16 Fascinating Movies on Painters
Since the rise of film, there have been many movies on painters, including both famous and lesser-known figures.
We all know the moving picture is a great medium to entertain and educate about all things under the sun. Additionally, it can be a beautiful way to achieve a nuanced and different view of a topic. And, of course, with the rise of so many streaming options, we have most movies at our fingertips.
Many movies on painters develop storylines beginning with their early life and explore details of their personal lives to create a beautiful portrait. However, others on this list (such as Girl With a Pearl Earring) take a bit more creative freedom while still teaching us a bit about the artist. It’s also lovely to experience the vision and artistry of the movie directors.
We’ve put together some of the most iconic movies on painters, from biopics to dramatized histories.
1. Frida (2002)
First up on our list of movies on painters is Frida. In this 2002 film, Salma Hayek stars as Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican painter. It chronicles her life from her youth, when she suffered life-altering injuries from a traffic accident, through her adulthood, when she persevered through significant hardship to form the style we know and love her for.
A major storyline of Frida is her turbulent relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera, the well-known muralist painter. At the beginning of the movie, she meets the older, already established artist and falls in love with him, eventually marrying.
There are also some interesting political contexts in Frida. Her husband, Diego, was a political activist and she is immersed in that world. Additionally, at one point, she becomes romantically involved with Leon Trotsky.
The Rotten Tomatoes critics’ consensus reads that “Frida is a passionate, visually striking biopic about the larger-than-life artist.”
2. Séraphine (2008)
Séraphine (2008) is a critically-acclaimed movie that follows the life of Séraphine-Louis, a French self-taught painter. Although she isn’t the most well-known artist on this list, the movie is well done and sheds light on her life and work.
In the film’s opening, we meet Louis, a maidservant in France who paints after work and whose inspiration is nature and religion. Soon, an accomplished art dealer Wilhelm Uhde discovers a painting of hers—he then becomes determined to support her.
His efforts did bring her relative success and financial gain—she was recognized as a prominent “naïve painter” of her time. However, this success launched her into a period of mental instability, and Louis spent the end of her life in an asylum.
The French-Belgian film won many awards—In 2009, it won the César Award for Best Film, with Yolande Moreau also winning Best Actress.
3. Lust for Life (1956)
Of course, we have to include Lust for Life, a biographical film on the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
Based on a book of the same name, Lust for Life chronicles the fascinating life of van Gogh. From his early years as a minister in an impoverished mining town to his later years in Arles, France, we watch the many rather tragic events of his life unfold.
It was well received upon its release in 1956, and it remains one of the most iconic movies on painters to this day. Additionally, despite being one of many van Gogh films, it still remains as one of the most famous.
4. Vincent and Theo (1990)
Let’s talk about another van Gogh film—Vincent and Theo.
Vincent and Theo, as the name suggests, focuses on the relationship between the van Gogh brothers. Throughout Vincent’s life, Theo provided his older brother with constant financial and emotional support.
The film explores both similarities and differences of the siblings. Theo, an accomplished art dealer, and Vincent, an aspiring painter, are depicted as being touched with similar madness while deeply caring about their social respectability. It also does a lovely job showing the various locations in Europe that Vincent lived in.
The film concludes with their deaths—first Vincent, and then Theo just six months later. It’s a tragic but touching story of two brothers who remained lifelong friends despite hardship.
5. Mr. Turner (2014)
One of the more recently-made movies on painters is the 2014 drama film Mr. Turner. It is based on the last 25 years of the J. M. W. Turner, the English Romantic painter.
It is a dramatized version of his later life and focuses on some of his more controversial traits. Throughout the film, he travels, paints, visits brothels, and stays with aristocracy. Additionally, it explores the rivalry between Turner and fellow English artist John Constable.
Regarding the subject of the film, director Mike Leigh said, “I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world””
The film was universally liked by critics, with both the actors and director receiving widespread praise.
6. Pollock (2000)
Let’s move forward in art history with Pollock, a 2000 film based on the famous Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
The film begins with the artist being rocketed to fame after being featured on the cover of Life magazine. It moves on to cover his tumultuous personal life, compounded by heavy drinking and a volatile personality. His famous technique, sometimes referred to as dancing around a canvas, is also well documented in the movie.
A major storyline is Pollock’s relationship with Lee Krasner, his wife and fellow artist. Krasner was a support to Pollock, and often a sort of guidance as to what contemporary art should be. Marcia Gay Harden, the actor who played Lee Krasner, actually won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
7. Basquiat (1996)
In Basquiat (1996), painter Julian Schnabel pays homage to fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Interestingly it is the first film about an American painter written and directed by another visual artist. Schnabel was actually working as an artist in the 1980s, around the same time as Basquiat.
Basquiat, like many other movies on painters, chronicles the life of the artist from his early days until his death. If you watch the film, you’ll see Basquiat’s graffiti-roots to his eventual collage-style paintings and commercial success.˜ It is also an interesting portrait of the New York art scene in the 80s.
The film has a star-studded cast—for example, David Bowie portrays Basquiat’s very close friend Andy Warhol. Basquiat was received fairly well by critics and the public. However, some reviewers feel that Schnabel inserted himself too much into the film.
8. Artemisia (1997)
Let’s move to a completely different era in art history with the 1997 film Artemisia.
It follows the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque painter who was one of the only well-known female artists of her time.
The director Agnes Merlet said, “I didn’t want to show her as a victim but like a more modern woman who took her life into her own hands.” This shows the beauty of the movie—it is a dedication to a woman who succeeded in her own right at a time where women were barred from many opportunities.
The film received mixed-positive reviews. One review on Rotten Tomatoes reads, “The film does a pretty good job of both recreating the world of 17th century art and of avoiding too much historical anachronism.”
9. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Another Italian painter biopic is The Agony and the Ecstasy, which focuses on the great painter and sculptor Michelangelo. Like the above-mentioned Lust for Life, this movie is a film adaptation of an Irving Stone novel of the same name.
The Agony and the Ecstasy focuses particularly on the strained relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the painting of the magnificent Sistine Chapel.
Interestingly, the Sistine Chapel couldn’t be used during filming—instead, a reproduction of it was made in a studio also in Rome. Additionally, there was difficulty when the two lead actors did not get along.
The film received generally positive reviews when it premiered in 1965. Some people thought it was heavy on the dialogue and light on the drama, but still did a good job of showing Michelangelo’s personality and the Pope’s understandable frustration with him.
10. Camille Claudel (1988)
Okay, this movie is about a sculptor, not a painter, but it’s a lovely movie that we had to include!
We are talking about the French film Camille Claudel, which explores the life and work of a female often paired with and overshadowed by her romantic partner, the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin.
In Camille Claudel, we learn about the somewhat troubled life of Camille, a sculptor in her own right. At first, her being linked to Rodin allowed her to overcome some prejudices that many women artists faced at the time—however, this gradually changed. As Rodin became more and more famous, their relationship strained as he became involved with other women.
In real life, Camille Claudel lived to be 78 but didn’t achieve widespread recognition for her work until after her death.
Isabelle Adjani, the lead actress, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
11. Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
This 1946 film is a fictionalized story of Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro. As a historical drama, it adds a lot of theatrics into the life of the famous printmaker.
While it is inspired by Utamaro, it is first and foremost a fictional movie based on a novel of the same name. For example, as part of the plot, Utamaro is inspired by five women who fight to be his lover. It also has a unique episodic structure, unlike all the other movies on painters written about here.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, the movie was made during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II. Therefore, the production was overseen by the occupied forces. In fact, movies such as this one were rarely made as they were seen as possibly nationalistic in a tense time of history.
12. Edvard Munch (1974)
Here we have a biographical film of the artist behind the apocalyptic and iconic Scream painting, Edvard Munch.
This 1974 production covers roughly 30 years of the Norwegian painter’s life. We see some of his most profound influences, especially the death and disease in his family, as well as an affair with a married woman he had as a young man.
The film is in a “docudrama” style: there is a mix of reenactments, voiceovers, characters talking directly into the camera, and even some improvisation by the cast. The director, Peter Watkins, made an interesting choice to use non-professional actors. In fact, to imitate the negative response that Munch’s paintings received in real life, he actually hired Norwegians who genuinely disliked his work.
The famous Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said Edvard Munch was a “work of genius.”
13. Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003)
You’ve probably heard of the famous Johannes Vermeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, but did you know that both a book and a movie were made about it?
For some reason—in part due to some of the more mysterious aspects of the painting—the artwork has captured people’s fascination.
This movie focuses on a young woman named Griet in addition to the painter Vermeer. Griet, played by American actress Scarlett Johannsen, is a young and shy peasant maid who works at Vermeer’s house. Over time, she becomes his assistant and model for his most famous work. This storyline is quite fictionalized, as the identity of the model in the painting is not known.
The film received generally positive reviews and was nominated for three Oscars. One of the top reviews states that although it is a bit slow at times, its pace allows you to soak up impressive visuals and cinematography.
14. Surviving Picasso (1996)
In Surviving Picasso, the accomplished Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins stars as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century—Pablo Picasso.
The film is made through the perspective of Francoise Gilot, one of his lovers. The producers, in part, made this choice because they couldn’t get permission to use his artwork in the movie, making it more difficult to focus on his art and opting instead to focus on his personal life.
Although it is an interesting exploration of Picasso’s life, it received fairly mixed reviews. While critics enjoyed the performance of Hopkins, they were underwhelmed with the overall storyline. It is fairly critical of Picasso’s personality, depicting him as a monster, while not spending too much time on his artwork.
15. Montparnasse 19 (1958)
Last on our list of movies about painters is Montparnasse 19, a 1958 movie about the last years of Italian painter Modigliani, directed by Jacques Becker.
This French-Italian drama film follows the painter in his late years spent in poverty in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. He struggles to both make and sell paintings while his health suffers from substance abuse. Additionally, “Modi” falls in love with a girl from a wealthy family, who are very against their relationship,
A major storyline of the film focuses on his desire to express the beauty of two women in his paintings, which he is unable to do in terms of commercial success. It is a haunting portrait of the desperate last year of Modigliani, and out of all these movies on painters, lives up to the stereotype of the struggling artist.
16. Andrei Rublev (1966)
Last but not least on our list of movies on painters is Andrei Rublev, directed by the famous director Andrei Tarkovsky.
This fascinating Soviet-era biographical movie is loosely based on the Soviet religious painter Andrei Rublev and is set in early 15th-century Russia. In addition to exploring the figure of Rublev, it also tries to paint an accurate portrait of medieval Russia.
The critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is “Andrei Rublev is a cerebral epic that filters challenging ideas through a grand scope — forming a moving thesis on art, faith, and the sweep of history.”
Many people regard Andrei Rublev as one of the greatest films of all time, and absolutely one of the best movies on painters.
And that’s our list of Movies on Painters
From the Renaissance to the 21st century, artists have captured the fascination of the public, so there are understandably many movies made about them. In fact, there are many, many more films that are dedicated to artists than the ones on this list.
If you’re a fan of art history, check out some of these movies on painters! While quite a few of them are older productions, their themes are timeless, as is the art featured in them.
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