By Dani Williams

A Brief History of Van Gogh Films 

Amongst the films portraying Vincent van Gogh there are a five that have been made more notable than others. Starting in chronological order with ‘Lust for Life’ an American biographical film released in 1956. This film was based on the  1934 novel of the same title written by Irving Stone and was later adapted into film by Norman Corwin. The project was directed by Vincente Minnelli, produced by John Houseman and starred Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and James Donald as Theo Van Gogh. The initial photography for the film began in August of 1955 and concluded in December of that year. It was shot on location in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The production process required the skills of American art teacher, Robert Parker, to create replicas of two-hundred of Van Gogh’s work using oil and canvas. In order to prepare for this daunting role, Douglas began exploring oil paint. He felt it of the utmost importance to have some experience with painting, so he began painting crows. According to Anne, (Douglas’s wife), he would often return home from shooting still in character and remained so until his role as Van Gogh ended. Was it purely dedication or was Douglas becoming too close with his character that he felt he couldn’t pull away? When asked about his method acting, Douglas always denied it and that was that. Once released the film received mostly positive reviews. New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, praised the film and the team behind it by stating that they -“consciously made the flow of color and interplay of composition and hues the most forceful devices for conveying a motion picture comprehension of Van Gogh”. 

Following ‘Lust for Life’ is the 1990 film Vincent and Theo, a biographical drama about the relationship of two brothers. Directed by Robert Altman, starring Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as Theo. The film was originally created for television as a four hour mini-series, but a 138 minute theatrical version was later also released. Julian Mitchel wrote the screenplay for this film and may also be recognized for his play Another Country (1981) and its film adaptation shortly after.  Critic Gary Giddins notes “most of the film (and this is strictly true for the first hour) alternates episodes from Vincent’s life with those from Theo’s… there isn’t much serenity in either of their lives, and perhaps the most disturbing element of Vincent and Theo is the reluctance to extend any help to them……” The film received positive reviews, in 2016 the review platform rotten tomatoes gave the film an 88% rating based on 26 reviews. American film critic and accomplished writer for Rolling Stones magazine, Peter Travers, wrote in 1990 that the film is “an Altman masterpiece”. Reviewers also commented on the success of Tim Roth and Paul Rhys in their roles. An unsigned review in Variety magazine noted “Tim Roth powerfully conveys Vincent’s heroic, obsessive concentration on is work and then resultant loneliness and isolation” 








In 2017, a unique experimental animated biography about Van Gogh was released called ‘Loving Vincent’. The film was written and directed by Dorta Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. It was a Polish-U.K collaboration that was funded by the Polish Film Institute and a Kick-starter campaign. The film was first formed as a seven minute short in 2008.  Kobiela, being a painter herself became fascinated with Van Gogh especially after studying his techniques and correspondences between friends and family. Each of the film’s 65,000 frames is an oil painting on canvas, of course inspired by Van Gogh’s style, created by 125 artists from around the world. Kobiela and Welchman chose classically trained painters over animators to “avoid artists with personal style” said Welchman and chose people who were “very pure oil painters”. The film uses a technique called Rotoscoping, which means the artists race over footage frame by frame to create realistic action. Production began with live action cast filming on a green screen. Once the film was all put together, each frame was shot on a blank canvas and the artists had to paint over every image. The film took six years to complete. “Definitely without a doubt invented the slowest form of filmmaking ever devised in 12 years” said Welchman in regards to the film's creators. The film premiered at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2017. Also taking the award for Most Popular International Feature at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival. It won the best animated feature film at the 30th European Film Awards in Berlin 2018. The movie is considered a box office success, grossing over $42.1 million USD on a budget of $5.5 million USD. 


The year 2005 brought us a story of the twelve months Van Gogh spent in the asylum at St. Remy and his time spent in the Yellow House in Arles, titled ‘The Eyes of Van Gogh’. Written and directed and starring Alexander Barnett alongside Gordon Joseph Weis as Theo and Lee Godart as Paul Gaugin. The film is meant to shed light on the struggles Van Gogh endured during this time and his voluntary commitment to the asylum. Vincent entrusted himself into the care of Dr. Peyron, played by Roy Thines, who then attempts to understand the complicated mind of a genius. The film was shot using a subjective camera, ensuring everything was to be seen through the eyes of Van Gogh.

In 2015 the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam honoured the 125th anniversary of Vincent’s death with an exhibit that included clips from this film being shown throughout the year which it was displayed. The film won awards at many film festivals and was included in the top five Van Gogh movies on Discover Walks blog in April 2020. 

The most recent Van Gogh film is the 2018 biographical drama ‘At Eternity’s Gate’. Directed and co-edited by Julian Shnabel who wrote the original screenplay. Starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent and Rupert Friend as Theo, this film plays with the idea that Van Gogh’s death was not a suicide but may in fact have been premediate murder. Principal photography took place in 2017 over 38 days in various locations across France where Van Gogh resided during his final years. The film was released in the US in November 2018 by CBS films before streaming on Netflix in France in 2019. Schnabel comments that “This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life. This is not the official story – it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him”.  Dafoe was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best actor. He won best actor at the 75th Venice International Film Festival and best actor in a motion picture drama at the Satellite Awards. New York Times critic, Manohla Dourgis wrote “ A vivid intensely affecting portrait of Vincent Van Gogh toward the end of his life, the artist walks and walks, head bowed, he looks like a man on a mission, though other times he seems more like a man at prayer” 

Illustrations by Jeremy Lewis