is part of the original image and that I substituted with the words White Collar. I had half a mind to write ‘Obey…or Trust’ referring to the upcoming decision concerning Caffrey’s future in particular and the handling of his person in general. Jones, just like Peter and Diana, are caught between friendship and duty. They have seen on many occasions that they can trust Neal on a personal level. But they also understand that for all the FBI and society is concerned, Caffrey isn’t one to be let loose on this world. An unfavorable decision in the hearing will be painful for all and a test. Obey – or trust; and handle not just Neal’s impulsiveness, but also his slight anger management problem he displayed e.g. in the pilot when smashing the light blub in his cell and in 2.09 Point Blank when he goes after Fowler with a gun.


The paintings in this series are approx. 50 x70 cm, done with acrylic colors.

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