Creative Genius on Film: 8 Must-See Artist Biopics

Famous artists are ideal subjects for biopics, since they often lead lives full of crisis and drama, inspiration and beauty. Here's a look at eight films that give us a closer look at the complicated creative genius of well-known artists.
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Girl With the Pearl Earring Photo

In "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), Scarlett Johannson (left) plays a young servant girl named Griet, a fictional character inspired by one of Jan Vermeer’s most famous paintings. (Photo: Pathe/Photofest, Wikicommons)

The past few months brought us quite a few noteworthy biopics on a fascinating range of subjects. We’ve seen Eddie Redmayne as physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Benedict Cumberbatch as British codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Steve Carrell as eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher, Paul Dano and John Cusack as older and younger versions of musician Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy (to be released internationally in June 2015), and Reese Witherspoon as author Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

Last but not least, there’s Mr. Turner, the true story of a 19th-century British artist who challenged all expectations in his famous landscape and seascape paintings. Character actor Timothy Spall (known to many from his recurring role in the Harry Potter films) plays J. M. W. Turner with aggressive energy in this film directed by Mike Leigh

Mr. Turner Photo

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner."

If you’re in a creative frame of mind, there are plenty of earlier artist biopics that might appeal to your imagination. Some of the movies listed below stick mostly to the facts, and most add a few colorful dashes of fiction, but all of them give us a sense of what it’s like to be that person struggling to express his or her unique viewpoint through art.

1. The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965

Two titans of the screen act out a legendary battle of wills in this epic drama based on a novel by Irving Stone. Rex Harrison plays Pope Julius II, who has hired the artist Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Charlton Heston portrays the unruly, unkempt Michelangelo, arguing with the Pope at every turn while creating one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.

2. Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003

This film, an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name, imagines the circumstances behind one of Jan Vermeer’s most famous paintings. Colin Firth plays the artist in the 1660s, at the height of his career yet still struggling to support his large family. Scarlett Johannson is cast as a fictional character, a young servant girl named Griet who shows such an appreciation of Vermeer’s art that he makes her his studio assistant and his model. 

3. Vincent & Theo, 1990

Robert Altman directed this cinematic look at the life of Vincent van Gogh (played by Tim Roth) and his ever-supportive brother Theodore (Paul Rhys). Filmed on location in France and Holland, Vincent & Theo depicts the brothers’ close friendship as well as Vincent’s internal conflicts and singular vision of the world. It’s an earthy and vibrant look at an individual who received little recognition during his lifetime, but is now one of the best-loved artists of the Western world.

4. Moulin Rouge, 1952

Not to be confused with Baz Lurhmann’s film-musical Moulin Rouge! (2000), this movie was directed by John Huston and stars José Ferrer as French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocrat who was badly deformed by illness and a childhood accident, became notorious for depicting the seedier side of Parisian nightlife. In this movie we see him mingling with performers, prostitutes and other decadent types, while grappling with his physical ailments as well as loneliness and alcoholism. Zsa Zsa Gabor appears as the celebrated nightclub singer Jane Avril, one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite subjects.

5. Georgia O’Keeffe, 2009

Before she became famous for her paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes, O’Keeffe was an unknown young art teacher. Joan Allen plays O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons plays Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallery-owner who sees her early work and brings it to the attention of the New York art world. This film tells the story of their mutual inspiration and the ups and downs of their romance as it follows O’Keeffe’s career in the 1910s and 1920s.

6. Frida, 2002

Frida Kahlo drew upon her own life experiences for her art, and she had plenty of dramatic autobiographical material to use. Salma Hayek stars as Kahlo, from her early years growing up in Mexico City and the devastating accident that left her disabled, to her political activism, her late drug addiction and her tempestuous marriage to painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton and Geoffrey Rush appear as various other artists, collectors and intellectuals in the Kahlo-Rivera circle. Director Julie Taymor matched Kahlo’s detailed, surrealistic style by incorporating animation and other visual techniques that bring the artist’s work to life.

7. Pollock, 2000

Ed Harris directed and starred in this biopic of one of the most famous (or infamous?) American artists of all time: Jackson Pollock, whose monumental “drip” paintings of the 1940s and 1950s helped redefine modern art. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, was also an important mid-century artist; she’s portrayed in this film by Marcia Gay Harden. Val Kilmer plays Willem de Kooning and model Stephanie Seymour appears as Helen Frankenthaler, just two of many other artists with whom the hard-living Pollock crossed paths before his tragic accidental death.

8. Basquiat, 1996

Basquiat tracks the spectacular rise and fall of one of the “art stars” of the 1980s, a young Haitian-American artist whose graffiti-inspired paintings made him the toast of the New York gallery scene. Jeffrey Wright stars as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gary Oldman appears as his fellow artist Julian Schnabel and David Bowie contributes a supporting performance as Andy Warhol.