Artists Who Should Have Movies Made About Them

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Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about Renaissance womenMedieval women, 18th-century women, and pirate women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.

 

I have already included a few artists in previous installments of this series, but today I thought I’d focus entirely on some artists whose lives would make great movie fodder.

Hieronymus Bosch

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My favorite Bosch painting is actually the exterior of The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1490. I love the glass sphere with the world contained within…

There is one major difficulty in making a biopic about Bosch and that’s that very little is known about his actual life apart from his paintings; but then again, that could present a lot of fun opportunities for a screenwriter to develop him as a semi-fictional character. Was he tormented by the demons he painted? Or did he just paint whatever he thought he could get away? Maybe he was a frustrated artist who couldn’t seem to get enough clientele and decided to start painting the weirdest shit he could imagine only to find that’s what sold. Maybe he was utterly normal in a Walter Mitty kind of way, but inside his head there lived a chaotic world set with fantastic nightmarish scenes. I could certainly see Bosch being a loving father and husband apart from his strange paintings; maybe he hides his paintings from everyone, and they’re only accidentally discovered and revealed to great acclaim … I mean, here’s basically a blank slate to work with, and he’s got a body of work that has limitless opportunities for bringing to life. Come on, Guillermo del Toro, make this happen!

 

Hans Holbein, the Younger

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Holbein’s best known works are from the two periods he had in England, from 1526-1528 and 1532-1540, with the latter eight years producing some of his most famous portraits such as the monumental double portrait of French ambassadors Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, above. This period also produced the portraits of the men and women who made up Henry VIII‘s court in the last decade of his life, with major players like Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Bishop Gardiner all sitting for him. Holbein was also responsible for the famous portrait of Anne of Cleves that proved that artistic license can go a little too far, as well as the portraits of Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard, and one prospective bride, Christina of Denmark.

In the screenplay that I would write (but probably never will, so feel free to steal it), the lives of these famous sitters would intersect with Holbein’s life as he observed their world from behind the canvas. He would be party to the breakdown of Roman Catholicism in England (told through More and Gardiner); the spectacular rise and fall of Anne Boleyn (via Cromwell); Jane Seymour’s brief reign wherein she manages to provide Henry with his long-desired male heir, only to die days later; and the aborted marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves where his own portrait of Anne was faulted for flattering the subject too much — only to have Henry more or less accept that, hey, that’s what he’s paid to do and then turn around and execute Cromwell for botching the match. Katherine Howard would have been married to Henry and then executed in the time it would take for Holbein to produce her portrait (only the portrait miniature exists, suggesting that if there was a full sized portrait of Katherine, it either was abandoned halfway or destroyed after she fell from grace). I think it would be a fascinating sociological take on the well-trod history of this period, told from the POV of someone who is paid to observe and record and not interfere.

 

Anna Maria Garthwaite

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Gown made from a design by Anna Maria Garthwaite, via the V&A.

I love me some textile history (hardly a surprise, I’m sure) and Anna Maria Garthwaite tops the list of interesting early-modern designers whose work is more famous than people realize. Garthwaite was an Englishwoman who designed textiles for the Spitalfields silk industry in the mid-18th century. The daughter of a Reverend Ephraim and his wife, Rejoyce (I do love those good 17th-century Protestant names), Anna Maria appears to have settled with her widowed sister in Spitalfields in the 1720s.

Like Bosch and Holbein, there’s not a whole lot on the record for her biography, but what we do know is that she produced designs for the silk weavers for nearly 30 years, leaving behind an impressive body of work — most of it currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. A Garthwaite design is not hard to spot … Many portraits of contemporary notables were sporting Garthwaite textiles fashioned into fabulous gowns and waistcoats. Extant yardage and even entire outfits made from documentable Garthwaite designs are in major collections across the world. And these designs are still being referenced and used as the basis for contemporary home furnishing textiles to this day.

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Garthwaite design in watercolor for a man’s waistcoat; woven by masterweaver Peter Lekeux. Our good friend J. Leia Lima Baum has an excellent article on Garthwaite’s designs with more examples of the watercolor design matched to an extant garment over at On Pins and Needles.

The part of Anna Maria’s story that has the most potential for development of course begins when she arrives from York to set up shop near London. Here’s a business woman in a very male-dominated world, who has no familial connection to the silk industry … How does she wind up there? What drove her to establish herself as a designer? And despite the high likelihood of other female textile designers operating at that time, Garthwaite rose to the top with designs that captured the zeitgeist of her age: light, bright, bold, and elegant.

 

Do you have a favorite artist you’d like to see immortalized on film? Share it with us in the comments!

 

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

42 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Several. From the Italian Renaissance: Botticelli, Fra Felippo Lippi, Titian and from the late Renaissance Artemesia Gentileschi – only woman with a painting in the Vatican.

    Reply
    • robintmp

      I think there was a movie made about Artemesia within the past 20 years or so (a foreign film, of course) that was supposed to be quite good; at least, I seem to recall seeing stills from it at one point. She certainly deserves another film, though, this time in English, for those who aren’t familiar with her story.

      Reply
      • Janet Nickerson

        Yes – it was 15 minutes of fine art and the rest was soft-core porn, from what I’ve heard, as it built up the supposed affair with Tassi. I was particularly angered by that take, too, as Artemisia underwent torture to press charges against her rapist. If anyone would doubt her claim, I suggest they view her masterwork ‘Judith’. The film is just ‘Artemisia’.

        Reply
        • themodernmantuamaker

          I saw the movie when it came out. There was some prettiness to look at and it was a well-made movie, but, yeah, the soft-core element was strong with it. I didn’t know much about her history when I saw the movie so wasn’t aware at the time of the pretty sizable inaccuracies. And the story ends when she’s still just at the beginning of her career, if I remember correctly. She most definitely deserves another – that focuses much more on her actual work!

          Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        Yeah, it’s called “Artemisa” I think… It’s on my FF watch-list, but I keep dragging my feet because she’s really precious to me and I don’t want to see her story fucked up. I know the film placed way more focus on her rape trial than anything and that bothered me enough to put off watching it. :P

        Reply
  2. Donna

    One that is already done and needs to be seen more is The Mill and The Cross … Peter Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) takes his patron (Michael York) on a tour through one of his paintings … actually walking through the painting.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I had a reason for not including that as a “biopic” on this list for some reason but now I can’t remember why. I think it was because he was used as a plot device for the other character’s issues, and not actually the focus of the film. It’s been ages since I saw the movie though, so…

      Reply
  3. Donna

    I’d like to see a film about Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) … an Italian woman who made a successful career as a painter (mostly portraits) in the Spanish court.

    Also, a film about Edith Head would be fun.

    Reply
  4. Melinda

    Hi! Lately a tv series was made about previous era female artist (BBC I guess, but really can’t remember who’s production it was, or the title of the series, sorry:( ), but it had noted several amazingly talanted women! For example, during the reneisance a woman wanted to study sculpture, naturaly she was turned down, sculpture making was a male job. So she started to carve small almond, peach, plum, etc. cores! Another lady of the Netherlands got famous around all of Eurpe with her marveillous paper cutting skills, and made a fortune from it. Besides all the turned-down, ignored and under rated femali painters Anna Maria Garthwaite got mentioned too, as much the best textil designer!

    Reply
  5. Sunburnt Flapjack

    The women of abstract expressionism: Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and their peers. The costumes would be a treat, mid 1950’s NYC bohemianism, and I think it would be fun to flip the script and have a movie with the famous men (Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning) acting in the background with the plot and visual attention focused on the women and their relationships to each other.

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola

    What about Callot Soeurs, a French Fashion house run by three sisters: Marie, Marthe, Regina, and Josephine. Their clothes are amazing. Just visit LACMA, the Met & V&A .

    Reply
  7. J Lou

    Maria Cosway — Anglo-Italian artist (1760-1838), who painted fashionable London society and folks from all over Europe, including Napoleon. Oh, and she had an affair (of the heart, if not the body) with Thomas Jefferson. They corresponded for the rest of his life.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Cosway

    Reply
  8. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Elsa Schiaparelli. I mean, I’m amazed it hasn’t even been done yet. She had quite a colourful life packed with incident, she produced seriously amazing 1920s-50s clothing, and she was a single parent with a disabled child (luckily not a permanent disability) – and she was clearly splendidly mad too. I kinda want to see the reenactment of the fancy dress party where Coco Chanel (dressed as herself) tried to set her deeply loathed rival’s (“that Italian artist that makes dresses”) surrealist oak-tree costume on fire….

    Plus there’s all that Surrealisty stuff too – the collaborations with Dali (“NO, Salvador, you CANNOT spread mayonnaise on Wallis Simpson’s lobster dress…”) and Jean Cocteau, and costuming Mae West (and indeed, taking Mae West’s torso cast as the inspiration for her most famous perfume bottle.) Seriously, there’s almost too much here to pack into a single film – you have comedy, pathos, tragedy, bad romantic decisions, better romantic decisions, war, political statements (her Dali-co-designed ripped-up Tears Dress was in response to the Spanish Civil War), oh, just so much.

    Reply
    • decrepitelephone

      As someone who regularly gets in arguments with my fiance over “Chanel vs. Schiaparelli” I’m SO down for a Schiaparelli movie, because I’m on the side of “that Italian woman.”

      Reply
      • Daniel Milford-Cottam

        I need a fiance/partner like that. (Definitely a BIG Schiap fan too – I have two (possibly three) of her actual designed-by-her garments and they are among my dearest possessions.)

        Reply
        • decrepitelephone

          He and I also have the Worth Vs. Chanel debate frequently (as in, who has had a bigger impact on fashion) and I’m always on the Worth side.

          I’ve not been lucky enough to own any of her designed-by-her garments, but I have a vintage (based on the look I think it’s 50s) Schiaparelli men’s tie, but as much as I love it I can’t wear it to work because the silk is just starting to shatter.

          Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Schiapp is a great suggestion for all the reasons you mention. I came *this close* to using her as the subject for my Master’s thesis but instead chose to focus on Vigée-Lebrun. Her collaboration with Dali and the Surrealists gets sort of glanced over by fashion historians and downright minimized by art historians. She was very much a part of the later Surrealist movement — a fact that I had to go to the mat over with my art history department. *rolls eyes*

      Reply
  9. decrepitelephone

    I have a couple artists I’d like to see movies made about:

    First was Levi Hill, a NY daguerreotypist who developed a color photography process in 1851. Only recent research has proven that he truly did produce natural color on his plates, albeit in a limited degree. The turn of support of his work from admiration to derision would, I think, be an interesting film. I like the fact that he HAD been able to produce color, but felt the need to augment the color with tinting. I like the idea of presenting somebody who believes in their work passionately, but is complicated and not altogether perfect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levi_Hill

    I’m surprised there’s no film to my knowledge about Walt Whitman – another complicated character who wasn’t perfect, but I think a film about him could be fascinating

    Thomas Eakins (duh.) There’s a LOT you can make a film about from his life.

    Clemintina Hawarden – I think a story dealing with her very premature death, and her relationship with her daughters, and being an early female photographer, promoting her own work would be a good candidate for a screenplay.

    There are more I’d like to see but I can’t seem to remember them at the moment.

    Reply
  10. Mina

    How about Emilie Louise Flöge?! She was not only the life companion of Klimt, but also a great fashion designer with a very unique style!!

    Reply
  11. themodernmantuamaker

    Anna Maria Garthwaite! Anna Maria Garthwaite! Her very existence is mysteriously fascinating, as you mention. The best remembered textile designer of the 18th century as woman who came from a completely textile-in-related background – how did this happen!? And hey, they could use the Dennis Severs House as set, lol http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/

    I also love the idea someone else mentioned of a Vigee-Lebrun movie. Take the idea you had for Holbein and apply it to her and the final years of the Bourbon monarchy. And imagine just how GORGEOUS a film it would make, I’m drooling just thinking about it! And I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that one of her self-portraits is an inspiration image for my next upcoming historical sewing project, nope, not at all.

    Reply
  12. John Hintergardt

    Shame that Ken Russell is no longer alive because to see him direct a movie about Hieronymus Bosch because those two seem like a match made in demented Heaven.

    Reply
  13. Clara

    I second the Sofonisba Anguissola request and I have to say that there is yet to be a biopic on the life of Diego Velázquez (he of the Las Meninas fame), which imho would do for a fantastic movie. And one on Peter Paul Rubens too, please.

    (Coincidentally, and as far as I remember from my art history notes, both Rubens and Velázquez met so one could cameo in the movie of the other XD)

    Reply

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