The Envelope, Please: 12 Art Films That Earned Oscar Love

Here are the artist biopics, adaptations, and documentaries that have landed Academy plaudits.

Nan Goldin and Laura Poitras attend the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)

As we get ready to make the popcorn, settle in on the couch and witness the ultimate outcome of the Barbie vs. Oppenheimer contest at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony (go Team Barbie!), we’re looking back to the many films over the years that have clinched Oscar nominations and awards for their representations of artists’ lives.

Dramatizations of the volatility of Vincent van Gogh, the dramatic Cold War backdrop of the life of Gerhard Richter, and the turmoil of Camille Claudel’s journey have all gained respect from the Academy over the years. Here are 12 films, in chronological order, to get you in the mood for this year’s event while also quenching your thirst for art tales.


Lust for Life (1956)

Anthony Quinn took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas’s legendary rendition of the canonical tortured artist, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in the Vincente Minnelli–directed feature. All the major episodes of his life play out—from his stormy relationships with church authorities and women to his cutting off his ear and his tragic suicide. 

Quinn didn’t go unrecognized, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.


Camille Claudel (1988)

Based on the life of 19th-century French sculptor Camille Claudel, this steamy pic was co-produced by Isabelle Adjani, who played the starring role, and features Gérard Depardieu playing sculptor Auguste Rodin, with whom Claudel had a long but stormy relationship. 

Adjani earned a nomination for Academy Award for Best Actress, and the production was considered for a prize for Best Foreign Language film.


My Left Foot (1989)

The legendary Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Irish artist Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy and, per the title, painted with his left foot since it was the only thing he could control. He engaged in his usual method acting, not doing anything Brown couldn’t do for the entire production, so he was carried around in a wheelchair and even spoon-fed his meals. 

Directed by Jim Sheridan, the film was based on the artist’s memoir of the same title, and it scored five nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay; Day-Lewis won Best Actor and Brenda Fricker brought home the Best Supporting Actress award. 


Pollock (2000)

In his directorial debut, Ed Harris played the title role, enacting the turbulent life of Jackson Pollock, whose innovations earned him the epithet “Jack the Dripper.” He got an Oscar nom for Best Actor, while Marcia Gay Harden, as fellow artist (and his wife) Lee Krasner, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Harris was inspired to create the film by the 1989 biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It also features turns by major stars as other towering figures on the New York art scene, like Jeffrey Tambor as critic Clement Greenberg and Val Kilmer as Willem de Kooning, and, in a twist, artist Kenny Scharf as artist William Baziotes.


Frida (2002)

Salma Hayek plays the much-worshipped Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, which, under Julie Taymour’s direction, incorporates a magical realist style suited to the depiction of the life of the surrealist painter. Alfred Molina plays her equally titanic husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (he gained 35 pounds to play the role). Hayek was nominated for Best Actress in a leading role, and the movie won Oscars for Best Makeup and Best Original Score. An array of Hollywood luminaries fill out the cast, like Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky, Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti, Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. 


Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

In this fictionalized account of the backstory to one of the world’s most beloved paintings, Colin Firth plays the revered Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a servant in his home whom he transforms into a timeless beauty when he paints her in the titular canvas, which has hung in the Mauritshuis in the Hague since 1902. Directed by Peter Webber from the eponymous 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier, it earned nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.


Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

A street photographer who was unknown until years after her death, who worked in the employ of various families and became known as “the nanny photographer,” Vivian Maier was a complicated and secretive figure. Chicago real estate agent John Maloof bought a box of hundreds of her negatives at a storage auction for a song in 2007, and thus began an odyssey in which he investigated her life, finding the families she worked for, and interviewing major photographers and critics about her on-screen.

In the film, which Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel, he both fills out the photographer’s biography and lobbies for her work in the art world, as Benjamin Sutton wrote for Artnet News in 2014. Their efforts earned them a nomination for Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


Mr. Turner (2014)

Mr. Turner, which focuses on the last 25 years of the life of J.M.W. Turner (played by Timothy Spall), won four nominations at the Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design. Directed by the legendary Mike Leigh, the film explores the English Romantic painter’s love life, including with his housekeeper and a wealthy landlady, and sees him perform stunts like being strapped to a ship’s mast so he can witness a snowstorm at sea. 

It also dramatizes a scene of rivalry, when a relatively staid Turner was exhibited next to a luminous canvas by John Constable; to spice things up, Turner adds a dash of red to his own painting to represent a buoy in the seascape, to which Constable says, “He’s been here and fired a gun.”


Loving Vincent (2017)

Written and directed by painter Dorota Kobiela and filmmaker Hugh Welchman and nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Loving Vincent was the first fully painted animated feature, each of its 65,000 frames a shot of an oil painting on canvas in the inimitable style of Van Gogh (played by Robert Gulaczyk). The frames were realized with the efforts of a team of some 125 artists. 

The film explores an alternative explanation of Van Gogh’s death: the notion that he didn’t commit suicide, and that someone else fired the fatal shot. Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), son of the postman Joseph Roulin (the subject of an iconic Van Gogh portrait, played here by Chris O’Dowd), visits Auvers-sur-Oise, the French commune where the artist died, to investigate.


At Eternity’s Gate (2019) 

Willem Dafoe starred as (yes, again) Van Gogh and earned a nomination for Best Actor. At Eternity’s Gate was directed by Julian Schnabel, the artist who went on to Hollywood fame as the director of other art-inspired films like 1996’s Basquiat.

Filmmakers can’t get enough of exploring the artist’s demise, it seems. This picture explores that same provocative theory that his death came by manslaughter rather than suicide, advanced in the 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Shot on locations where the artist lived and worked, in Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise, the film also landed Dafoe a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor.


Never Look Away (2019)

Drawing on the early life of superstar German artist Gerhard Richter, this film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography (as well as a nomination for a Golden Lion at the 75th Venice International Film Festival).

The main character, Kurt Barnert, attends art school in Dresden, where he is forced to work in a social realist mode that he disdains. He flees to West Germany, where he studies under a character based on Joseph Beuys and begins to create figurative paintings with a distinctive blur.


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2023)

Devoted to the life of artist and activist Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed documents her crusade against drug kingpins the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma whose painkiller OxyContin has been at the center of an opioid epidemic. Directed by Laura Poitras, the film earned a Best Documentary nomination as well as a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, becoming one of the only docs ever to win the prize. 

Writing for Artnet News, Ben Davis observed that “It feels as if we are solving a mystery in re-visiting the incidents of her life: the mystery of how this well-known artist ended up spending her mature career protesting the museums that carry her work, and the Sackler name.”

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