Eight Awesome Movies About Artists 

Art can convey some of an artist’s biography, but films that document an artist’s life and career can reveal even more of their story, from the most arduous trials to the most glorious triumphs. Such narratives bring us closer to the artist and remind us that, despite their incredible talents or accomplishments, they are still mortal like the rest of us. Tapping into that humanity makes their journeys all the more captivating and can foster an even deeper appreciation for the brilliance they achieved in their art. 

If you could use some time connecting with a crucial figure from art history via film, take a look at our list of awesome movies about artists. This list spans more than fifty years of film history and comes stocked with some seasoned classics as well as new-to-the-scene gems that are sure to transform your next movie into an artful adventure. These titles, organized in chronological order by release date, share a diverse field of artists who experienced so much in their lives, fueling their breathtaking bodies of work. Let’s dive into our list: 

‘Utamaro and His Five Women’ (1946)

Our list begins with a historic film gem directed by Kenji Mizogushi that traces a (fictionalized) account of one of Japan’s most acclaimed printmakers. ‘Utamaro and His Five Women’ centers on Kitagawa Utamaro, an 18th-century master of the ukiyo-e tradition. These prints typically featured fantastical portraits of women in colorful embroidered kimonos, and Utamaro purportedly sourced the models for many of these works from the brothels around Edo (Tokyo). Such a sordid source served as a springboard for Mizoguchi’s adaptation that rapidly embroils the artist in a lover’s quarrel that comes complete with imprisonment, murder, and, finally, redemption. 

‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ (1965)

From all accounts, Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel in the early sixteenth century was often mired in clashes of personality and other controversies. Author Irving Stone channeled that tumult into his best-seller The Agony and the Ecstasy, first published in 1961 and adapted for the silver screen only several years later under the same name. Featuring the expert direction of Carol Reed and a stellar cast that included Charlton Heston in the role of Michelangelo and Rex Harrison cast as Pope Julius II, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ took great effort to create a relatively historically accurate film documenting the expansive chapel ceiling’s decoration. The combination of tour-de-force performances by veteran actors Heston and Harrison with a compelling narrative that – some creative license aside – could open eyes anew to learning about Michelangelo and his era. 

‘Basquiat’ (1996)

Jean-Michel Basquiat was on a meteoric rise to artistic stardom at the time of his unfortunate death in 1988 from a drug overdose. The specter of addiction looms over ‘Basquiat’, the 1996 eponymous biopic directed by Julian Schnabel that tells the story of the young artist’s rise from a street artist to a gallery darling. Bolstered by a stellar cast – including Jeffrey Wright as the artist and David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s close friend and collaborator in his final years – this movie offers a heart-wrenching look at an incredible talent who was so close to having it all but could not escape the demons of addiction. 

‘Pollock’ (2000)

Jackson Pollock was essential in the debut of Abstract Expressionism to an international audience. Beyond the canvas, though, he struggled with insecurities muddled with a hot temper and an addiction to alcohol. This combination of traits makes ‘Pollock’, directed by actor Ed Harris (who also plays the role of Pollock in the film), a thrilling ride even if we know the devastating trajectory of Pollock’s career. Harris captures some of the working processes of the artists along with his personal foibles to remind the viewer that even the most talented artist can be plagued with personal doubt. 

‘Frida’ (2002) 

The paintings of Frida Kahlo are often lauded for their auto-biographical nature, a linkage made clear with the 2002 biopic ‘Frida.’ Starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, this film offers a narrative of the Mexican artist’s life and career that is equal parts devastating and delightful. From her nearly fatal bus accident in her youth to her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera, ‘Frida’ captures some of the imaginative energy of an artist that was somehow able to triumph in the midst of such catastrophic chaos. Hayek’s embodiment of Kahlo’s persona only adds to the captivating quality of the film. 

‘Mr. Turner’ (2014)

English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was an early pioneer in experimenting with the way light, shadow, and atmosphere could be conveyed in painting and thus is often positioned as a crucial building block to the eventual advent of Impressionism. Director Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr. Turner’ focuses on the climax of this experimentation by taking his audience on a journey through the final decades of Turner’s career. Showcasing the tensions between mortal eccentricity and artistic genius, ‘Mr. Turner’ transports the viewer to the artist’s studio for a very visceral window into the mind of the master Turner. 

‘Big Eyes’ (2014)

Though the artist at the center of ‘Big Eyes’ is far less celebrated than many of the others featured in these films, the story that unfolds in this film is undoubtedly an enthralling one. ‘Big Eyes’ tells the tale of American artist Margaret Keane, an avid painter whose husband, Walter, handled the sale of her characteristic works featuring figures with larger-than-life eyes. Sales continued to skyrocket, but unbeknown to Margaret, Walter had begun to sell many of the works as his own. Without giving away the ending, the swindle comes tumbling down and results in a heated court battle that culminates in a paint-off between the duo. Who wins? You’ll need to watch ‘Big Eyes’ to find out.

‘Loving Vincent’ (2017) 

For more than half a century, fans of Vincent van Gogh’s career flocked to ‘Lust for Life’ (1956) as the quintessential movie about the artist. Move over “Lust for Life’: one of a spate of early 20th-century films focusing on the Dutch Post-Impressionist was ‘Loving Vincent’, a film that offered a remarkably innovative means of bringing van Gogh’s story to life. Homing in on the final year of van Gogh’s life, ‘Loving Vincent’ almost plays like a whodunnit as an intrepid postman seeks to find answers about the artist’s demise. Equally as compelling as the story, however, is the amazing cinematography that captured a world built from van Gogh’s paintings (literally: a team of artists labored tirelessly to bring each frame to life in painted form). Thanks to this innovative technical capacity, ‘Loving Vincent’ really does transport the viewer into van Gogh’s world. 

Most Recent Movies about Artists

The titles we’ve showcased so far are some of the best of the last half century, but fantastic films about artists are released annually. Before we wrap up, we wanted to nod to three recent film gems that are sure to be included among the most important in the years to come. These include:  

‘Beyond the Visible – Hilma Af Klint’ (2019)

This gripping film profiles the legacy of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint whose abstract works are considered some of the first in the field. The documentary artfully balances Hilma af Klint’s immense talent with her rather reclusive lifestyle such that a viewing could easily revitalize anyone’s interest in modern abstract painting. 

‘Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire’ (2019)

A touching, posthumous portrait of an artist who lost his life to AIDS in 1989, ‘Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire’ reveals the incredible body of work produced by an artist who aimed to be a game-changer in the art world.

‘Pat Steir: Artist’ (2020)

Known for her abstract “Waterfall” paintings, artist Pat Steir comes to life in this painting about her life and career. Filmmaker Veronica Gonzalez Peña shadowed the artist for two years to give the film an undeniable sense of authenticity in an intimate portrait of the influential artist.

Making the Most of Movies About Artists

From Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to van Gogh’s Starry Night, these subjects of these various films celebrate these artists while also revealing a bit of the person behind the artwork. In doing so, we are reminded of just how challenging it is to rise to the top of the art world. At the same time, the realization of these challenges makes each of their accomplishments all the more amazing. If you enjoy art and want to learn more about any of these artists, these films can serve as a great springboard to dive into their lives.