Capturing the creative process on film is almost impossible. Artists work inside their own heads as much as with physical materials, which is why a number of films about artists fall short of the mark. But sometimes, filmmakers get it right, creating rounded portraits of fascinating men and women driven by their passions to create something amazing. Some of the films on this list will be familiar to readers, especially those who’ve studied fine art at the college or master’s degree level, but they’re all worth watching no matter your profession. These are the movies that come closer than any others to re-creating the moment of inspiration in an artist’s life.
Pollock: Ed Harris stars as Jackson Pollock in this rightfully lauded biopic of the legendary abstract expressionist painter. Pollock died at 44 in 1956 in a car accident influenced by the alcohol he’d struggled with for years. (As the movies on this list prove, “tortured artist” is often a redundant phrase.) Harris also directed the film, his first time behind the camera.
Basquiat: Jean-Michel Basquiat exploded on the scene as a graffiti artist in 1980s New York City, though he died at the age of 27 thanks to a heroin overdose. Jeffrey Wright stars as the titular artist in Julian Schnabel’s divisive but gripping film.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison star as Michelangelo and Pope Julius II, respectively, in this big-screen treatment of the painting of the Sistine Chapel. A must for Heston lovers.
Art School Confidential: Inspired by the comic book by Daniel Clowes (the author of Ghost World), Art School Confidential is a hilarious look at the pomposity that can affect some of the art world’s most ardent members. An indispensable flick for everyone who’s ever taken an art class.
Dirty Pictures: James Woods stars as Dennis Barrie, the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center who was charged with promoting pornography when he decided to exhibit some photos by Robert Mapplethorpe that featured, among other things, naked children and images of gay S&M treatment. The fictionalized version of real events won a Golden Globe, and the story is relevant to any artist who’s ever dealt with First Amendment challenges.
Frida: This 2002 biopic earned Salma Hayek an Oscar nomination for her turn as Frida Kahlo, the Mexican surrealist painter from the first half of the 20th century. Shot entirely in Mexico, the film is one of the best films about the struggles of an artist to succeed and be recognized.
Goya in Bordeaux: Francisco Goya, Spanish romantic painter of the 18th and 19th century, gets the biographical treatment in this exceptional Spanish film from 1999. Interestingly, Spain’s major film awards are named after Goya, and this film won five of them.
I Shot Andy Warhol: The debut film from Mary Harron, who would go on to direct American Psycho, tells the story of pop artist Andy Warhol from the perspective of Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill him in 1968. The movie is one of the more thorough and authentic of its genre: Harron originally intended to make a documentary before turning her story into a feature.
Klimt: John Malkovich stars as Gustav Klimt in this often overlooked 2006 Austrian film about the artist who made waves with this erotic, romantic images. The most famous of these, The Kiss, adorns dorm room walls to this day.
My Left Foot: Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Oscar for his stunning portrayal of Christy Brown, an Irish artist born with cerebral palsy who made art using his left foot, the only part of his body he could control. One of the best films of the 1980s.
Vincent & Theo: One of Robert Altman’s lesser known works, 1990′s Vincent & Theo revolves around Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, an art dealer. Definitely worth seeking out.
Modigliani: Andy Garcia stars as Amedeo Modigliani in this slightly reworked biography of the painter’s life. Maybe not the ideal film to watch if you’re studying for a test on the man, but a good story nonetheless.
Girl With a Pearl Earring: Adapted from the novel of the same name, this film stars Scarlett Johansson as the titular character immortalized in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The story is fictional, but it’s still a good film for fans of classic art and period pieces.
Lust for Life: Another Van Gogh: This time out, Kirk Douglas stars as the famous Dutch painter. The film is also notable for a supporting role from Anthony Quinn as Paul Gaugin, a role that won him an Oscar.
How to Draw a Bunny: Ray Johnson, an artist who worked in everything from collage to performance art, gets a fantastic profile in this 2002 British documentary. Despite his influence, he’s not well known outside artistic circles, making this doc a great resource for more casual art fans.
Camille Claudel: French sculptor Camille Claudel became intimately involved with Auguste Rodin, a relationship captured in this acclaimed 1988 biography.
The Mystery of Picasso: Henri-Georges Clouzot directed this intriguing 1956 documentary about Pablo Picasso that won the Special Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. In the film, Picasso creates paintings specifically for the documentary and then destroys them, so that they’ll only exist in the movie.
Carrington: Emma Thompson stars as Dora Carrington in this gorgeous biopic that traces her life, her work, and her relationship with author Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce).
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus: Photographer Diane Arbus made her name by taking stark photos of people on the fringes of society, including circus performers. This highly fictionalized and almost dream-like version of her story highlights what made her art so special.
Artemisia: This 1997 French film is a wonderful biography of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter from the early 1600s. A great look at one of the early female pioneers in the field.