My Top 10 Films About Artists: The Biopic

The biopic is a hard undertaking for any film production, but one of a painter? Well, that’s an even bigger obstacle. An art form such as film making an attempt to show the life of a creative mind and all the pieces that make up their life — not to mention other players — will never encapsulate the life fully. In any event, there are some very good and entertaining depictions. Here’s my ranking:

1. lust-for-life-movie-poster-1020337097

Though I’ve never been into Van Gogh (I’m a Gaugin fan myself) this has to be the better of all films about artists I’ve seen. It’s captivating and doesn’t try to be fussy and self-aware with surrealist sequences in an attempt to mimic the artwork itself. The studio spared no expense with this production, and we are fortunate enough they use his actual letters as a guide through the story. And, a good story it is. We know it is obvious the details and harshness of Van Gogh have been glossed over, it still does the job and goes more into conversations about painting itself; not the “oooh look how wacky and bohemian he is”. If anything his eccentricity is not shown as glamour — which I was glad about.

2. pollockmovie

No BS and avoids the other trappings of most stereotypical artist biopics. The painting sequences are well done and have obviously been well-researched, and Ed Harris does a great job of showing both the work ethic and the self-destruction that can happen to really any creative person who finds themselves in the limelight. Most films about artists try to show how unconventional they are as people, but this seems to be more about the creative process. Marcia Gay Harden at Lee Krasner is amazing, and the portrayal of Peggy Guggenheim is great for a bit of comic relief. I’m not a fan at all of Pollock’s work, but it didn’t matter, this was a good movie on its own. The only thing I couldn’t stand was the score.


I don’t know why, but I really like this one. It is also good because it focuses on one part of Picasso’s life, not trying to cram his whole life in. Gilot finally gets a spine and leaves Picasso with the upper hand, and perhaps this is why I like it? The set designers are showing off their stuff, and flashbacks are not too in-your-face with the off beat set decor. Anthony Hopkins does a good job of playing the prick, for sure.

4. basquiatmovie

Wow, I remember when it came out it got a “meh” reaction by everyone I knew while at CalArts, and I wish I hadn’t listened to them. Who knew I’d like Julian Schnabel much more for his films than his paintings? (I now want to go look at his other efforts). I don’t really know much about Basquiat, but I felt like this was a good overview done with good pacing, great cast, and an awesome soundtrack. I felt like it summed up the difference between the downtown artists playing in warehouse spaces, and the Chelsea moneyed art scene of the 1980s dining at Mr. Chow. David Bowie as Andy Warhol was kind of silly — it’s like “hi I’m David Bowie but I’m Andy”, but hey, it’s David Bowie so what can you argue about, really?

5. renoir

Renoir which is a beautifully done French film set in his last days during WWI. Though Renoir is a huge presence and watching him decline is really heartbreaking, the film is really about the last model to pose for him, all while she and his son, Jean, fall in love. I wondered how they did the live painting shots so well, and it turns out a convicted art forger was hired to be the hand on-screen. Good call! I’ve never cared much for the work of Renoir but this film stands on its own whether you know anything about him or not. There’s also lots of pretty naked girls.

6. bigeye

Big Eyes was interesting in that I had always known about Margaret Keane, but never the bizarre court case that happened when her husband took credit for everything she did. This was probably the most tame and commercial Tim Burton film you will ever see. Only in a few moments do we have hallucinatory big eyes becoming animated in and otherwise straight-forward film, and thankfully it doesn’t become a habit. Christoph Waltz is great as a smarmy Walter Keane even if he does take over the whole production. Amy Adams is really good at what she does, but the sugary sweet, naive, I got sand kicked in my face again characterization gets really tiresome and is one-dimensional. I felt like I wanted to know more about Walter not her. A brief appearance by Terrance Stamp as the NYT art critic sums up how I think a lot of skilled artists felt. But hey, the masses have bad taste even when they think they have good taste. I got a little giddy that the Joan Crawford painting made a cameo in the film!

7. fridamovie

While her diaries pretty much describe a life of sex, paint, sex, paint, the movie hardly goes into her injuries or the dark side she held because of the bus accident and multiple miscarriages. We see the initial bus accident addressed, but that’s all. The animation and paintings coming to life are more for decoration and seem to serve the filmmakers themselves as a “look what I can do!” chance, than anything that is supposed to be expressed or tell a story. Stop-motion, collage, and all manner of animation is used, which I found interrupted everything. Still, it does the job of running down the main points of her life without getting tedious. Eccentricity = glamour is high up there, but I guess that’s to be expected. A bit jumbled and mashed together — but very entertaining.

8. girl-with-a-pearl-earring-2003_xvx_61896

I love Vermeer. I’ve done presentations on him, seen many paintings in person, and I grew up with little reproductions of his work around the family home. Again, we have a film that focuses on one small blip in his life, but really, the story isn’t so much about him as it is about his sitter (and assistant). I loved the cinematography, the candlelit darkness of the evening domestic scenes vs. the bright open space of his studio in the day. There’s some talk of technique and process, as well as the lifestyle of an artist who was considered to be doing quite well. The thing that killed it for me was Scarlett. Her bovine expressions, and acting.  Actually I almost forgot to include this movie on the list because all I could really recall was her making derp-derpy-dumb face throughout. I mean, it’s on the poster, that’s pretty much the expression she makes in the whole film. Colin Firth is okay, a bit uncomfortable maybe, but nothing to write home about.


I was hoping this would be an overview of his full life, but again we have a film that only focuses on his later years until his death. This one is a slow burn and if you don’t care about art or Turner, you’d probably not make it through the first 15 minutes — especially with the thick accents. It is paced in a way I’m not fond of because I did almost give up on it, but the sets, costumes, and cinematography help matters. No animation or other theatrical vignettes, thank God! And, the painting scenes have been well research as to his brute force with brushes. We get the point that the guy had major issues with women and was an all out jerk to everyone in his family or had any contact with him really, but I wish we had seen his earlier years because I have a hard time believing just being a talented painter made him famous, beyond his father being his manager. If you went by this film alone, you’d wonder how on earth he managed to make a career for himself if he was such a complete miserable asshole — which is played very well by Timothy Spall, btw. For whatever reason he still attracts women, but you get no sense of why aside from his brief pleasantries. My favorite part of the movie is when he goes into a slow maniacal laughter at viewing the inclusion of Pre-Raphaelites in the Royal Academy exhibition. If you know your art history, you’ll know why it is accurate and funny. I’ll admit I started laughing, too.


I rolled my eyes through the whole thing. What killed me was the opening sequence at some salon/cafe where Picasso, women with black shawls, and a harlequin is dancing around while they all are being overly “artsy” drinking, drawing, and reciting bad poetry etc. The part that really made me mad (besides having one rather legendary Impressionist character say he didn’t paint women because they were too fat in his day — whatever), was when all the artists are working on their pieces for the Salon Competition of 1920. It is a montage with background music that sounds like something Enya would release. All of the artists are screaming, crying, covered in paint, jabby with their brushes and chain smoking. Oh-so tortured you know. As if they made these paintings in one day! The costumes and set design are the only thing going for this film.

For the most part, I’ve met two kinds of artists in life with concern to dress and outward projection: the kind who dress wacky and act out these faux bohemian lifestyles because they want it to be 1920s Paris or Andy Warhol’s factory all over again, and the kind who dress like up-tight minimalists who are serious academics and drink so-so Chardonnay. I don’t know where the graffiti artists fall into this. Obviously not everyone fits into these two camps; both are the extreme ends of the spectrum but I’ve seen my share in the flesh.

I was going to include the Caravaggio film on here but I’ve been told it is awful and not to waste my time. The Ghosts of Goya I did like, but he is just an anchor character in what is really a Natalie Portman vehicle.

In any event, I hope you look of some of these films and enjoy!

2 thoughts on “My Top 10 Films About Artists: The Biopic”

  1. All I want to know is, how is there not a biopic of Goya? Seriously, his personality and life were so interesting. Which artist would you choose someone to make a biopic of?

    1. There’s that one with Natalie Portman but it isn’t really about him, he is more of an anchoring character in that film. I’d love to see a proper one just all about him.

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