5 Art Movies on Famous Artists Worth Watching (Updated 2021)

Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat - It's difficult not to become entranced with the lives of famous artists. Explore why they are who they are in these art movies.

Jan 3, 2021By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
art movies 2021
Scarlett Johansson as Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003; Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003; Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock, 2000; Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida, 2002


The lives of famous artists have long intrigued their audiences. Through chaos, creativity and raw emotion, artists have remained captivating enigmas that many can only hope to understand. Many writers, directors and filmmakers have tried to capture the essence of these artists in art movies; some attempts have been more successful than others. Perhaps some of your favorite films are based on the lives of famous artists. Here are 5 art movies to watch in 2021.


1. Basquiat: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat Movie Poster, 1996, via Rotten Tomatoes

Directed by Julian Schnabel, Basquiat is an art movie starring Jeffery Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most famous artists from the 1980s and a significant part of Andy Warhol‘s circle. An artist himself, Schnabel tells the story of Basquiat’s rise to popularity and the addiction that ultimately took his life.


About The Artist


Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn. From spray-painting graffiti to works of art selling for 100 million dollars, Basquiat explored his heritage, city, politics, religion, and the influence of pop culture. As a graffiti artist with his friend Al Diaz, he created works around Lower Manhattan, signing them with the pseudonym SAMO. At a party in 1979, Basquiat revealed himself as the illustrious SAMO, which jumpstarted his career. He later became friends with Andy Warhol (played by David Bowie) and worked with him on many occasions and other artists in Warhol’s factory. When Basquiat was 27, he succumbed to his addiction to heroin in 1988.


Basquiat’s career was short but impactful. He is one of the most famous Black artists in history and one of the most famous artists of the latter half of the 20th century. Basquiat painted with his unique perspective with compositions unlike anything ever seen before.


Reception: An Art Movie Too Close To The Director?

Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1981, via The Broad Museum, Los Angeles

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Schnabel’s Basquiat received mixed reviews. Reviewers and viewers applauded Schnabel’s ability to capture his friend’s turmoil, while others found the movie more about Schnabel himself and not Basquiat. As critic Brooks Adams said in his review in Art In America: Basquiat can be seen as a huge, lurking self-portrait of the artist-Schnabel, not Basquiat.” Schnabel seemed to focus on his memories instead of putting in the research to create a more well-rounded Basquiat. Nevertheless, Basquiat is a portrait of an artist from modern times, and one who will be treasured forever. Basquiat is available on CBS All Access.



2. At Eternity’s Gate – Vincent Van Gogh

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate photographed by Lily Gavin, 2018, via the New York Times


There have been many art movies dedicated to the tragic life and death of Vincent van Gogh, the famous post-impressionist artist who took his own life in 1890. The latest van Gogh movie to grace our screens is At Eternity’s Gatedirected by Julian Schnabel. At Eternity’s Gate is a classic art movie with a dream-like narrative and visuals starring Willem Dafoe as the famous artist. It’s not a traditional biopic but details the last chapter of his life, from living with Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), talking with his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), his hospitalization, and sudden death. The viewer sees van Gogh’s life from his own eyes, with most of the shots from van Gogh’s POV. The art film’s shots are shaky, and the world around van Gogh represents what was going on in his mind as depression overtook not only his art but also his life.


About The Artist


Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands. Vincent was close to his brother Theo, and the two exchanged letters throughout Vincent’s life. Most of what we know about van Gogh and his state of mind during adulthood comes from these letters. He moved to France in the 1880s to be close to the art world’s action, eventually moving to Arles in the south of France to start an artist commune, which never happened. Van Gogh died in Arles, surrounded by townspeople who feared the artist’s erratic and strange behavior. Van Gogh went from only selling one painting to becoming one of the most famous artists of all time, his work and self-portraits recognized by all.


Reception: An Exploration Of The Famous Artist’s Psyche

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via MoMA, New York 


At Eternity’s Gate takes the time to focus on emotion rather than biographical facts. Schnabel explores the psyche of van Gogh’s tortured mind and mental illness with respect and because of this, the movie attracted mostly positive reviews. 


Willem Dafoe received many accolades for his raw and heartbreaking performance of van Gogh. The negativity about this movie was similar to Basquiat‘s, where Schnabel was more interested in his artistic abilities than van Gogh’s story. Dafoe doesn’t need fancy camera work to give a brilliant performance. To critic Brian Tallerico, who felt the same way, “the best scenes in the film are the ones in which we see Vincent van Gogh staring out a landscape or up at an unforgiving sky, asking questions about why he’s so different and then using that difference to create beautiful art.”


It seems that there is no easy way to direct a movie about an artist when the director is one himself. Nevertheless, the film is a masterful depiction of an artist seeking help and answers from a quiet crowd. At Eternity’s Gate is available on Hulu.  


3. Pollock – Jackson Pollock

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock, 2000, via IMDb


Ed Harris directed and stars in Pollock, the art movie detailing the career and life of artist Jackson Pollock, focusing on the tumultuous relationship Pollock had with his wife, artist Lee Krasner. This movie was close to Harris’ heart. He bought the rights of a Pollock biography in the early 1990s, and his dedication shows. The art film doesn’t shy away from the famous artist’s troubles but allows the viewer to understand better his mind and why he was the way he was.  


About The Artist


Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming. He studied art in New York in 1930, where he practiced the art of the surrealists, interested in how to translate the subconscious on the canvas. It wasn’t until 1947 when he invented his style, drip, or action art. His drip paintings were simple; Pollock would flick paint off his brush onto a large canvas laid out on the floor. He would throw cigarette buts and other materials to create a cluttered and messy look. To viewers, Pollock’s art displayed real creativity. It was a raw creation and translation from mind to canvas. In 1956, Pollock’s life was cut short in a car accident. His wife, Lee Krasner (who is a fantastic artist in her own right), did everything she could to keep Pollock’s legacy alive despite their strained relationship.


Reception: A Well-Rounded Art Movie With Depth 

White Light by Jackson Pollock, 1954, via MoMA, New York


The art movie received incredibly positive reviews, including a Best Supporting Actress award to Marcia Gay Harden, who played Lee Krasner. The film was labeled one of the best of 2000 and is an excellent portrayal of a tortured soul, tormented by the very process of creating art and the life around him. Harris overtakes the same mind and soul of Pollock. Yes, Pollock was an angry man, either drunk or hungover, but Harris makes Pollock a fully formed human being with depth. The viewer understands where Pollock was coming from, even if they disagree with his choices making Pollock a perfect anti-hero. Pollock is available for purchase on Amazon Prime.


4. Girl with a Pearl Earring – Johannes Vermeer

Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003, via PopSugar


Directed by Peter Webber, Girl with a Pearl Earring details the career of artist Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the model of Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring painted in 1665. Based on the novel by the same name written by Tracy Chevalier, the art movie mixes fiction with fact. Griet is fictional because nothing is known of the famous model wearing the pearl earring.


About The Artist


Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch artist born in 1632 and known as one of the most famous artists of the Northern Baroque period with his symmetrical and realistic works based on everyday life in the Netherlands. Only 35 works of Vermeer’s survive, with one stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. It wasn’t until 1870 when people viewed Vermeer’s paintings for the first time. 


Reception: Slow And Well Thought Out

Scarlett Johansson as Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003, via Frock Flicks; with Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1665 via the Maritshuis Museum, The Hague


The added story of Griet’s relationship with Vermeer in the film is quiet and realistic, and the movie itself is slow and beautifully shot. The viewer is transported to 17th century Netherlands and relaxes there as the story unfolds. Webber could have added unnecessary romantic drama, but the drama in the film is natural, making it a more enjoyable watch. It was for these reasons why the art film received high ratings by critics.  


Girl with a Pearl Earring focuses on the relationship between a sitter and their portrayal on the canvas and how an artist can obsess over a woman’s beauty just like a landscape. The male gaze is evident, but it’s the point of the story. The viewer is supposed to question Vermeer’s intentions and question the very idea of portraits; who are they really for if not the viewer? Girl with a Pearl Earring is available on YouTube.


5. Frida – Frida Kahlo

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida, 2002, via Insider


The last art movie on our list is about the life of Frida Kahlo, the famous artist of Mexico City. Frida, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Salma Hayek, details the life of Frida Kahlo, focusing on the relationship she had with her husband, artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and tragic moments that helped shaped her art.


About The Artist 


Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 as Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in Mexico City. One of the most recognizable and famous female artists of all time, Kahlo painted many self-portraits. Her style is surrealist; her works are transcriptions of memories and emotion taking the form of herself, animals, and still lives. It’s as if Kahlo puts a tiny piece of her soul onto each canvas, and it’s because of this talent and dedication to the craft that makes Kahlo’s work live forever.


She married her mentor, muralist Diego Rivera when she was only 21, and their relationship was far from perfect. While he was off having affairs, she was also having affairs with Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker, among many others. After an unfortunate incident, while riding a bus, Kahlo’s pelvis was pierced by a handrail. She was in the hospital with significant pain for a month. For the rest of her life, she suffered from constant pain and had to wear a corset. 


Reception: Did The Art Movie Cover The Depth Of Kahlo’s Life?

Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair by Frida Kahlo, 1940 via MoMA, New York


Frida not only focuses on Kahlo’s career but also her relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera. It particularly highlights their tumultuous relationship and the emotions it evoked for Kahlo (jealously, anger, and sadness). Frida received accolades from critics, with Hayek nominated for Best Actress in the 2003 Academy Awards. Julie Taymor, the director behind The Lion King on Broadway, was inspired by the material and wanted to give Kahlo’s life the respect it deserves on screen. Taymor did accomplish it, but as some critics point out, it’s challenging to map out Kahlo’s life, torment, and affairs in an hour and a half. Some critics felt that Taymor could not capture a good rhythm as if the movie was just one event after another without much reflection. Kahlo’s life is as harsh as it was beautiful. She overcame pain with art and beauty; how can that even be captured on screen?


Author Image

By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.