Paintings in Film | Other Painter Biopics | Painting of Vincent van Gogh

Other Painter Biopics

Vincent Van Gogh has had the most films made about him followed by Rembrandt van Rijin and Pablo Picasso. The other painters come from Ireland, Argentina, Hungary, Estonia and Russia among many other countries.


The order of the list down to Jackson Pollock has been determined by the number of films made about the painter.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Van Gogh (France1947 documentary Alain Resnais)

A 35mm blown up remake of the 16mm version made the previous year, this was both the first of ten 16mm films on contemporary artists such as Henri Goetz, Hans Hartung and Christine Boomeester and the first of a short film trilogy completed by Gauguin and Guernica (both 1950; all films are black and white). Using a kind of cut ‘n paste technique with musically accompanied images of the paintings along with “the use of tracking shots where the camera moves around…towards…and away” from the paintings, thereby producing “an exhilarating mobility,” makes Van Gogh more like “an animated film” (Wilson17—18).


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Lust for Life (US1956 by Vincente Minnelli with Kirk Douglas based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Irving Stone and concentrating on his relationship with Anthony Quinn’s Gauguin).


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Vincent the Dutchman (UK 1972 by Mai Zetterling and David Hughes, documentary-drama first broadcast on Omnibus 15 October 1972 with Michael Gough reading from the same Van Gogh letters used in Paul Cox’s 1987 version and with a subplot about an actor who is taken over by the role he is playing)


Vincent (US 1981 TV film)

A one-man filmed play of Leonard Nimoy’s 1979 adaptation of Phillip Stephens’ Van Gogh directed by Nimoy, who also plays the painter’s brother Theo. The version below was videotaped at the Guthrie Theatre Minneapolis in 1981, produced by Bonnie Burns and directed by her and Nimoy:


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Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (UK 1987 by Paul Cox with Van Gogh’s letters read by John Hurt)


Dreams: Part 5 “Crows” (US/Japan 1990 by Akira Kurosawa with Martin Scorsese as Van Gogh followed through the landscape by a Japanese artist in life-size recreations of the paintings)


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Vincent et moi (Quebec1990 by Michael Rubbo, produced by Rock Demers for Lafete and with Tchéky Karyo)

Budding 13-year-old draughtswoman Jo travels back in time to meet (meets the ghost of?) Van Gogh. In this sequence the painter is astonished to learn how many millions of Dollars his paintings go for in 1990!


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Vincent & Theo (US 1990 Robert Altman with Tim Roth)

(US 1990 Robert Altman with Tim Roth and Paul Rhys as his art dealer brother. Set between 1883—91)


Van Gogh (France 1991 by Maurice Pialat with Jacques Dutronc focusing on the last three months of his life in Auvers in 1890)


The Eyes of Van Gogh (US 2005 written and directed by Alexander Barnett, who also plays Van Gogh)

The film is about the 12 months the painter voluntarily spent in the insane asylum at St Remy, his brother Theo, and his relationship to Paul Gauguin, with whom he lived in the yellow house in Arles before entering the asylum. The website for the film provides exhaustive information on the cast and team along with director’s notes and an interview with him as well as extracts from Van Gogh’s letters and a trailer.


In Alexander Barnett’s own words:

I employ a subjective camera throughout the entire film. The idea is to get inside Vincent’s head. Everything seen and felt is from his point of view. In order to achieve this, the camera, rather than viewing the action, will always be within it. We strove to give objective expression to inner experience, i.e., to show what Vincent was thinking and feeling…The purpose is not for the audience merely to be a witness, but rather for them to live within the image and to participate psychologically in the action.


The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (UK Channel 4 TV 2007 by Chris Durlacher with John Simm)


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Van Gogh: Painted with Words (UK BBC TV drama-documentary 2010 by Alan Yentob with Benedict Cumberbatch)

Every word spoekn is sourced from the letters that Van Gogh sent to his younger brother Theo and those around him.


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The Last Witness of Vincent Van Gogh (Netherlands 2015 by Jean Olf Lammers)

Apparently the very last man to have known Van Gogh was a Dutch miller by the name of Pieter van Hoorn, who fetched birdsnests for the painter. Van Hoom died soon after filming was completed at the age of 101.


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Loving Vincent (UK/Poland 2016 by Dorota Kobiela)

A murder mystery about the artist’s life and death told through Van Gogh’s letters—the fourth film to foreground his correspondence—and interviews with the characters from his own paintings. The actual process of this feature-length painted animation is described as:


The actors are filmed on a green screen. The action is then turned into black outline and projected onto the artists’ boards. They paint in the full scene using pictures and Van Gogh references to help them. The artists then photograph their finished painting with a camera, and those paintings are all automatically edited together to create a sequence


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At Eternity’s Gate (US 2018 by Julian Schnabel with Willem Dafoe)

A look at the time Van Gogh spent in Arles based on the painter’s letters and the director’s interpretation of his memories. Schnabel, who directed 1996’s Basquiat, is also a painter, for example his very large “plate paintings” on broken ceramic plates. A lot of the film is shot in shaky hand-held first-person camera to align the spectator with what Van Gogh is thinking  with a deliberately blurred screen to represent the onset of the artist’s madness. In one black and white sequence we see Van Gogh painting with the colours inverted to convey the depth of what he is painting. Three painters were ‘involved’ in this film: Van Gogh, the director, and the cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who also shot Artemisia.


To the above should be added:


Meet Vincent Van Gogh: Experience a Journey through his Life (created by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) in which visitors are “guided by quotations from personal letters, lifelike reproductions and audiovisual scenes from his artworks, life and environment” in the form of “an active multi-sensory exhibition.”


“Vincent Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing” from the Exhibition on Screen series with the by now familiar interviews (V. Willem van Gogh, great grandson of Theo van Gogh, and contemporary artist Lachlan Goudie), voiceover narration, and paintings and letters to family and friends animated by a rostrum camera. Directed by David Blickerstaff and Phil Grabsky with Jamie de Courcey as Van Gogh (2018).


Finally, in “Vincent and the Doctor” Doctor Who s5 e10 (05.06.2010) the Doctor and his assistant Amy take the painter forward in time to a present-day exhibition of his own works at the Musée d’Orsay where the artist overhears the art curator Dr. Black describe him as “the greatest painter of them all… one of the greatest men who ever lived”, at which Van Gogh throws himself around his neck and weeps his heart out!

Rembrandt van Rijin (1606-1669)

Die Tragödie eines Großen/The Tragedy of a Great Man (Germany 1920 by Arthur Günzburg with Carl de Vogt)


Rembrandt (UK 1936 by Alexander Korda with Charles Laughton)

Korda also produced the film from a screenplay by June Head and Lajos Biró based on a story by the German writer and dramatist Carl Zuckmayer. The film covers the period from 1642 when his wife Saskia dies at the height of Rembrandt’s fame until his death in 1669. Korda originally wanted to make further painter biopics but they never emerged.


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Ewiger Rembrandt (Germany 1942 by Hans Steinhoff with Ewald Balser)

With its oblique references to the frustrated artistic ambitions of Adolf Hitler and despicable stereotyping of Jews, particularly disgraceful in view of Rembrandt’s friendships with Jewish people in Amsterdam, for example, the film was made purely for propaganda purposes. The painter is introduced as in Korda’s film at the height of his career receiving the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch group portrait commission (better known as the Night Watch). Partially shot in Amsterdam and The Hague, the leading art forger of the day was apparently released from prison to make copies of the Rembrandt paintings used in the film.


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Rembrandt, schilder van de mens/ Rembrandt, Painter of Man (Netherlands 1957 20-minute documentary by Bert Haanstra)

Background narrated, shots of actual Rembrandt paintings are panned and scanned, and we also see how Rembrandt ‘aged’ over the years with shots of ten of his self-portraits (all front views) match dissolved, altered for scale then lap-dissolved from one to the next.


Rembrandt fecit 1669 (Netherlands 1977 by Jos Stelling with Frans Stelling then Ton de Koff)

This concentrates on the final few years of Rembrandt’s life and the self-portraits he painted then. Much like Korda’s film did, the artist is depicted as a social outsider but with more emphasis on self-contemplation and self-knowledge see the frequent use of the mirror as a symbolic motif. In addition, completed paintings are not represented but instead how they come into existence in the first place. Finally, the director makes ample use of long takes and intertwines facial expression, gesture, colour and light(ing).


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Rembrandt (France/Germany/Netherlands 1999 by Charles Matton with Karl Maria Brandauer)

Brandauer plays the painter from the ages of 28-63. Told in flashbacks from the point-of-view of the aged artist, the film opens as the young Rembrandt arrives in Amsterdam. The director used to be a painter, sculptor, illustrator, photographer and creator of trompe l’oeil dioramas.


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Rembrandt: Fathers and Sons (Canada/Czech Republic 1999 dramatised biopic by David Devine with Tom McCanus)

The story begins in Amsterdam in 1630 as the by now highly successful Rembrandt becomes involved with his young neighbour Samuel, rebelling against his father, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. On the advice of his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, Rembrandt takes on Samuel as his studio apprentice and gradually comes to realize that Samuel’s true future vocation lies in printing. The episode concludes by establishing a connection between this insight and Rembrandt’s completion of his Nightwatch.


Created and produced by David Devine and Richard Mozer from a screenplay by Ann MacNaughton, this was shot in Telc in the Czech Republic, for example the spacious town square for the exteriors. It forms one of the half dozen hour-long episodes of The Artists’ Specials: Witness Genius through the Eyes of Children all of which are centred round a life-changing encounter between a painter and a child who are both at the crossroads of their personal or professional lives. In addition to Rembrandt: Fathers and Sons there is Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist, Monet: Shadow and Light, Goya: Awakened in a Dream, Degas and the Dancer and the printer and landscape painter Winslow Homer: An America Original.


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Nightwatching (Canada/France/Germany/Poland/Netherland/UK 2007 by Peter Greenaway with Martin Freeman)

Greenaway’s film dramatizes the idea that the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch secretly accuses of murder the people who actually commissioned it. The film goes on to suggest that these irate patrons thereafter enacted a revenge on the artist that subsequently ruined him both socially and financially.


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J’Accuse (Finland/Germany/Netherlands 2008 documentary by Peter Greenaway

A film essay companion piece to and released one year after Nightwatching in which the director explains the murder conspiracy dramatized there. The 34 ‘mysteries’ are all the 34 painted characters in the art work, and by examining these Greenaway also delves into life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.


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Rembrandt and I is a four-part (55 minutes each) drama mini-series directed by Marleen Gorris which premiered on 24 January 2011 on the Dutch public broadcasting station EO and ended on 14 February the same year. Rembrandt’s life is told through the eyes of his closest family and friends: colleagues Jan Lievens and Govert Flinck, his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh and their daughter Cornelia. For a more detailed description see


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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Guernica (France 1950 by Alain Resnais and Robert Heesens)

This short film combines imagery from Picasso’s paintings with other artistic sources, the 1938 poem “La victoire de Guernica” Victory of Guernica” by Paul Èluard read by Maria Casares, and music by Guy Bernard)


Le mystére Picasso (France 1956 by Henri-Georges Clouzot cinematographer Jean Renoir Painter at Work)

The production of 20 original works are documented as we see Picasso painting images onto large Plexiglass sheets “stretched between himself and the camera” from the camera’s viewpoint instead of over the painter’s shoulder as so often in film: “Shown against a dark background, it looks as if Picasso draws white lines into the space in which he finds himself” (Jacobs 18-19). In the first half Picasso uses color pens to doodle then switches from ink pens to oil brushes and paper collage. With the aid of stop motion animation and time lapse these images appear before our eyes only to vanish just as quickly as Picasso paints over them or starts a new one only a few minutes later. The overall effect in Clouzot’s film is that “the screen is transformed into a kind of automatic painting”, which is especially appropriate “for Picasso’s working process since as he works on a painting, he changes his mind about its central subject” (Jacobs 18). The following provides a good impression of how the film looks:


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The experience of working on his Picasso must have stimulated Clouzot’s artistic imagination and spurred him onto the experiments of his last two films. In 1964 he started work on Inferno with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani. After a three-week shoot production was abandoned. The 15 hours of film material disappeared in a French film archive and became a myth of French cinema until 20 years later, producer, director and screenplay writer Serge Bromberg was allowed to open the film cans for the very first time to discover this unfinished, extremely puzzling yet also visually extremely ambitious work. Inferno features several innovative Heliophore lighting techniques in the form of a system of hidden flashing light bulbs each synced to a rotating lighting-rig. They distort the reality of Schneider’s husband Reggiani into hallucinogenic visions, for instance in order to illustrate his paranoid and devouring jealousy (the ‘jealousy sequences’ are in any case shot in colour for intensification), and the constantly changing reflections give the facial expressions of both Schneider and Reggiani demonic, disturbing qualities. The final effect is that of the illusion of their faces slowly changing their emotions, even their personalities at times, above all in the film’s psychedelic climax. In addition, Schneider’s skin was made up in colour, oil and sequins to further heighten this:


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The Prisoners/Woman in Chains (1968) A love-hate triangle featuring avant-garde artists, art gallery owners, nude photos and models, Clouzot’s last film was an excursion into the realms of the psychedelic/Pop/Op Art/ of the late 1960s. This becomes particularly apparent in the final third of the film when the main character is lying in hospital having a long, confused dream. See the following for the film’s kinetic qualities:


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In 1949 the Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts used the same procedures of Clouzot’s Picasso film in his short Bezoek ann Picasso (Visit to Picasso Painter at Work) where the artist “paints various forms (…) on a sheet of Plexiglass stretched between himself and the camera.” Picasso even occasionally stares right into the camera lens through what he is drawing: “Shown against a dark background, it looks as if Picasso draws white lines into the space in which he finds himself” (Jacobs 19):


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F for Fake (France/Iran/West Germany 1974 by Orson Welles)

A [fake?] documentary about fraud and fakery with his then partner with Welles’ partner Oja Kodar sitting for a series of nudes for Picasso.


Picassos äventyr/The Adventures of Picasso (Sweden 1978 by Tage Danielsson with Gösta Ekman)

A comic burlesque mixture of cabaret, circus and students’s pranks in a myriad of languages (the below is an English language version narrated by Bernard Cribbins) which also manages to be a spoof of some of the artistic and political developments of the 20th century:


El Joven Picasso (Spain 1994 TV mini-series about the life of the young Picasso by Juan Antonio Bardem with Toni Zenet)


Surviving Picasso (US 1996 by Merchant Ivory with Anthony Hopkins)


Matisse & Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry (US 2001 TV short by Ginny Martin with the voice of Miguel Ferrer)


33 diás/33 Days (Spain/Canada/Argentina release date 2017 by Carlos Saura with Antonio Banderas)

Foregrounds Picasso working on his Guernica mural and his relationship with the French-Croatian painter and photographer artist Dora Maar 1907-1997, played by Gwyneth Paltrow

Paul Gauguin (1843-1903)

The Moon and Sixpence (US 1942 Albert Lewin with George Sanders) The original novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham 1919 is loosely based on the figure of Gaugin and inspired by his life.


Gauguin (France 16mm 1950 documentary short by Alain Resnais)

A “companion piece” to his earlier Van Gogh, this “adopts the tranquility and composure of Gauguin’s images of Tahitian women” (Wilson18). For the complete film see


Lust for Life (US 1956 with Anthony Quinn)


The Moon and Sixpence (US 1959 TV adapted by writer S Lee Pogostin with Laurence Olivier)


Oviril/The Wolf at the Door (Denmark/France 1986 by Henning Carlsen with Donald Sutherland)

In August 1893, Paul Gauguin arrived back in France from a long stay in Tahiti with 66 canvases but only four francs and mistakenly believed that an exhibition at the Durand-Ruell Gallery in Paris in November of the following year would mark a change in his fortunes. Although the film “does not present a feminist critique of Gauguin’s sexual behavior … at least the women in the film are not depicted as pathetic victims” (Walker 76). The film’s title “Oviril” is Tahitian for ‘savage’ or ‘wild’ and Gaugin also used the name for his 1894 partially glazed stoneware female figure, the goddess of mourning in Tahitian mythology. Donald Sutherland’s son Kevin was to play the painter 17 years later see next film description.


Paradise Found (Australia/France/US/Germany 2003 by Mario Andreacchio with Kiefer Sutherland)


The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (UK Channel 4 TV 2007 Chris Durlacher with John Lynch)


Gaugin – Voyage de Tahiti (France 2017 Èdouard Deluc with Vincent Cassel)

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

The Naked Maja (US/Italy/France1958 by Henry Koster with Anthony Franciosa and set during the Napoleonic Wars, this thematizes the love affair between Goya and Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba, who became the subject of several of his most well-known paintings)


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Goya—oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis (‘The Hard Way to Enlightenment’ GDR/Soviet Union 1971 by Konrad Wolf with Donatas Banionis. Based on the 1951 novel of the same name by the Munich novelist Leon Feuchtwanger, the Goya/Alba relationship is also at the centre of a film featuring 120 of Goya’s paintings and prints)


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Volavérunt (Spain/France1999 by Bigas Luna with Jorge Perugorria)

Based on the 1980 eponymous novel by Antonio Larreta and set at the start of the 19th century at the court of the Spanish King Charles IV. While it similarly features the Goya/Alba pairing, it also includes Pepita Tudó, the wife of Prime Minister Manuel de Godoys, along with Alba the strongest candidate for the identity of the model for The Nude Maja (1800) and The Clothed Maja (1803). Both paintings play a role in the film.


Goya en Burdeos/Goya in Bordeaux (Spain/Italy 1999 by Carlos Saura with Francisco Rabal)

In Bordeaux in 1828, where and when he died exiled from his native Spain, the 82-year-old Goya spends his very last days in a house shared with his lover Leocadia retelling their daughter Rosarito the events of his life. In a series of flashbacks he thinks back to his past as court painter to Charles IV and the royal family, to Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba, who became the subject of several of his most well-known paintings, his deafness at 46, and the political turmoil in Spain resulting from Napoleon’s invasion. Goya’s art comes alive in the form of tableaux and staged re-creations of paintings, for example the Catalan-based action-theater group La Fura dels Baus re-enacts the final 17 of the 82 engravings that make up The Disasters of War (1810-20) as an extended dramatic pantomime:


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The film’s opening sequence is Saura’s homage to Goya’s homage to Rembrandt’s 1655 Slaughtered Ox in which a carcass in a field of red dirt slowly comes to life before dragging itself to hang on a gallows-like meat rack. The whole carcass finally runs like paint as we then see the ashen-faced Goya emerging from its exposed rib cage lying on his deathbed. In the sequence that immediately follows, the walls of Goya’s Spartan room pulse with blue light as he wanders into a sterile corridor and imagines in the form of exsanguinated geese and a black and white tiled floor tableaux from what could be either his work or from the whole history of [above all Dutch?] painting (for the symbolic meaning of the film´s colour coding see Marschall 399-417 including colour plates and also 408-11 on the sequences just discussed).


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Goya’s Ghosts (Spain/US 2006 by Milos Forman with Stellan Skarsgard)

The film is set in Madrid in 1792 against the backdrop of political turmoil at the end of the Spanish Inquisition— who we see having a heated (though anachronistic!) discussion about Los Caprichos (1799), a series of satirical etches critical of both Spanish society and the Inquisition—and the start of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Spain by Napoleon’s army. Though he has become infatuated with Goya’s muse Ines himself, the painter must convince his old friend and member of the Inquisition Brother Lorenzo to spare her life after she has been falsely labelled a heretic and imprisoned. Images of Goya’s The Disasters of War (again) are intercut in the sequence where French troops storm Madrid.


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The painting process:


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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Bride of the Wind (UK/Germany/Austria 2001 Bruce Beresford with August Schmölzer)


Klimt (Austria/France/Germany/UK 2006 Raúl Ruiz with John Malkovich)


Sora no Wot (Japanese animation show 2010 Kanbe Mamoru) see also Elfen Lied (2004)


The Woman in Gold (UK 2015 by Simon Curtis with Moritz Bleibtreu)

Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann in her search to reclaim Klimt’s portrait of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The credits say the film was “inspired by the documentary Stealing Klimt”, UK 2007 60 minutes by Jane Chablani.

Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920)

Montparnasse 19/The Lovers of Montparnasse (France/Italy/West Germany1958 by Jacques Becker with Gérard Phillipe)


Modi (Italy/France 1990 by Franco Brogi Taviani with Richard Berry)


Modigliani (2004 by Mick Davies with Andy Garcia)

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

Zoo: A Zed and Two Noughts (UK/Netherlands 1985 by Peter Greenaway)

Includes tableaux vivant reproductions of some of Vermeer’s work, in one case even combining Girl with a Red Hat and The Art of Painting.


All the Vermeers in New York (US 1990 by Jon Jost American Playhouse Theatrical Films)

The title refers to the fact that of the 30 paintings that can certainly be attributed to Vermeer, as many as eight can be found in New York. Wall Street financial broker Marks falls in love with French actress Anna because she reminds him of Vermeer’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1666-67; in fact, Anna had already seen some reproductions of Vermeer’s work before she went to MOMA). He then follows her from room to room in the museum and introduces himself (one sequence shows Anna in a reproduction/’reenactment’ of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window 1657-59). A love affair ensues and Mark dies. The film ends with Anna ‘going into’ the painting as the camera tracks into it through Anna’s head then freezes on the woman in the painting for some seconds before the film ends. According to Schönenbach the inherent contemplative peace and quiet of a Vermeer stands in stark contrast to Mark’s hectic and stressful professional life, a life purely concerned with financial gain. He feels closer to the reposing figures of Vermeer’s paintings than to his fellow human beings, but by transferring his obsession onto Anna he ultimately founders on reality (Schönenbach 155). A couple of trailers are available on Vimeo and see also Vermeer & Jost interview with the later including some sequences from the film:


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Girl with a Pearl Earring (UK/Luxembourg/Netherlands 2003 by Peter Webber with Colin Firth)

Based on the novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier (1999) and concentrating on the story of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the servant in the Vermeers’ household who (fictitiously) sat for the eponymous Portrait. The comparison between the original painting and Johansson’s ‘modelling’ of it taken from the end of the film has since become iconic:


Tim’s Vermeer (US 2013 documentary by Teller)

(Raymond Joseph) Teller’s film about inventor, computer graphics expert and engineer Tim Jenison, who obviously shares Jon Jost’s love of Vermeer though here almost to the point of obsession as he attempts to exactly replicate The Music Lesson (1662-65) with the help of a device he built himself in order to validate his theory that Vermeer painted with the help of a camera obscura, an idea also floated by professor of architecture Philip Steadman in Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces (2002) and David Hockney in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters (expanded edition 2006) both of whom appear later in the film.


Amour fou (Austria 2014)

Directed by Jessica Hausner, daughter of the Viennese painter Rudolf Hausner, sister of the costume designer Tanja Hausner and half-sister of the production designer and painter Xenia Hausner. The visual aesthetics of this film about the suicide pact between the German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel in Berlin 1810/11 are decidedly yellow and red and inspired by Vermeer’s paintings.


Brush with Fate (made for CBS TV Hallmark Movies US 2003 by Brent Shields with Roelant Radier)

Based on the 1999 novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, who also wrote a fictional biography of Artemisia Gentileschi three years later, the film follows the fate of the fictitious painting of the same name as it travels through the Dutch family histories of those who owned it, starting with the origin of the painting then following it through each subsequent generation as the story unfolds including Vermeer himself. Flashbacks parallel points in the families’ lives. Jonathan Janson painted Girl in Hyacinth Blue for the film see also his website


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In addition, there is


“He’s the painter of light. Period.”


Jan Vermeer’s works aren’t paintings – they’re frozen films, cinematic dramas in paint and canvas. Jonathan Jones Looks at how his enigmatic materpieces translate to the big screen:


The Last Vermeer (US 2019 by Dan Friedkin)

The true story of the Dutch painter, restorer and art dealer Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) whose forgeries of Johannes Vermeer paintings succeeded in swindling millions of dollars from the Nazis. Based on the 2008 book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

Moulin Rouge (UK 1952 by John Huston with José Ferrer)


Lautrec (France/Spain 1998 by Roger Planchon with Régis Royer)


Moulin Rouge (Australia/UK 2001 by Baz Luhrmann with John Leguizamo)

Pierre-Auguste August Renoir (1841-1919)

Ceux De chez nous—Auguste Renoir (France 1915): Directed by Sacha Guitry (1885-1957), French theatre and film actor, director, screenwriter and dramatist.


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French Cancan (France/Italy 1954 by John Renoir): An homage to Degas, the Impressionists, and his own father Pierre-Auguste.


Renoir (France 2012 by Gilles Bourdos with Michel Bouquet)

This is not only about the painter’s final years at Cagnes-sur-Mer during the First World War, but also Andrée Heuschling a.k.a. Catherine Hessling, the painter’s last model and the first actress to star in his son Jean’s films.

William Turner (1775-1851)

The Sun is God: The Life of J.M.W. Turner (UK ITV 1974 by Michael Darlow with Leo McKern)


Mr Turner (UK 2014 by Mike Leigh with Timothy Spalding)

Production background

Mike Leigh stated in an interview with the Tate Gallery that he wanted to make a film about William Turner’s personality, about who and how and where he was. Leigh used sketches and paintings of Turner to recreate the settings that were used in the movie (Leigh Tate). In another interview, he talked about the difficulty rendering Turner’s pictures and paintings (Leigh DP/30). In the same interview, Leigh talks about the accuracy of the film in the sense that however much and long you research “you were not there. So it is an imaginary world anyway” which “is always heightened and distilled, it is never naturalistic or documentary” (Leigh DP/30).


Regarding the main story line of the movie, it adheres quite closely to William Turner’s life. The movie somehow relates to the director’s life as well since it shows an aging artist struggling with his project (Leigh DP/30).


Cultural Studies Analysis – social aspects

Turner’s legacy for England

William Turner bequeathed the English Nation large parts of his artwork. For the National Gallery, Turner’s bequest was the largest donation of works every made. Most of Turner’s legacy, almost 300 oil paintings and 30,000 sketches and watercolours, is now stored in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain.


William Turner set up his first last will and testament after his father had died in 1829 and changed it in 1848 when his state of health had worsened. He then added the collection of all his finished pictures to the inheritance. Turner gave very specific instructions on how and where his paintings should be displayed. They should be held together in the Gallery and shown in their completeness to the public (Leigh Audio Commentary). It took almost a hundred years until all of Turner’s works of art were sorted out. The Tate Gallery generously allowed the director Mike Leigh to research in the archives for the production of the film (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Leigh).


There is a sequence in the movie related to this (counter: 01:58:14 – 02:01:42). It is set in Turner’s gallery, which was located next to where he lived. The sequence starts with a full shot at a low angle, followed by a slight upwards tilt, of an elderly man looking closely at Turner’s paintings dressed in fancy period clothing wearing a top hat and a walking stick. The walls of the gallery are painted in red with framed pictures on the walls as well as on the floor. Two buckets are put on the floor to catch water drops falling from the ceiling. There is a small table on the left side of the frame where a cup of tea is standing on a pile of books. The only sourced sounds are the footsteps on the wooden floor. The quietness and length of evokes uneasiness with the viewers, who do not know what is going to happen and awaits some kind of action. They are released from this tension when the camera zooms out and both the housekeeper Hannah Danby and William Turner appear in the frame. Danby is dressed in shabby clothes serving the two men drinks. The source of the light appears in the frame, a roof-light covered by cloths, creating a medium key light. The movie continues with a couple of medium close shots of the three characters’ faces. During the sequence, the visitor to the gallery, the rich businessman Joseph Gillott, offers buy all Turner’s artwork for 100,000 pounds, an enormous sum at that time. But Turner has to decline the attractive offer since he has already bequeathed the British Nation his artwork. Gillott is astonished and cannot comprehend Turner’s answer, and on failing to persuade him eventually leaves the gallery slightly upset. The sequence shows perfectly how stubborn William Turner was in relation to his bequest. It is known that Gillott showed a special interest in Turner’s art, but there is no proof that a sequence like this really occurred.


Turner’s legacy for the history of art

In the encyclopaedia Brockhaus, which came out in the late 1930s, William Turner is already mentioned as the forerunner of impressionism. It says there that he wanted to recreate the effect of atmosphere which changed the form of things. It started with him turning towards the dissolving of solid shapes and moving on to a colourful, burning composition of steam, light, mist, sun and fog (Brockhaus 496). With his forward-looking work, he influenced many well-known impressionist painters, like James Abbott Whistler or Claude Monet.


Nevertheless, he was a representative of the Romantic style. Significant paradigmatic changes occurred when the era of the Enlightenment was replaced by the Romanticism in the late 18th century. The focus shifted from reason to emotion, from rules to imagination, from the society to the individual and from the city, as the place to be, to the nature. In his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote about the aesthetics of nature, depicting three concepts: the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque (Wu / Burke).


William Turner was strongly affected by these new concepts. He lived a significant time of his life in the countryside, where he was able to experience the beauties of nature. His most frequent themes were seascape motives and landscapes, oftentimes the confrontation of humanity with the forces of nature. Even though most of his artwork can be described as “picturesque”, his “best” and most famous paintings deal with the idea of the sublime. The central aspects of the sublime are obscurity, terror and the supernatural. Turner applied these ideas by showing the vastness of nature by using great distances or heights, by extreme contrasts of light and shadow and by limiting the observer’s perception. Timothy Spall described the sublime in the Bonus Feature The Many Colours of Mr. Turner as the conflict between the beauty and the horror of the nature. One example of a sublime painting by William Turner is the oil painting “Snow Storm – Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps”.


The romantic scheme does not only show in Turner’s motives or style, but in his way of painting as well. As can be seen in the movie, he travelled across countries, drawing sketches of landscapes and other motives in the open air and painting his pictures with oil paint or watercolour back at home in his studio.


This way of living and painting is shown right at the beginning of the movie (counter: 0:00:34 – 0:02:14). An establishing shot of a picturesque landscape somewhere in the Netherlands immediately follows the opening credits. Taken as a film still, the motive looks much like a painting of Turner himself. The extreme long shot shows the sunrise above a plain field parted by a little stream next to a windmill. The rosy sky takes up a little more than the upper half of the frame while the fields lie in the dark on the lower half. The river, which reflects the morning sunlight, draws a bright line through the dim grassland. The sounds are those of an early morning in the open countryside, twittering birds and the sound of the ripple. Two women dressed in folklore clothing walk into the frame, chatting all along. The camera starts to track the two women carrying pails while moving closer to the water. The closer they come, the louder their voices get. As they reach the height of the camera, it follows them walking by with a panning shot to the left. All the while, a dark little figure appears on the other side of the stream standing in the distance facing the sun. The two women disappear and while their voices are fading off unsourced music starts to play. The following long shot shows the lone figure in the field. After a cut, a medium shot from a low angle shows the figure, who turns out to be William Turner, at close range. The middle-aged man is shown from the side standing in waist-high grass, wearing a top hat and a dark coat and drawing in a sketchbook. He stops for a moment, looks up at the sun and the sky, and continues drawing. After another cut the man’s face is shown from the front in a close up from a slightly lower than eve-level angle, looking very focused stern while trying to capture everything he sees. The sequence depicts Turner’s passion for nature. He spared no efforts to get the perfect motive even if it meant travelling in harsh conditions across countries, exposing himself to the forces of nature or simply getting up early before sunrise to catch the first sunbeams.


Turner’s unusual relationships…

…with people from all classes

Thanks to the early acknowledgment of his talent and work, William Turner got to know people of various social backgrounds throughout his life (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Bailey) be it his quite simple and down-to-earth upbringing, his diverse clientele or the members of the Royal Academy. Despite his difficult character he seemed to have got along with most of them pretty well. Leading actor Timothy Spall called him the “daddy of the royal academy” in an interview featured on the DVD. Turner adored the Academy, and they adored him. Even though most of the members were a bit weary of him, they all knew he was brilliant and listened to him attentively (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Spall). In a way, he felt committed to the Academy, because he owed them everything. Nevertheless, the competition between the members was fierce, peaking just before the vernissage on the Varnishing Days. During those days just before the exhibition opened, all the painters would finish their paintings at the Royal Academy, touching up their works and making the very final changes (Costello 123f). It intensified the rivalry between the artists, and Turner was said to have reacted viciously to that (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Francis). An infamous incident occurred in 1832 at Somerset House in London, the former location of the Royal Academy, where John Constable, Turner’s greatest competitor, exhibited one of his most promising paintings next to Turner’s picture. Fearing a defeat, Turner added a big red provocative dot to his fairly unspectacular seascape painting, turning it into a buoy and by doing so making his picture much more exciting and leaving Constable furious. “He has been here and fired a gun”, said Constable afterwards (Jones). This cinematic but real occurrence has found its way into Mr. Turner (counter: 1:11:00).


…with his father

William Turner lived with his father for over 30 years. Due to Turner’s mentally ill mother, a strong bond between father and son evolved quite early (Leigh Audio Commentary). After the demand for wigs decreased with the changing fashion in the late 18th century, William Turner, the father, was more than happy to find new work in helping his son in the production process of his paintings. He used to prepare the paints and the canvases by stretching them. He also varnished the completed oil paintings. The father’s death notably affected Turner’s life and health (Shanes 36). Turner set up his first last will and testament only ten days after his father had died in 1829. The following sequence illustrates the close relationship between the two of them (counter: 00:09:00 – 00:12:37).


A low medium to full shot shows the housekeeper following Turner’s father walking down the hall of the second floor of William Turner’s house and disappearing into another room on the left side. Hannah Danby, who is dressed in her usual shabby clothes, stops at the end of the hall and peeks into the room where the father had vanished. His voice can be heard from the other room greeting his son cordially, who has just returned from one of his journeys.


After a cut the second room, which turns out to be Turner’s workstation, is shown in a full shot. An antique desk crammed with books and other objects is standing against a wall on the left side next to a closed door. A second table is standing on the right in front of a cupboard next to the door through which Turner’s father just walked in. The colours of the room are quite dark and dull, the natural daylight creates a medium key lighting. The camera tracks the father hobbling towards his son, who is standing near the window, preparing his work. The two men are shown hugging each other in a medium shot. The painter calls his father “daddy” and the father his son “Billy boy”, which seems astonishing, if not a little inappropriate, given the fact that they are about 50 and 70 years old! Brushes, paints and easels are standing all around the room, indicating that this is a place of creative work. After talking about Turner’s journey, they kiss and hug each other again, which shows the affection and familiarity between the two of them. The camera tracks them moving towards a desk in front of a window where Turner starts to paint while telling his father about his trip. The light is now much brighter as they are standing right in front of the window and the light source is not at the back, but to the side of the camera. They start talking about Turner’s work and how he needs special canvases, which his father usually prepares. His father tells him that the price for ultramarine has increased again. While Turner leaves the scene to go and take a nap, his father is shown in a full shot pan carrying a canvas from one room to another. The next scene shows the father shaving a pig’s head with the help of the housekeeper, a reference to his former profession as a barber. After a cut the old man is shown from a high angle medium shot and the camera tracks him walking up the staircase. The next scene is set in Turner’s bedroom where a full shot shows him lying on his bed while his father comes in to wake him up. A mirror, standing behind the bed, reflects Turner’s folded hands, drawing attention to his work tools. The next cut refers again to the father’s former profession as he shaves his son, shown in a medium close shot. It is also a funny parallel to the prior scene where he shaved the pig’s head. Father and son seem to be getting along very well, chatting and laughing all the while.


The sequence reflects the close relationship between William Turner and his father. Not only was his father a great help and influence in Turner’s private life, but also of great importance in the production process of his paintings.


with his housekeepers

William Turner led a very reclusive lifestyle. However, some assumptions about his private life can be made on account of the portrayal of his character. Trusting the widely held belief that Turner had a romantic relationship with Sarah Danby, it is assumed that he was the father of her two daughters Evelina and Georgiana (Shanes 23). Another assumption, indicated by Turner’s testament, is that Sarah Danby’s niece Hannah Danby was the mother of these two girls. She had been serving Turner as a housekeeper from the 1820s until his death. After he died, Turner left her a significant amount of money and the right to stay in his house until her death, which could be an indicator for the previous speculation (Shanes 23). It is also possible that William Turner was not the father of the two girls but instead their brother since his father bore the same name.


Hannah Danby, Turner’s long-time housekeeper, has been described in various reports as a pitiful woman people felt sorry for. They were even alarmed and scared at the sight of her because she was disfigured (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Atkinson). According to the director Mike Leigh, the sexual relationship between the painter and his housekeeper was not based on historical evidence, but seemed instead quite natural and very probably (The Many Colours of Mr. Turner / Leigh).


After 1933 a new companion entered Turner’s life. For years, the painter had been visiting the small town of Margate where he used to stay with Sophia Caroline Booth and her husband, who died in 1933. The relationship between Turner and Booth started only shortly afterwards. Booth took care of her own sustenance during their relationship, which lasted for 18 years, buying a house in Chelsea from the money that she had saved (Shanes 43). They even moved together into that house where they lived until Turner died in 1851 (Shanes 40).



The movie Mr. Turner is an artwork itself shot in a “turneresque” manner, focusing especially on light and colour just like Turner did in his paintings. The movie is a milestone in the history of British period dramas, a genre which includes other biopics like A Bright Star, about the English Romantic poet John Keats, or Young Victoria, about Queen Victoria.


Turner’s oeuvre played a significant role in the cinematic depiction of his life, just like Keats’ poetry did in A Bright Star. The use of the main characters’ work as a stylistic device is a crucial element in these two biopics. Keats’ poetry is often used as a voiceover while Turner’s paintings can be seen in the majority of the movie’s settings. There is yet another characteristic that these two biopics have in common, which is that they both show the end of their “hero’s” lives. Both Keats and Turner die before the film ends, and the spectator gets to see what happens to the people that are left behind, especially to their “girlfriends”, since neither Turner nor Keats was married but in a relationship. By showing the mortality of the hero’s body, the immortality of his genius comes to the fore.


Nevertheless, both Mr. Turner and A Bright Star focus on the private lives, especially the relationships, of these two representatives of the Romantic period. Their weaknesses are contrasted with their strengths, their oftentimes ugly personality traits come face to face with the timeless beauty of their work. And that is what leaves the spectator in awe, seeing a “normal” human being creating immortal works of art.




Costello, Leo. J.W.M. Turner and the Subject of History. London&New York: Routledge, 2012.

Der Neue Brockhaus: Allbuch in vier Bänden und einem Atlas. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1938.

Shanes, Eric. J.M.W. Turner. London: Studio Editions, 1990.

Wu, Duncan. Romanticism: An Anthology. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.



Leigh, Mike. Interview with The Guardian.

National Gallery. The Turner Bequest.



Leigh, Mike. Audio Commentary DVD. Special Treats Productions, 2014.

Leigh, Mike. Interview. Tate, 2013.

Leigh, Mike. Interview. DP/30, 2014.

The Many Colours of Mr. Turner. DVD Bonus Feature. Special Treats Productions, 2014. Featuring Mike Leigh, Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey and Clive Francis.

The author Stella Aurelia Berg is a BA student of International, Business and Cultural Studies at the University of Passau, Germany.


The Eccentric Mr Turner (25-minute short film shot in one continuous take UK 2015 Mike Booth, who also stars as Michael Booth, screenplay by Gary Taylor, who also stars as Turner)

The film deals with the final days of the painter’s life at Mrs Booth’s guest house and opens with him working on The Slave Ship (1840). People from Turner’s life appear from his own father to Charles Dickens plus two crew members from the slave ship who talk about the appalling conditions on board–the original/full title was ‘Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying.’ As Turner breathes his last, we see the whole painting complete itself in colour.


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The Visit to Picasso (14-minute short film UK 2016 also by Mike Booth with Gary Taylor again as both screenwriter and painter)

Goebbels searches out Picasso in Paris in 1944 and they talk about art, its relation to so-called real life (which Goebbels claims Germans paint in contrast to the still lifes of Picasso), and politics (“I didn’t paint Guernica. You did!” Picasso tells him). The final shot is of Picasso’s Pitcher, Candle and Enamel Saucepan from 1946, recalling their earlier argument about the painting.




“The candle and the flame represent eternal life

The candle has no flame

The candle has no life…” (2:17-2:37)


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Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918)

Pirosmani (USSR 1969 by Giorgi Shengelaya with Avtandil Varazi as self-taught Georgian primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani)


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Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme (USSR 1986 by Sergei Paradschanow)

Domínikos Theotokpoulos (1541-1614)

El Greco (Greece 2007 by Yannis Smaragdis with Nick Ashdon)


El Greco (Italy 1966 by Luciano Salce with Mel Ferrer)


Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918)

Egon Schiele – Exzesse (Austria/Germany/France 1980 by Herbert Vesely with Mathieu Carriére)


Egon Schiele: Tod und Mädchen (Austria/Luxembourg 2016 by Dieter Berner with Noah Saavedra)


René Magritte (1541-1614)

Rene Magritte: A Dramatized Documentary (UK BBC2 Ominbus 1979 by David Wheatley)


Monsieur René Magritte (France documentary by Adrian Maben 1978 with childhood memories, paintings and old movies of the artist along with incidental music composed and performed by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters)


Monsieur René Magritte (2009 France docu-fiction by Henri de Gerlache on the occasion of the opening of the new Magritte museum in Belgium)

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Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Pollock (US 2000 by Ed Harris, who also plays Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s wife, the painter Lee Krashner, is played by Marcia Gay Harden)

Harris’ ten-year labour of love covers the fifteen-year period in the artist’s life from 1941 to his death in 1956. In the clip below we see him completing Mural (1943), and the other paintings featured are:


Number 17A (1948)

No. 5, 1948 (1948)

Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950)

Autumn Rhythm [Number 30] (1950)

Convergence (1952)

Blue Poles [Number 11, 1952] (1952)

The Deep (1953)


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Jackson Pollock (US 1951 short film by Paul Falkenberg and Hans Namuth Painter at Work)

Here the artist’s “action painting involved a more physical dimension and also implied a new relation between the painting and its creation process” (Jacobs 19):


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Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965)

Painter born in Zurich to an Italian mother who is often considered a representative of art brut/Outsider Art, the autodidactic art of among others lay people, children and those suffering from mental illness


Ligabue (Italy three-parter 1977 produced by Rai TV directed by Salvatore Nocita with Flavio Bucci)


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Volevo nascondermi (= ‘I wanted to hide’/Hidden Away Italy 2020 premiered 21 February at the Berlin International Film Festival directed by Giorggio Diritti with Elio Germano)

 One film per painter:

The Agony and the Ecstasy (US 1965 by British director Carol Reed with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II, who commisioned the sculptor to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel)


Une vistite au Louvre (2004 by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet)

A companion piece to au Louvre (2004 Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a companion piece to their earlier Cézanne from 1989. Both films are based on the chapter “Le Louvre” from the Provencal writer and art critic Joachim Gasquet’s book Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations (1897-1906) which recounts the painter’s visit to the Louvre accompanied by the young Gasquet. In the 2004 film we see Cézanne in the Louvre strolling past painters by his artist colleagues. Julie Kotai speaks the comments Gasquet attributed to Cézanne about the paintings. There have been at least five documentaries about Cézanne.


Further information:


Óscar: Una pasión surrealista / The Colour of Destiny (Spain 2008 by Lucas Fernández with Joaquim de Almeida as a forgotten icon of French surrealism, Spanish painter Óscar Dominguez 1906-1957)


Surmatants / The Dance of Death (Estonia 1991 by Tonu Virve with Hendrik Toompere Jr. as the Late Gothic painter from Lübeck/Germany Bernt Notke 1453-1509)

Details from Notke’s life are interweaved with those of the Estonian painter and sculptor Michel Sittow (1469-1525) as the film speculates on how the former’s panel painting Dance of Death may have come to Tallinn/Estonia. For more background on Notke and his painting see


Csontvary – Lebensbilder eines Malers (1980 by Zoltán Huszárik with Itzhak Finzi as the Hungarian avant-garde painter Tivadar Csontyváry Kosztka 1853-1919)


The Passion of Marie (Denmark 2012 by Bille August)

With Birgitte Hjort Sorensen and Soren Saetter-Lassen as Marie and Peder Severin Kroyer respectively (1867-1940 and 1851-1909), two of the Danish Skagen Painters, a community of Danish and Nordic artists from the place of the same name.


The Mill and the Cross (Poland/Sweden 2011 Lech Majewski with Rutger Hauer as Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1525-1569)

Much of the film is a restaging of Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. In 2005 writer and art critic Michael Francis Gibson saw Lech Majewski’s Angelus (2001) in a cinema in Paris and afterwards gave him a copy of his book The Mill and the Cross: Pieter Bruegel’s Way to Calvary, an analysis of this painting published in 2000. They then both came up with the idea of writing a screenplay together. Gibson and Majewski also collaborated on a second, expanded edition of The Mill and the Cross that combines images from the painting and Gibson’s text with film stills. It was published on the occasion of the film’s first showing by BOSZ Publishing House in 2010 with an introduction by Angelus Silesius see


Note that Lech Majewski helped develop as a project and write the screenplay for Basquiat (1996), eventually gaining a credit as co-writer and co-producer (see section on Queer Biopics).


My Nikifor (Poland 2004 by Krzysztof Krauze with Krystyna Feldman as the Lemko folk and naïve painter Nikifor 1895-1968)


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Crumb (US 1994 by Terry Zwigoff as the American cartoonist Robert Crumb 1943- )

Another labour of love Pollock-style, this time nine years for the completion of a documentary emphasizing Crumb’s Keep On Trucking posters and anarchical comic Fritz the Cat, later turned into an animation feature by Ralph Bakshi in 1972. The film’s backbone are reproductions of the Family Crumb’s earliest work from the late 50s/earöy 60s, commentaries from critics, and interviews with his family including his wife Aline Kominsky, who paved the way for the feminist Underground Comix, while at the same time not leaving out Crumb’s mysogynist attitudes.


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Summer in February (UK 2013 by Christopher Menaul with Dominic Cooper as the English horse painter Alfred Munnings 1878-1959, who in one sequence can be seen painting his The Morning Ride and its rider, Florence Carter-Wood, in a Cornish copse)


Satie and Suzanne (Canada 1994 dance film by Tim Southam)

Veronica Tennant as the French painter Suzanne Valadon 1865-1938 who had an affair with the French composer Erik Satie. Featuring the Circle de Soleil.


Edvard Munch (UK 1974 by Peter Watkins with Geir Wesby as Edvard Munch 1863-1944)


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Starting in the 1960s, Watkins made a name for himself at the BBC with his radically different docudramas such as Cullodon (1964) where the people taking part in the battle are interviewed by TV reporters and The War Game (1966) with its scenario of a nuclear attack on England presented in news magazine style. His semi-nonfictional film Munch is in similar vein. The voiceover narration by Watkins is in English, the background talk and interviews in Norwegian, and a ten-year period (1884-1894) is covered in an “experiment combining narrative and documentary…while simultaneously evoking Munch’s palette and spatial compositions” (Jacobs 56). Remaining “very true to Munch’s biography–filming in Oslo and Asgardstrand and using Munch’s own diaries for narration,” the director cast exclusively non-professionals from Norway, even going “so far as to intentionally hire actors who disliked Munch’s work to portray the unfavourable reception the paintings initially received” (Art + Travel Europe: Munch and Oslo n.p.).


Watkins has admitted that Munch was “the most personal film” he had ever made. Its origins lie in a visit he paid the Oslo Edvard Munch Museum in 1968 when he “was awestruck by the strength of Munch’s canvases, especially those depicting the sad life of his family, and was very moved by the artist’s directness – with the people in his canvases looking straight at us” (Peter Watkins website. For a detailed analysis of the film see Gomez).


My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (Ireland 1989 by Jim Sheridan with Daniel Day-Lewis as the Irish painter Christy Brown 1932-1981)


Every Picture Tells a Story (UK 1983 by William Scott’s son James with various actors as the Scottish still life and abstract painter 1913-1969)


Further information:


Effie Gray (UK 2014 by Richard Laxton screenplay by Emma Thompson)

Tom Sturridge plays the English painter, illustrator and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood John Everett Millais—the film revolves around his triangular involvement with the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his wife Euphemia “Effie” Gray.


Cézanne et moi / Cézanne (France 2016 by Danièle Thompson with Guillaume Gallienne)

The “moi” of the original French title is the 19th century realist novelist Émile Zola, and the film depicts the relationship between the writer and the painter until it ended in an irreconcilable quarrel. Cézanne did a Portrait of Émile Zola in 1864 followed five years later by la Pendule noire / The Black Marble Clock, a clock without hands as a sign of time standing still which could also be regarded as a comment on their hoped-for eternal friendship. Yet when Zola portrayed the life of the failed painter Claude Lantier in his 1886 novel L’œuvre / The Masterpiece as part of a fictional account of their friendship, Cézanne considered this a betrayal and they parted company for good.


In the Realms of the Unreal (US 2004 documentary by Jessica Yu about the self-taught Art Bru/Outsider Artist painter Henry Darger 1892-1973)

Chicago native Henry Darger lost his parents very soon after his birth and then spent his childhood at a home for boys before spending the rest of his life as a sort of janitor/custodian in a Chicago Catholic (see below) hospital. It was not until shortly after his death that his artistic production was discovered by his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, Darger having kept his artwork hidden during an at times reclusive life (Lerner subsequently became an advocate of his art in artistic circles in Chicago). At the age of 19 in 1911 he started work on the 15-volume illustrated novel In the Realms of the Unreal. With faint echoes of the American Civil War and set on a mythological planet with among many other fantastic(al) creatures/creations the flying Glandelinians, fallen Catholics in the form of winged creatures who enslave children, it tells the epic story of the heroic Vivian Girls, seven sisters – Violet, Joice, Jennie, Catherine, Hettie, Daisy and Evangeline—who help in a children’s uprising. There are two alternative endings in the second of which the Vivian Girls emerge as victors. The largest part of the novel is taken up by The Story of the Vivian Girls in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.


With over 15,000 single-spaced pages often painted on both sides and 300 watercolour paintings/illustrations of various shapes and sizes, the novel consists of images found in popular magazines, children’s books and comics cut, traced and photocopied onto long paper scrolls then coloured in afterwards. Collage and painting are richly combined and overlapped (dissolved?), and the whole sense of dynamic movement contributes greatly to the feeling of watching a film or using a flip book (such techniques and the whole illustrated novel approach are not dissimilar to those used by Charlotte Salomon’s in Life? Or Theatre? see Women Painters).


A note must be added here, however. The novel quite obviously champions the right of children to gain power and independence yet at  the same time some may find the images of tortured and mutilated children disturbing and of naked girls problematic (even though the queerness of other images of girls with horns and male genitalia cannot be denied either). Websites have therefore been included at the end with examples of Darger’s art from In the Realms of the Unreal for readers to make up their own minds. Perhaps Darger’s headstone should be allowed to have the final words: “Artist” and “Protector of Children.” Conversely, Yu’s film is a good place to start where we see the camera effectively panning across many of the paintings from In the Realms of the Unreal as well as animating others plus the highly unusual device of a child actor as narrator for some of the illustrations.


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Recommended reading/viewing:

The Strange, Wondrous World of Henry Darger

The Secret Art and Life of Henry Darger

Henry Darger Down the Rabbit Hole


De werkelijkheid van Karel Appel (The Reality of Karel Appel short film West Germany 1962 by Jan Vrijman Painter at Work)

The film “features the artist flicking paint at a glass screen in a frenzy of apparent creativity accompanied by a Dizzy Gillespie soundtrack” (Jacobs 19).


Gerhart Richter Painter (Germany 2011 by Corinna Belz Painter at Work) see the official website then a trailer:


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Werk ohne Autor (‘Work without an Author’ 2018 by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) is based on Jürgen Schreiber’s Ein Maler aus Deutschland. Gerhart Richter. Das Drama einer Familie with Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert, who is closely modelled on Richter:


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Neo Rauch – Gefährten und Begleiter (Germany 2016 by Nicola Graef Painter at Work)

The director accompanied the painter at work, a member of the New Leipzig School, from 2013—2016 and also observed the critical exchanges with his wife, the painter Rosa Loy. The German title means ‘companions’ and ‘those who accompany someone.’ See the official website then a trailer.



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Source: YouTube by Eros Renzetti


An Artist’s Eyes (UK 2018 by Jack Bond Painter at Work) “follows the journey of the brilliant young British painter, Chris Moon, as he navigates the perilous art world and a demanding, often excruciating, relationship with his work” (quotation taken from the website below)


Letters to Sofija / Laiškai Sofijai (Lithuania 2013 by the British-born Robert Mullan with Rokas Zubovas as the Lithuanian painter as well as composer and writer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis 1875-1922)


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Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Las Meninas (‘The Ladies-in-Waiting/Maids of Honour’ 1656)

Las Meninas (Ukraine 2008 by Ihor Podolchak)

The director is also the producer and screenwriter of this film, and one musical part is co-directed by the music video director Dean Karr. Podolchak works in different genres of fine art from painting and prints to photography, video art and art actions. This can be felt throughout the film, for example the quotations of 17th century still lifes in what is a highly visual, tactile and aural cross between the visual arts and film—the music and sound above all give viewers the feeling of being invited to a sort of interactive screening experience. A family of four live in a suburban villa full of complex mirrors and mirroring surfaces almost like an art installation in which images are reflected and multiplied see the reflexive structure of Velazquez’s painting. The film ultimately resembles the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: the task of the viewers is to (re)assemble the pieces to form their own picture.


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Las Meninas (Austria 2016 short film Dániel Béres)

After his controversial decision during a soccer game to award a penalty, the referee goes on vacation to Madrid in an attempt to come to terms with what has happened but instead loses himself in the labyrinthine underground corridors of the Prado Museum only to end up inside the world of Velazquez’ painting as one of its characters (see Susan Seidelman’s The Dutch Master). The referee’s personal dilemma fuses with that of the observer when confronted with the mysteries of Las Meninas.


El ministerio del tiempo (‘The Ministry of Time’ Spain fantasy TV series 2015- ) “La memoria del tiempo” (`The Memory of Time’) season 4 episode 4 first broadcast 26 May 2020.

The series follows an investigative team in said ministry which deals with temporal incursions caused by time travel that can lead to changes to the present day. Velazquez has been recruited by the Ministry as a facial composite draftsman. In the above episode, he pays a visit to the Prado in 2020 only to see his own painting disappear before his very eyes. At the same time the Ministry receives word that Picasso is not working on Guernica and time is running out. Two teams are therefore sent back to 1937 to Madrid to investigate the possible theft of Las Meninas and to Paris to make sure that Picasso paints Guernica. The two cases eventually turn out to be interconnected.


“Velázquez‘ Best Moments”:


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A live-action video installation based on Las Meninas, Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) brings to life and expands the world of Velázquez’s painting into a cinematic sequence of moving bodies in a continuous 12-minute loop that recreates “the moments leading up to and immediately following the scene portrayed” in Velazquez’ painting. A 360º Steadicam pan “reveals the entire scene” not so much as a recreation of the room Velázquez used in the Alcázar palace as a reimaging, “a point of departure for improvisation and artistic revision while staying faithful to the time period in which it was created … [E]ach gesture in the video implies weight and narrative much as the original gestures Velázquez captured”:


For further details/shots from the installation see




plus a brief extract at


Venus (2006 UK by Roger Michell)

From a Hanif Kureishi script, Peter O’Toole plays the ageing veteran actor Maurice Russell, whose life is drawing to a close (prostate cancer) while he is simultaneously drawn to his friend Ian’s grand-niece Jessie. He takes her to the London National Gallery to see his favourite painting, Velázquez’ Rokerby Venus (1647—51), after which she agrees to become a nude model for art class (start-0:50):


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