Artists in movies often fall into one of two main stereotypes.
First, you have the pretentious snob who charges thousands of dollars for what amounts to a colored rectangle. Second, you have the starving near-hobo who sketches on paper scraps while drunk on the cheap whiskey they bought instead of dinner.
But you know what? There are so many great movies about art that go beyond these tired tropes, or at least dive deeper in ways that excavate far more depth than these clichés usually offer.
The world of art is wide, vibrant, challenging, radical, and mesmerizing in ways you may not even realize.
Here are my picks for the best movies about art and painting, which are worth watching whether you're a student, creator, or fan. Get ready to dive into forgotten stories, legendary tales, and the psyches of troubled artistic minds throughout history.
16. The Mill and the Cross (2011)
Directed by Lech Majewski
Starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling
Drama, History (1h 32m)
If you like classical paintings, The Mill and the Cross is a must-watch film. It's basically like an art gallery in movie form!
Specifically, a gallery of the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the most significant Dutch artists from the 16th century.
In The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski's Polish production brings to life Bruegel's 1564 oil painting The Procession to Calvary, weaving together vignettes of everyday peasant life in 16th century Flanders.
Using details from art historian Michael Francis Gibson's book (of the same name), The Mill and the Cross literally revives the past and cements itself as one of the best movies about art history ever made.
15. Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 53m)
In Velvet Buzzsaw, contemporary art critic Morf Vandewalt is the epitome of the pretentious artist stereotype, turning his nose up at every piece of art while sipping champagne in his Miami home.
Morf is played by Jake Gyllenhaal (in one of his more eccentric roles), and don't worry: Morf eventually gets his karma!
When Morf comes across a creepy new art collection, he's punished by supernatural forces that reach out of the canvas and strangle the elite.
Netflix's Velvet Buzzsaw is at once funny and allegorical, a black-comedy satire that evokes a general "disgust for the world of money." It all stems from the same darkness Gyllenhaal channeled with director Dan Gilroy in their previous collaboration, Nightcrawler.
14. The Danish Girl (2015)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 59m)
In 1930, Lili Elbe underwent the world's first documented sex reassignment therapy in Berlin. Such procedures are still dangerous today, but more so back then, when it had never been done before and lacked the technology we have now.
Although it did result in complications for Lili, her bravery paved the way for many others who struggle with gender dysmorphia.
So, where does art come into this? Well, before her surgery, Lili and her wife were painters in Copenhagen.
The Danish Girl features Eddie Redmayne as Lili, whose wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) asks her then-husband to model a dress for her. In doing so, Lili discovers herself and is reborn.
Although The Danish Girl was criticized for not casting a transgender actress, Eddie Redmayne still delivered a sensitive and softly feminine performance in Lili's honor under Tom Hooper's direction.
13. Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)
Directed by Peter Webber
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson
Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 40m)
The Dutch Golden Age lasted between 1575 and 1675, producing one of the most extolled classics in the history of painting: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.
Although no one really knows who the subject is—or if she existed at all—author Tracy Chevalier let her imagination run wild when speculating her life story, which Peter Webber brought to the screen.
Scarlett Johansson plays the fictionalized earring-wearing maid Griet, who's painted by Colin Firth and caught up in a whirlwind of drama, romance, and forbidden fruit.
The story's socio-political backdrop prevents Girl With a Pearl Earring from becoming yet another soppy period piece.
12. Big Eyes (2014)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Amy Adams, Cristoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 46m)
Eyes are commonly thought to be "windows to the soul," and that became even more true for Margaret Keane, who lost part of her hearing and began looking into people's eyes to better understand what they were saying.
She turned this idea into art with her signature "Keane Eyes" portraits, which later turned into merch and then eventually became kitschy memorabilia of the 60s. However, her doe-eyed empire was originally credited to her husband, Walter Keane.
In his biopic Big Eyes, Tim Burton—a pioneer director of all things weird, wacky, and wonderful—directs Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz amidst distorted figures that call to mind Burton characters, except this time of oil paint and not claymation!
11. Frida (2002)
Directed by Julie Taymor
Starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush
Biography, Drama, Romance (2h 3m)
There are several biographical films on this list, but one of my personal favorite subjects has to be Frida Kahlo.
She could put a lot of things onto a single canvas: naïve folk images, fantasy, surrealism (and, somehow, realism at the same time), Mexican symbols, plus themes of gender, postcolonialism, and race.
We might remember Frida Kahlo as a feminist, artistic, and LGBTQ+ icon, but she led a dysfunctional and illness-ridden life in Mexico, expressed through her self-portraits and still-lifes.
Salma Hayek brings Kahlo's sensuality to life in Julie Taymor's Oscar-winning drama (even though some historians note that Kahlo would have walked with a limp and probably not done the tango).
10. Pollock (2000)
Directed by Ed Harris
Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Robert Knott
Biography, Drama (2h 2m)
Abstract art tends to catch a lot of flak, and Jackson Pollock's infamous body of work in particular finds itself the butt of many art jokes. That said, the fact that everybody knows his name means he must have done something right!
The reclusive expressionist painter became known for his use of drip technique and action-painting, sometimes carefully drizzling household paint into patterns with a brush, and other times dancing over an entire wall-length canvas.
The chaos of Pollock's art pieces echo the chaos of his mind. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital at age 26 and died while driving under the influence after a lifetime of alcoholism.
Ed Harris both directs and stars in Pollock, which isn't just a compelling biopic about the life and work of Jackson Pollock, but one of the best movies about painters to this day.
9. Mr. Turner (2014)
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
Biography, Drama, History (2h 30m)
J. M. W. Turner (also known as William Turner) could not be more opposite to Jackson Pollock, besides the fact they were both loner painters who weirded everyone out.
Instead of paintings that came off as random and pointless, Turner used watercolors to create mesmerizing landscapes and seascapes touched with a hint of expressionism.
These turbulent ocean views reflected Turner's own mental strife, and as Turner got older and more cynical, his work followed suit with increasingly intense and angrier scenes.
Though he lived through the Romantic era, Turner's life was marked by despair following the death of his father—and Timothy Spall portrays the eccentric artist in those later years, for which he won Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival.
8. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)
Directed by Will Sharpe
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones
Biography, Drama, History (1h 51m)
Like the aforementioned Margaret Keane, Louis Wain was another painter who painted kitschy wide-eyed portraits—except his subjects were cats. Lots and lots of cats.
The little kittens started off cutely anthropomorphic, hosting tea parties and playing instruments, but his works took a psychedelic turn as Wain's schizophrenia progressed.
In The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Will Sharpe mimics Wain's painting style with gorgeous cinematography and bright colors that make each frame look like idyllic postcards of the English countryside.
But interspersed between all that are darker scenes of Wain's declining mental illness and scary hallucinations of drowning.
Unlike most troubled artists, Louis Wain was actually very chipper, energetic, and optimistic on the outside, passionately portrayed in this biopic by Benedict Cumberbatch.
7. Caravaggio (1986)
Directed by Derek Jarman
Starring Nigel Terry, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton
Biography, Drama, History (1h 33m)
Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean both made their acting debuts in Caravaggio, Derek Jarman's historical drama about the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
No, not that Michelangelo. This one's a different Italian artist of the same era, played here by Nigel Terry and Dexter Fletcher.
Aside from its great actors and its interesting narrative of a Baroque hoodlum, drunk, gambler, and artist, it's the production design of Caravaggio that stands out as a sight to behold!
In keeping with Caravaggio's religious imagery, tenebrism, and love of models with bodies like sculptures, every bit of light, color, pose, and prop work in Caravaggio is crafted to perfection.
6. Séraphine (2008)
Directed by Martin Provost
Starring Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent
Biography, Drama (2h 5m)
Séraphine Louis bounced between two lives: first, living in ecstasy and basking in nature while gazing at trees, or second, suffering with psychosis and wandering the streets and living in asylums.
The fervor of her psyche can be traced in her art, where rich colors stand out with a waxy shine. Séraphine used natural materials—soil, leaves, petals, blood, and more—to make her exotic floral artwork when she wasn't working as a housekeeper.
When the war takes her creative outlet away, Séraphine has nothing left to keep her balanced. Yolande Moreau plays the French naïve artist in Martin Provost's biographical drama.
5. My Left Foot (1989)
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan
Biography, Drama (1h 43m)
Drawing and painting are already difficult. They require skill, time, patience, talent, patience, imagination... and if you ask most people, they'll also say you need a steady hand.
But Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, who suffered with cerebral palsy, managed to create powerful images using only his left foot.
Born into a working class family, Christy Brown had little education and struggled to communicate due to his speech impediment. But he could climb stairs with one foot while laying down, and he eventually became a published author and painter.
Jim Sheridan shares his amazing story with My Left Foot, an adaptation of Brown's memoirs that features an incredible Oscar-winning central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.
4. At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac
Biography, Drama, History (1h 51m)
Vincent van Gogh is perhaps the most well-known painter in the history of the world. Sadly, he himself never knew it.
The Dutch Post-Impressionist painter—known for his distinct brush strokes and swirly landscapes—died penniless and alone, regarded as a madman for drinking yellow paint, cutting off his own ear, and spending time in the mental hospital.
Van Gogh is now widely hailed and the subject of many films and TV shows, including Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) and that unforgettable episode of Doctor Who.
But don't forget Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, one of the best movies about Van Gogh where Willem Dafoe stars as the painter in the lead up to his famed suicide.
At Eternity's Gate captures the soul of Van Gogh: his feverish need to paint and his ability to see so much beauty in the world, all while walking on a tightrope between melancholy, magic, and mania.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luána Bajrami
Drama (2h 2m)
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma shows us that films don't just have to imitate art, but also be art in themselves.
Her acclaimed period drama depicts a secret lesbian relationship in 18th century France, born from one artist being commissioned to paint a portrait of an aristocrat in secret. Secrets everywhere.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to sit for anyone, so Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to accompany her on walks, take Héloïse in, then paint her on the sly. And boy does Marianne take her subject in!
Despite Héloïse's looming marriage, the two end up having a steamy romantic affair—thus results one of the greatest movies about art and artist we've ever seen.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those rare films that's borderline perfection. It's a wholly original love story where every frame, outfit, beat, line, and breath is executed with intention.
2. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Directed by Carol Reed
Starring Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento
Biography, Drama, History (2h 18m)
Agony and ecstasy—yep, that pretty much sums up being an artist. Especially one as painstaking as Michelangelo, who took four years to paint every little detail of the Sistine Chapel's famous ceiling.
The Italian painter, sculptor, poet, and architect worked himself sick (literally) completing the Biblical murals, even though war threatened to knock it all down at any moment.
Michelangelo's completion of his masterpiece is suggested to be a miracle of God in Carol Reed's historical drama, in which Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison bicker as the Renaissance legend and Pope Julius II, respectively.
1. Loving Vincent (2017)
Directed by DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman
Starring Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk
Animation, Drama, Mystery (1h 34m)
Narratively, Loving Vincent isn't the most airtight movie around. But its visuals—and how they were achieved—are truly extraordinary.
When looking at films about painting, how could we not give top spot to a film that's quite literally a feature-length oil painting?
In ode to Vincent van Gogh's work, Loving Vincent is comprised of 1,000 individual paintings from 125 artists, stitched together and animated into a movie where the actors are still somehow recognizable.
The story itself takes place after Van Gogh's death, which Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) investigates as suspicious.
DK and Hugh Welchman's passion project, Loving Vincent took five years to make. And if you're a Van Gogh superfan, try to see which replicas of his work you can spot woven amongst the frames!