Pain and painting ~ a short and incomplete guide to painter biopics

Biographical movies about famous painters are always about pain. The suffering makes these visionary prophets of art more Jesus-like and sometimes it also deepens their work on an emotional level, but believe it or not.. even Bob Ross suffered!

Below is a list of painter biopics with a few movies about Andy Warhol's muses and even some conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure. Read more about painter biopics in articles by Matthew Collings and Peter Plagens. Here's a quote:

"What the comedian Denis Leary said about the depiction of Jim Morrison in the movie The Doors applies to many benighted central characters in movies about artists: I’m drunk, I’m nobody. I’m drunk, I’m famous. I’m drunk, I’m dead."

This scenario drives movies like Basquiat, Modigliani and Pollock. But if you watch lots of these painter biopics you'll notice that the basic script of Van Gogh's story is also quite popular. There are echoes in Séraphine, Camille Claudel, Frida etc. The final part of this story is not the death of a famous artistic alcoholic but the recognition of an unknown talent and the ever-rising market value of the paintings that are left behind: I'm broke, I paint, I'm miserable, I'm dead, I'm famous, my paintings cost a fortune.

pain rating

* won't hurt a bit
** ouch!!
*** this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you
**** perennial pain
***** the agony of christ

Andrei Rublev (1966)
painter: Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev (1360s-1427)
pain: losing faith, religious and political brutality
painting: mannerism, icons
biopic factor: realistic
quote: "God will forgive you but you must not forgive yourself, and go on living between his forgiveness and your own torment.'"
rating: *****

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
painter: Charlton Heston as Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)
pain: workaholic, illness, deprivation, perfectionism, exhaustion, recluse
painting: mannerism, technicolor, widescreen, Rex Harrison (Warrior Pope Julius II) outperforms Heston, who has too much false hair glued to his face
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote: "He will paint it or he will hang!"
rating: ****

El Greco (2007)
painter: Nick Ashdon as Domenikos Theotokopoulos a.k.a. El Greco (1541-1614)
pain: homesick, lovesick, the Spanish Inquisition
painting: mannerism, glistening shots of dramatically saturated blue, red and yellow pigments being mixed with oil
biopic factor: overdramatized Hollywood-style fantasy and some awful acting as well
quote: "What is it that turns men into saints? Pain? Torture? Injustice? Belief? Knowledge? Could my painting turn men into saints?"
rating: *

Caravaggio (1986)
painter: Nigel Terry and Dexter Fletcher as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571—1610)
pain: rebellious, violent temper, self-destructive, notorious troublemaker
painting: baroque realism, master of clair-obscur, very dark, very red
biopic factor: loose and poetic, deathbed memories in stream of consciousness style, anachronisms like an art critic in bathtub with typewriter
quote: "In the wound the question is answered."
rating: *****

Artemisia (1997)
painter: Valentina Cervi as Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652)
pain: male chauvinism, torture
painting: baroque, ochre, sienna, the painting scenes are not as hot as the erotic scenes
biopic factor: dramatized
quote: "You're always painting saints by day and sinning by night."
rating: ***

Rembrandt (1936)
painter: Charles Laughton as Rembrandt van Rhijn (1606–1669)
pain: severe financial troubles, sinful relationship
painting: baroque, this one has not aged very well, theatrical acting
biopic factor: not too bad
quote: "I like the look of you, you've got the head of a tragic prophet."
rating: ***

Rembrandt Fecit 1669 (1977)
pain: money problems, scandalous relationship, ahead of his time
painting: baroque, quite dark, ochres & siennas, has not aged very well, looks quite good but very stiff and theatrical acting
biopic factor: not too bad
quote: never mind
rating: **

Goya in Bordeaux (1999)
painter: Francisco Rabal as Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
pain: deaf, headaches, hallucinations
painting: various styles, but mostly darkish  
biopic factor: seems quite authentic
quote: "What an abuse to force a child to fear that which does not exist! To make a child fear the bogeyman more than the men who invented him."
rating: *****

Goya's Ghosts (2006)

painter: Stellan Skarsgård as Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
pain: the Spanish Inquisition, war, corruption, oppression, deafness
painting: expressionist baroque, very dark, very red
biopic factor: slightly over-dramatized
quote: "If I were tortured i'd confess to anything."
rating: ***

Lust for Life (1956)
painter: Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
pain: religious nut, workaholic, alcoholic, hallucinations, nightmares, insomnia, seizures, anxiety etc.
painting: post-impressionist expressionism, begins dark, ends with more gold, bronze and copper, Anthony Quinn does a great Gauguin
biopic factor: slightly over-dramatized but this one has aged very well
quote: "It's a coalmining region, the Borinage. There exists no more miserable people on the face of the earth than the miners who live there."
rating: *****

Vincent & Theo (1990)
painter: Tim Roth as Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
pain: religious nut, workaholic, alcoholic, hallucinations, nightmares, insomnia, seizures, anxiety etc.
painting: post-impressionist expressionism, wry opening scene of an auction at Christie's but the prop paintings are ridiculously cheap, bleak colors
biopic factor: probably a more realistic reconstruction of the relationship between Vincent & Theo than Lust for Life
quote: "You can't marry her because you have syphilis and you're the poorest man I've met in my entire life."
rating: ****

Klimt (2006)
painter: John Malkovich as Gustav Klimt (1862–1918)
pain: weak nerves, syphilis, hallucinations
painting: symbolism, jugendstil, gold everywhere, very good looking with a hint of kitsch, excellent costumes, interiors and soundtrack
biopic factor: billed as a phantasmagoria rather than a biopic, too many dialogues are like little art history lessons
quote: "Half the male population of this city is syphilitic."
rating: ****

Edvard Munch (1974)
painter: Geir Westby as Edvard Munch (1863–1944)
pain: puritan protestantism, middle class blues, illness, weak nerves, alcoholism
painting: expressionism, symbolism, darkness, the creation of several works is 'analyzed' thoroughly (even the sound of it)
biopic factor: an art history lesson, half nightmare - half documentary, a bit as if Munch's story is told by a shrink
quote: "I have such dreadful dreams"
rating: *****

Moulin Rouge (1952)
painter: José Ferrer as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
pain: badly deformed legs, hypertrophied genitals, alcoholism, syphilis, depression
painting: post-impressionistic, art nouveau, colorist
biopic factor: not too bad
quote: "This calls for a drink."
rating: ***

Séraphine (2008)
painter: Yolande Moreau as Séraphine de Senlis (1864 – 1942)
pain: religious nut, workaholic, weak nerves, hallucinations
painting: fiercely naive, like Van Gogh painting sunflowers in Henri Rousseau style
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote:"I hardly go looking for work anymore. I paint. But it's very difficult."
rating: *****

Surviving Picasso (1996)
painter: Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
pain: anxiety about death (graveyards, scorpions, cruelty of nature) and an extra large ego
painting: blue, pink, cubist etc. painting scenes are a bit bloodless
biopic factor: quite realistic, wonderful meeting with Matisse
quote: "To sleep with as many women as possible was fine. But to dance with them, that was immoral."
rating: ***

Modigliani (2004)
painter: Andy Garcia as Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
pain: slightly mad, alcoholic
painting: 20th century post-impressionist expressionism, sepia tones, hilarious scene where Modigliani, Picasso and Utrillo paint submissions for a contest
biopic factor: overdramatized Hollywood fantasy, but Andy Garcia is better than you'd expect
quote: "Solo un bicchiere"
rating: ***

Exzesse (1981)
painter: Mathieu Carrière as Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
pain: slightly mad, anxiety
painting: 20th century erotic expressionism, the movie has too much soft focus. Nice scenes with Klimt, music by Eno
biopic factor: quite good
quote: "Ein solcher Künstler ist ein gequälter Mensch"
rating: ***

Carrington (1995)
painter: Emma Thompson as Dora Carrington (1893–1932)
pain: weak nerves, suicide
painting: post-impressionist
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote: "Ah, semen! What is it about that ridiculous white secretion that pulls down the corners of an Englishman's mouth?"
rating: **

Little Ashes (2008)
painter: Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)
pain: slightly mad, hallucinations, narcissism
painting: surrealism, dark umbers & siennas
biopic factor: not bad, half the movie is about a somewhat speculative gay romance, Lorca and Buñuel are also main characters
quote: "The unconscious mind arises like a beast within me."
rating: ***

Frida (2002)
painter: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
pain: polio, physical decline after a traffic accident, severe pain, heartbreak
painting style: naive surrealism
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote: "This corpse is still breathing. Try to get me there in one piece. "
rating *****

Love is the devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)
painter: Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon (1909–1992)
pain: gilded gutter life, a touch of existentialism
painting: expressionist, figurative, warped, music by Ryuichi Sakamoto
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote: "If they're getting on they're unhappy. That's what love means."
rating: ***

Pollock (2000)
painter: Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
pain: slightly mad, alcoholic
painting: abstract expressionism, watch Ed Harris paint lots of 'real' Pollocks
biopic factor: quite realistic
quote: "I'm traded in for Clyfford Still?"
rating ****

Christmas Cottage (Thomas Kinkade's Home for Christmas) (2008)
painter: Jared Padalecki as Thomas Kinkade (1958)
pain: financial troubles, broken family
painting: Christmas tree-style, Marcia Gay Harden (Lee Krasner in Pollock) as Kinkade's mother
biopic factor: self-portrait
quote: "In the end love is the brightest light of all."
rating: *

Basquiat (1996)
painter: Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
pain: weak nerves, white lines, paranoia, heroin overdose
painting: neo-expressionist, colorist, very nice scenes of one man shows with lots of big paintings
biopic factor: a bit melodramatic, all star cast, sometimes Jeffrey Wright moves a bit like a pantomime actor
quote: "This is the true voice of the gutter."
rating: ****


Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)
painter: Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer
pain: perfectionism, financial problems, jealous wife
painting: baroque, absolute mastery of light and space, almost every scene is in Vermeer's style
biopic factor: hard to say, biographical details about Vermeer are very scarce, isn't really meant to be a biopic anyway
quote: "You looked inside me!"
rating: ***

Camille Claudel (1989)
sculptor: Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel (1864–1943)
sculpting: romantic
pain: weak nerves, paranoia, schizophrenia
biopic factor: quite good
quote: "Don't forget, Paul, your sister is in prison with madwomen."
rating: ****

FUR (2006)
photographer: Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus
pain: weak nerves, repression, depression
picture style: Alice in Wonderland meets Freudian dreams, complexes and freaks
biopic factor: imaginairy portrait, slightly melodramatic
quote: "What do you like about it?" "It scares me.."
rating: ***

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
leading actress: Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanas, who advocated male gendercide and wrote a play that she wanted Andy Warhol to produce
pain: weak nerves, paranoia, megalomania, men
biopic factor: quite good
quote: "Jesus Christ, now she's shot somebody."
rating: ***

Factory girl (2006)
leading actress: Sienna Miller as Edie Sedgwick, who was a model/actrice/aspiring painter in Andy Warhol's entourage
pain: weird upper class upbringing, anorexic, weak nerves, drugs, alcohol
biopic factor: very melodramatic
quote: "They didn't cry. I had to cry for all of them."
rating: **

Exit through the gift shop (2010)
painter: Mr. Brainwash/Banksy
pain: fractured toe, weird upbringing, compulsive nature
painting: street art, Banksy & Mr. Brainwash prove that there's some artistic life after Andy Warhol as long as you don't take yourself too serious
biopic factor: documentary/street art disaster movie
quote: "Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless."
rating: ****

MoreThe Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979) weird surrealist conspiracy theory.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) elaborate conspiracy theory featuring Leonardo da Vinci's paintings.
Nightwatching (2007) and Rembrandt's J'Accuse...! (2008) elaborate conspiracy theory featuring Rembrandt's Nightwatch.
Incognito (1997) art forger paints a fake Rembrandt.
Russian Ark (2002) featuring the Hermitage.