From Canvas to Screen: Your Essential Guide to Artist Biopics

So many artist biopics to get through, so little time.

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014). Photo: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo.

The artist’s life is clearly ripe for cinematic adaptation or interpretation. Whether the struggling genius yearning for recognition, the rising artist masterminding her next great masterpiece, or the old hand tussling with inner demons, filmmakers have long sought and found rich ground in the creative mind. So much so that there’s now a feast of artist biopics chronicling the biographies of Old Masters and American greats, contemporary creators and outsider artists. It’s a lot to get through, but we’ve done the hard work for you. Read on for our catalogue of artists who have made it to the silver screen. 


Salvador Dalí 

Guide to Artist Biopics

Pio Marmaï as Salvador Dali in Daaaaaalí! (2024). Photo: Atelier de Production.

This year brings us Daaaaaalí! (2024), a delightfully absurdist comedy that sees five actors, including Edouard Baer, Gilles Lellouche, and Jonathan Cohen, depicting Dalí at various ages and stages of derangement. It is of course hardly the first film to tackle the untackleable man. Mary Harron’s Dalíland (2022) cast Ben Kingsley as an aging Dalí, when his marriage and legacy were both wearing thin. But not before Little Ashes (2008) followed a young Dalí, played by Robert Pattinson, as he winds his way through Madrid’s bohemian student scene, locating love, ambition, and ultimately, his persona.  


Vincent van Gogh

Robert Glyaczk as Vincent Van Gogh in Loving Vincent (2017). Courtesy

Dalí’s cinematic hold, however, has nothing on Van Gogh, who can count at least five biopics to his name. Kirk Douglas was first to step into the artist’s shoes for Lust For Life (1956), an account sensitively directed by Vincente Minnelli. In 1990, Vincent and Theo centered on Van Gogh’s relationship with his brother, who cemented the artist’s legacy, through a pair of powerful performances by Tim Roth and Paul Rhys. The painter’s final days are also traced in Van Gogh (1991), anchored by a César Awardwinning turn by Jacques Dutronc, and At Eternity’s Gate (2018), a Willem Dafoe vehicle that runs with the theory that Van Gogh died by manslaughter. 

More interesting are the filmmakers who’ve used Van Gogh’s work as a basis for their own art. The animated movie Loving Vincent (2017) retreads the artist’s last days through 65,000 painstakingly oil-painted frames. Akira Kurosawa’s imaginative short film Crows (1990), part of his Dreams anthology, is not a biopic, but earns a mention for casting Martin Scorsese as Van Gogh, and vivifying a number of the artist’s famed landscapes. 


Frida Kahlo

Guide to Artist Biopics

Ofelia Medina as Frida Kahlo in Frida, Still Life (1986). Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Frida, Still Life (1983) was early in chronicling the key beats of the Mexican artist’s life—her traumatic injury, an unfaithful husband, alcoholism, and the making of her searing masterpieces. But it was the English-language Frida (2002), starring Salma Hayek, that gave Kahlo’s biography a Hollywood sheen. It culminates on a high when the artist, after having a leg amputated, is nonetheless transported to her first solo show in Mexico in her four-poster bed. 


Jackson Pollock 

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner in Pollock (2000). Photo: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo.

In Pollock (2000), Ed Harris offers a compelling turn as the American painter, who was bedeviled by alcoholism yet possessed by his art. But due props should go to Marcia Gay Harden for delivering an Oscar-winning, piercingly vulnerable portrait of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife who stood by him without yielding her own backbone.  


Jean-Michel Basquiat

David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Basquiat (1996). Photo: Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) follows its titular painter, played by Jeffrey Wright with a mercurial magnetism, from his beginnings as a street artist to his battles with fame and drugs. It’s also worth seeing for Schnabel’s depiction of New York’s 1980s downtown art scene. There’s Parker Posey as dealer Mary Boone and David Bowie as an affected Andy Warhol, and gallery openings where people say things like, “This is the real voice of the gutter!”


Georgia O’Keeffe 

Guide to Artist Biopics

Joan Allen as Georgia O’Keeffe in Georgia O’Keeffe (2009). Photo: Lifetime Networks.

A Lifetime movie, Georgia O’Keeffe (2009) does what any artist biopic should do, hitting the marks in O’Keeffe’s life, including her discovery by Alfred Stieglitz and her independent-minded move to New Mexico. It’s standard fare but for Joan Allen’s portrayal of O’Keeffe as a steely individual, opposite Jeremy Irons’s imperious Stieglitz. 


JMW Turner

Timothy Spall as JMW Turner in Mr. Turner (2014). Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Featuring a career-best performance by Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner (2014) doesn’t concern itself with the entirety of the British painter’s life, focusing instead on his final 25 years, during which he roamed, painted, and blustered. The time frame also allows director Mike Leigh to bring to screen the 1832 Royal Academy salon, where Turner’s Helvoetsluys was exhibited next to John Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Not about to be upstaged by his rival’s vividly painted scene, Turner adds at the last minute a red daub to his seascape, announcing, “It’s a buoy!” Constable, in turn, conceded: “He’s been here and fired a gun.” 


Camille Claudel

Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel in Camille Claudel (1988). Photo: Cannon / Fechner / Lilith / Gaumont / A2 / DD / Album.

A remarkable sculptor whose career was overshadowed (and arguably sabotaged) by her mentor and one-time lover Auguste Rodin, Claudel received the cinematic treatment her iconoclastic biography called for in Camille Claudel (1988). In it, Isabelle Adjani nails the young artist’s wide-eyed association with Rodin as much as her tragic descent into psychological turmoil. Later, Camille Claudel 1915 (2003), with Juliette Binoche in the lead, would further humanize the sculptor, depicting her time in a mental asylum with a slow-burning devastation. 


Auguste Rodin

Vincent Lindon as Auguste Rodin. Image courtesy the film.

Vincent Lindon as Auguste Rodin in Rodin (2017). Photo courtesy the film.

Claudel also shows up in Rodin (2017), but alas, as mere model, muse, and material. Jacques Doillon’s biopic of the French sculptor seems less concerned with Rodin’s inner workings than his carnal appetites and circle of famous friends. It’s worth watching, though, for Vincent Lindon’s portrayal of the artist, capturing the intensity with which Rodin approached the clay. 


Gustav Klimt 

John Malkovich as Gustav Klimt in Klimt (2006). Photo: Gemini Films.

This film is plain hard to watch unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Austrian painter. Experimental and non-linear, Klimt (2006) attempts to render the artist’s symbolist aesthetic into movie form, delivering corny vignettes threaded with female forms, gold-hued lighting, and Egon Schiele. If all that sounds tiresome, consider John Malkovich, in the lead role, who looks downright bored.


Andrei Rublev 

Guide to Artist Biopics

Ivan Lapikov in Andrei Rublev (1966). Photo: Kino International.

Not much is known of the biography of the 15th-century Russian painter, famed for his Orthodox Christian iconography. But no matter to Andrei Tarkovsky, who had “no intention of unraveling the riddle of his life.” Instead, his Andrei Rublev (1966) assiduously recreates the medieval setting Rublev worked in, depicting him as a figure caught between the forces of art and religion.


Hilma af Klint

Tora Hallström as Hilma af Klint in Hilma (2022). Photo: Juno Films.

Lasse Hallström’s Hilma (2022) may not be as singular as its subject matter, but remains an entirely serviceable accounting of the Swedish artist-mystic’s life. All the necessary biopics beats are here. But what comes through, via the twin performances of Tora Hallström and Lena Olin as young and old af Klint, is the artist’s bristly willfulness, often to her detriment in a male-dominated business, but a tribute to her unbending self-belief. 


Amedeo Modigliani 

Andy Garcia as Amedeo Modigliani in Modigliani (2004). Photo: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo.

If you thought the life of the Italian painter—who was nurtured in Paris’s bohemian scene, carried on as a debauched artist, maintained a prickly friendship with Picasso, and treated his tuberculosis with absinthe—wasn’t melodramatic enough, then Modigliani (2004) is for you.


Pablo Picasso

Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso (1996). Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

Surviving Picasso (1996) is by no means a biopic of Picasso, but a view of the man as seen through the eyes of Françoise Gilot (played by Natascha McElhone), the painter who spent a decade with the Spanish artist, bore him two children, and lived to tell the tale. Anthony Hopkins is cast as her Picasso, who is by turns charming and cruel, inspired yet flawed. If you’d prefer reassurance of Picasso’s genius, there’s Genius: Picasso (2018), starring Antonio Banderas, a series that more straightforwardly recounts the artist’s life and times, without sidestepping his personal failings.


Dora Carrington

Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey and Emma Thompson as Dora Carrington in Carrington (1995). Photo: Film Publicity Archive / United Archives via Getty Images.

The British artist, who was associated with the Bloomsbury Group, may be known for her precise portraits and still-lifes, but it’s her unrequited love for writer Lytton Strachey that centers Carrington (1995). Stay for Emma Thompson’s depiction of a clear-eyed Dora and recreations of the bohemian goings-on in Vanessa Bell’s house.


Robert Mapplethorpe

Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe in Mapplethorpe (2019). Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

In Mapplethorpe (2018), the key chapters of the photographer’s journey are revisited: his relationship with musician Patti Smith, his discovery of the Polaroid camera, his meeting with Sam Wagstaff, his patron and lifelong companion. Matt Smith plays the artist with verve in the earlier scenes and gravitas in the later ones, even if the film, made with the support of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, ultimately serves up a tepid portrait of a celebrated provocateur.  


The Masters

Actor Charlton Heston on the set of The Agony and the Ecstasy. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Charlton Heston on the set of The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Making a film based on some of art’s most revered giants is no small feat, yet it’s been attempted—and often accomplished. Early on, Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) tracked Michelangelo’s years-long project to paint the Sistine Chapel, the artist understatedly played by Charlton Heston. Tapping a similar vein, 2007’s Nightwatching followed Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) as he struggled to complete his opus The Night Watch; and 2003’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring imagined the meeting between Vermeer (Colin Firth) and the subject of his famed oil portrait.  

In 1997, Artemisia offered its questionably erotic take on the challenges the Baroque artist (Valentina Cervi) faced while trying to paint in the 17th century. Meanwhile, Caravaggio’s louche lifestyle—involving drinking, street fighting, romancing his models—was unpacked twice: in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) and then in Caravaggio’s Shadow (2022).

Dexter Fletcher as a young Caravaggio in Caravaggio (1986). Photo: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo.

Less successful is Goya’s Ghosts (2006), Miloš Forman’s overwrought film that pitches a fictionalized fight between Francisco Goya and the Spanish Inquisition. Amid the convoluted plot, you may nonetheless spot several of the Spanish artist’s real paintings.  


The Mavericks 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021). Photo: Amazon Studios.

Not least of all are biopics of artists who pushed beyond the bounds of convention and expression, emerging not from the center, but its fringes. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014) told the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband stole credit for her beloved canvases of sad-eyed children. Louis Wain, painter of anthropomorphic cats, also received a cinematic outing in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021), with a bushy-haired Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the artist with whimsy and poignancy. The transitioning journey of Dutch painter Lili Elbe was dramatized in 2015’s The Danish Girl; Alicia Vikander, who played Elbe’s partner, illustrator Gerda Wegener, won an Oscar for her work on the film.  

Outsider and folk artists Maud Lewis and Séraphine de Senlis were given moving biopic treatments in the beguiling Maudie (2016), starring Sally Hawkins, and the César Awardwinning Séraphine (2008), with Yolande Moreau in the lead. More recent is Typist Artist Pirate King (2022), which served up an imagined yet poignant portrait of the troubled British artist Audrey Amiss.

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in Maudie (2016). Photo: Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo.

And for sheer bizarreness, watch Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), a fictional, soppy account of Arbus’s transformation from commercial photographer to chronicler of the outré. In it, Nicole Kidman plays Arbus and Robert Downey Jr. dons a fur suit.  

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