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‘Paint,’ starring Owen Wilson, continues a tradition of movies with painter heroes

Owen Wilson in "Paint."IFC Films

In the new comedy “Paint,” Owen Wilson plays a painter — the fancy kind. Carl Nargle, Wilson’s character, paints canvases, not houses.

Not all that fancy, though. Carl is the host of a public-television how-to show, instructing viewers on the ins and outs of wielding a brush. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Wilson’s character resembles Bob Ross, whose show “The Joy of Painting” ran on PBS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The resemblance extends to the dandelion-fluff hairstyle that Ross had then and Carl has now.

“Paint” opens April 7.

There’s another reason that Wilson’s character may sound familiar. Nargle is the latest in a long line of on-screen painters, both real and fictitious. Filmmakers love putting creativity on the screen — showing others’ creativity validates their own? — and watching painters do their thing has a serious movie advantage over watching writers or composers doing theirs: It’s highly visual.

Movies about painters even come with their own set of props: palettes, brushes, canvases, easels, paint tubes. Directors don’t have to paint a picture, so to speak, when they show pictures actually being painted.


You want movies about famous painters? You have Charles Laughton in “Rembrandt” (1936). You also have Klaus Maria Brandauer in a different “Rembrandt” (1999). In “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965) — now there’s a movie title for you — you have Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo (seriously? yes, very seriously). Colin Firth plays Johannes Vermeer in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2003), though the movie is about the title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, the model in one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings. Movies about painters and models is its own sub-category.

“Pollock” (2000) offers five painters for the price of four. Ed Harris, who directed, plays the title character. Marcia Gay Harden, who won a best supporting actress Oscar, plays Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner. Val Kilmer plays Willem de Kooning (who was even more movie-star handsome than Kilmer is). Kenny Scharf plays William Baziotes. A painter not an actor, Scharf qualifies as a two-fer, bringing the number of artists up to five.


Kilmer plays Jim Morrison in “The Doors” (1991). No, Morrison wasn’t a painter. But Andy Warhol was, and he’s a minor character in the movie. Crispin Glover plays him. Andy loved the movies, and the movies loved him right back. Guy Pearce plays him in “Factory Girl” (2006). Bill Hader plays him in “Men in Black III” (2012). Best of all, David Bowie plays him in “Basquiat” (1996). Presumably, Heston was unavailable. Jeffrey Wright plays the painter title character, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate." Focus Features

The movie’s favorite painter isn’t Andy. It’s Vincent van Gogh. Kirk Douglas plays him in “Lust for Life” (1956). Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, won a best supporting actor Oscar. Tim Roth plays van Gogh in “Vincent and Theo” (1990). Martin Scorsese — we’ll be coming back to him — plays the painter in Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” (1990). Willem Dafoe earned a best actor Oscar nomination, playing him in “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018). That movie was directed by a painter, Julian Schnabel. Maybe that gave Dafoe a leg up.

While most movies about painters emphasize personality over painting, Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” (2014), about J.M.W. Turner, is a notable exception. Timothy Spall plays Turner — did you see the remarkable retrospective of his work last year at the Museum of Fine Arts? — but the real star is the great cinematographer Dick Pope and his rendering of Turner’s work.


Both “Moulin Rouge” (1952) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001, and, yes, punctuation matters) feature Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the earlier one, he’s what all the fuss is about. That fuss won José Ferrer a best actor Oscar nod. In Baz Luhrmann’s musical extravaganza, he’s played by a third-billed John Leguizamo. The fuss here is about Nicole Kidman’s Satine and Ewan McGregor’s Christian. No, they are not painters.

David Hockney in "A Bigger Splash."Courtesy of Metrograph Pictures

It’s hard to criticize the casting in “A Bigger Splash” (1973). The semi-fictionalized documentary takes its title from David Hockney’s most famous painting. Hockney is played by — Hockney. The casting in “Goya’s Dreams” (2006) is a bit of a puzzler. Javier Bardem, who’s Spanish, is top billed. But the Spanish master is played by Stellan Skarsgaard, who’s Swedish.

Carl Nargle is no Hockney or Goya. In talent, he’s more Walter Keane’s speed. Keane specialized in kitschy portraits of staring waifs. Or, more accurately, Carl’s a lot closer to Margaret Keane, Walter’s wife, whose work he claimed as his own. The Keanes are the subject of Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” (2014), with Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as the Keanes. (Have you noticed that the only female painters so far mentioned are Lee Krasner and Margaret Keane? Just saying.)

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as Walter and Margaret Keane in "Big Eyes."The Weinstein Company

Walter Keane is not presented in a sympathetic light. To a greater or lesser degree, most of the other painter heroes of these movies are. The title of “Surviving Picasso” (1996) tells you that its namesake character’s (how shall we say?) moral shortcomings are not downplayed. Readers may recall that Anthony Hopkins, who plays Picasso, previously played someone named Hannibal Lecter. Draw your own conclusions.


Fictional painters tend to come off much worse than their real-life counterparts. Chances are you wouldn’t enjoy being seated next to Alec Guinness’s Gulley Jimson, in “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958); Nick Nolte’s Lionel Dobie, in the Scorsese-directed episode of “New York Stories” (1989 — that’s Martin “Vincent van Gogh” Scorsese); or Michel Piccoli’s Édouard Frenhofer, in Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991).

Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film “The French Dispatch.” Searchlight Pictures

That’s very much a painter-model movie, the model being played by Emmanuelle Béart. So is the Benicio del Toro episode in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (2021), with the model played by Léa Seydoux. Del Toro’s character definitely continues the trend of fictitious-painter unattractiveness: He’s a convicted murderer. Oh, and one other thing about “The French Dispatch”? Also in the cast is, yes, Owen Wilson. He doesn’t play a painter, though, he plays a journalist. Well, as someone once said, nobody’s perfect.

Streaming painting

At Eternity’s Gate Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube

The French Dispatch Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, HBO Max, Hulu, YouTube

Lust for Life Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube

Mr. Turner Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Starz, YouTube


New York Stories Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube

Pollock Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube

Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the movie for which José Ferrer won an Academy Award. He was nominated for his performance in “Moulin Rouge,” but he won for his earlier role in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The Globe regrets the error.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.