Artists on the Big Screen

Hollywood loves artists because they’re observant, flawed, eccentric and vulnerable—qualities a main character must have to win over the audience.

Artists also allow directors to smuggle scores of “beauty shots” into their films. Always a plus.

Here’s my list of the dozen top films depicting artists (in chronological order). Take advantage of the lockdown to watch them.

Rembrandt (1936). Suddenly widowed, the Dutch painter’s life—and work—take a dark turn.

The Moon and Sixpence (1942). A British stockbroker rejects middle-class comfort for la vie de bohème. Paul Gaugin as seen through the eyes of Somerset Maugham.

Lust for Life (1956). A day doesn’t go by when painter Vincent Van Gogh doesn’t struggle with self-expression. We get an earful. (And eyeful.)

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The Pope relentlessly insists that sculptor Michelangelo completes a mural. The surly sculptor hits the ceiling.

Savage Messiah (1972). Sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska will do anything to gain an audience. Anything. A raucous art-adventure directed by Ken Russell and starring the young Helen Mirren.

Vincent and Theo (1990). Proof that every artist needs a devoted patron. A stunningly filmed passion project from director Robert Altman.

Pollock (2000). Proof—80 proof—that whiskey will wreck an artist’s life. A chilling passion project from the star and director, Ed Harris.

Renoir (2012). Old age can’t stop a determined artist, especially when his household revolves around him.

Mr. Turner (2014). To some artists, romance arrives late in life. A charming and beautiful period film.

Big Eyes (2014). A wife paints pictures the public loves, but her husband takes the credit. A surprising period romp from director Tim Burton.

Final Portrait (2017). Giacometti can’t seem to finish the portrait of a friend. A joyful film about creativity—my favorite on the list—directed by Stanley Tucci.

Red (2018). Mark Rothko tackles his greatest challenge: the meaning of art—and of life.

There are dozens more fine films about artists I’d include on a list of runners-up, including Moulin Rouge (1952), My Left Foot (1989), Basquiat (1996), Surviving Picasso (1996), Frida (2002), Modigliani (2004) and Rodin (2018).

What film tops your list?

NOTE: Be sure to visit my shop. Paintings make great gifts.