7 Oscar-Worthy Adaptations of Artists’ Lives

Vincent van Gogh, "Self Portrait" (detail), 1889. Oil on canvas, 25.59 x 21.26 in. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Award season is in full swing, bringing with it many must-see films. This year, one of the most lauded films is based on the unconventional life of a great painter. Loving Vincent is the latest in a long line of projects that immortalize Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. Although a popular subject for filmmakers, van Gogh is not the first artist to be depicted on the big screen.

The details surrounding great masterworks and their makers have long intrigued writers and directors, resulting in many efforts to commemorate the careers of celebrated artists in film. While these endeavors often take liberties with biographical details, some result in cinematic masterpieces that rival the artworks portrayed themselves.

Though not the only indicator of cinematic success, an Academy Award nomination is seen by many as the pinnacle of excellence. Ahead of the upcoming Oscars, our editors compiled 7 of the best film adaptations of artists’ lives. Below, see the artist biopics that gained the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“Loving Vincent,” 2017

One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature Film, Loving Vincent takes on a perennially popular topic: the life and death of Vincent van Gogh. The first fully painted feature film, Loving Vincent was created from 65,000 frames of oil paint. In explaining the process the filmmakers said, “We painted the first frame as a full painting on canvas board, and then painted over that painting for each frame until the last frame of the shot. We are then left with an oil-painting on canvas board of the last frame.”

Accolades: Loving Vincent’s 42 award nominations include Best Animated Picture from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs.

“Mr. Turner,” 2014

This movie, starring Timothy Spall, focuses on the last 25 years of the life of British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Always an eccentric, Turner was deeply affected by his father’s death. The film depicts Turner’s struggle to recover after the death of his father, who lived and worked with the artist for 30 years. It follows his relationships with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (a fictional character) and Sophia Booth, Turner’s companion for the last 18 years of his life.

Accolades: The movie was nominated for 66 awards including 4 Academy Award nominations for cinematography, costume design, musical score, and production design.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring,” 2003

Though many of the films on this list focus on biographical information about an artist’s life, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fictional story about the creation of Johannes Vermeer’s eponymous masterpiece. The film’s plot moves forward from the point of view of the woman in the painting. Little is known about the sitter, but the movie posits that she was a servant in Vermeer’s household who grew close to the artist.

Accolades: Girl with a Pearl Earring was nominated for 44 awards, including 3 Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Girl with a Pearl Earring,” circa 1665. Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“Frida,” 2002

Frida stars Salma Hayek in a stylized depiction of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life. The movie contains elements of magical realism that are present in Kahlo’s original works, but delves deep into the biographical information surrounding her life, career, and death. Actor Alfred Molina plays Frida’s partner and fellow artist, Diego Rivera. The couple’s many arguments and affairs play a large role in the movie’s plot.

Accolades: The film was nominated for 46 awards including 6 Academy Awards. Salma Hayek was nominated for Best Actress in a leading role, and the movie won two Oscars for Best Makeup and Best Original Score.

“Pollock,” 2000

This biographical film was directed by and starred Ed Harris in the title role. Harris dedicated himself to the project after reading Jackson Pollock’s biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It took nearly a decade for Harris to get the film made and required the actor to gain 30 pounds during a break in filming in order to portray the Abstract Expressionist. Harris also did all the painting in the film.

Accolades: Ed Harris was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, and Marcia Gay Harden won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner.

“The Agony and the Ecstasy,” 1965

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a film about the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Actor Charlton Heston plays the artist opposite Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. The Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo around 4 years to complete. He was simultaneously working on Pope Julius II’s tomb, which wasn’t completed to the artist’s satisfaction despite his working on it for 40 years. A review of the film in Variety in 1964 stated, “Rex Harrison is outstanding as the Pope, from the moment of his striking entrance as a hooded soldier leading the suppression of a pocket of revolt, to his later scenes as an urbane, yet sensitive, pragmatic ruler of a worldly kingdom.”

Accolades: The film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Art Direction.

“Lust for Life,” 1956

Lust for Life is an MGM film about the life of Vincent van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas as the artist. The plot covers van Gogh’s early desire to be a minister, his life as a painter in Paris, and his relationship with Paul Gauguin, played by Anthony Quinn. In the New York Times review of the film’s premiere, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Both the script and the performance of this picture have a striking integrity in putting forth the salient details and the surface aspects of the life of van Gogh.”

Accolades: This film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Anthony Quinn won Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Kirk Douglas was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Douglas won in the Best Actor – Drama category at the Golden Globes.

Publicity still from the film, “Lust for Life.” Signed in black ink at upper right. Offered via Alexander Historical Auctions (May 2016).

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