The Book Report-
Updated: Apr 7, 2022
Book Reviews- a lifetime survey of art books that I have had the pleasure to read. Brian Keeler
Note- This extensive book report was initially intended as an annotated bibliography for my forthcoming book on figure painting, titled, "Light on the Figure- Aspects of Painting People." It was not included due to space restrictions. So I have included it here in my blog as an offering to those who may be interested in the books that have influenced my art.
Although extensive, it is selective and focused on art-related books. Therefore there are many other books that were read during the past several decades that are not included.
The following is a compilation of (art-related) books and other resources that I’ve found inspiring and enlightening throughout my career. One could think of it as an annotated bibliograhy. I believe there is no replacement for the thoughtful discourse and knowledge conveyed through other artists, novelists, and art historians. I’ve been fortunate to have gleaned the gems from these materials; it’s my hope that you’ll get similar valuable and insightful information from them as well. Most of the resources here are about art and art history from Italy and the Renaissance period. I’ve been fascinated with that art genre from college and art school, then continued my studies during trips to Italy and by visiting remarkable museums worldwide. In these books, I’ve written marginalia and highlighted information that has proven invaluable. I’ve kept almost every book I’ve purchased and those that have been graciously given to me. In the process of reviewing these books again, I can better understand the crux of the authors’ ideas; now I have an urge to reread them all!
Books, Art Theory
The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression, Jose A. Argüelles. Shambhala Publications (January 1975)
It is difficult to understate the impact this book had on people, but some of the author’s contentions promoted dubious apocalyptic forecasts, including the contingent events of the over-stated Harmonic Convergence on August 17 and 18, 1987, allegedly marking a planetary alignment with the Sun, Moon and six out of eight planets. Regardless, the book is chock full of scholarly insight about numerous art and spiritual concerns. Combining art and spirit is probably one of the more unique contributions of this text. One of the author’s main points debunks the importance of linear perspective and, by consequence, linear thought. He makes plentiful appraisals, some of which seem to stretch the analogies to far-fetched conclusions. For example, he contends that Guttenberg’s invention of movable type was part of Western culture’s penchant for piecing life together in a single direction (from point A to point B). In fact, Argüelles argues that the concept of perspective contributed to our fall from grace and was deleterious to our completeness and wholeness. He singles out Vermeer and De hoog and other 17th century artists for scorn. He finds the subjects of their art, women reading privately(and simialar themes) as incased in a perspective and "stealing time." This is wholeness with life issacroscant and and depictions otherwise are a violation of our inherent completeness- according to Arguelles. Hmm, sounds rather heavy-handed now, maybe even penetial and intolerant. However, I toted around the book for months, reading and rereading it to fully comprehend the breadth of the author’s assertions. The book has many relevant interests and may pose more questions than answers, which will make for stimulating reading for the artist and art history buffs.
The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, Charles Bouleau. Hacker Art Books (June 1980)
For those interested in the structures of famous painting and geometry, this is an invaluable book. The author supplies dozens of diagrams of his geometric analysis of many well-known paintings. The fascinating drawings lead us into new insights of the beauty and depth of Western art’s many masterpieces. In my view, however, the author’s appraisals of this art in geometric terms are revealing, but perhaps arbitrary and not part of the original artists’ intent.
Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions, William M. Ivins, Jr. Dover Publications Inc. (June 1964)
The subtitle of this book captures an intriguing quality of intuitively comprehending spatial relationships. Ivins’ book mentions the ancient Greeks’ development of the science of these relationships, but he also points out the limitations. He offers bizarre, but intriguing ideas, such as the differences between tactile-muscular intuitions of space and the more common visual intuitions. One of author’s ideas is to approach art with a clean slate without assuming an acculturated world view, if possible. He provides a good study and discussion of perspective and space.
Design and Expression in the Visual Arts, John F. A. Taylor. Constable Press (June 1964), and Dover Publications Inc. (January 1965)
This is a wonderful and highly specific analysis of the elements that go into creating an effective composition. Although very technical and intellectual, the author leads us through the essentials with illustrations that dissect the visual architectonics into their basic components. First published in 1964, I recently discovered the book at an art center retreat where I was teaching in Penn Yan, NY. I love finding great out-of-date books such as this; I quickly ordered my own copy.
Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Phillip Ball. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 2002
This book is best suited for those interested in the scientific nature of paint—its history and chemical makeup. The text may provide fascinating background to some, yet seem irrelevant to others in the pursuit of painting. Still, one can glean insights from understanding the raw materials of painting, as Ball presents a thorough historical precedence.
Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, John Cage. University of California Press (June 1999)
This hefty volume leads us through art history and the scientific theories of Johann Goethe, Isaac Newton, the Luscher color theories, and so much more. It is a compendium of the history of color and color theories.
Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Marcia Hall. Cambridge University Press (March 1992)
This is the most thorough and useful examination of Renaissance art that I’ve read. Focusing on 20 paintings, the book is chock full of insights into color usage; it nicely unravels complex and heretofore unconsidered ideas, including the “ironic color” theory in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Hall’s book brings the reader into a working knowledge of so many fundamentals of picture making, conservation, and semiotics throughout 14th and 15th century Italy—the information continues to be relevant to artists and connoisseurs today.
On Painting, Leon Battista Alberti. Greenwood Press (October 1976), and Penguin Classics (July 1991)
This small book of art theory was first published in the early15th century in Florence, Italy. It became influential to many artists of the Renaissance, as it provided prescriptive advice and insights. Sandro Botticelli, for instance, used Alberti’s advice almost verbatim for his most famous paintings, such as “Prima Vera” and “The Calumny of Apelles”. Alberti was possibly more of Renaissance man than Leonardo da Vinci, as he explored many arts and sciences. The most visible expression of his genius was in his ability to reinvigorate the classic beauty of the ancients in his architecture. His buildings in Florence include the façades of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, and the Basilica di Sant’ Andrea in Mantua.
The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number, Mario Livio. Broadway (October 2002)
The author nicely debunks some of the ridiculous fanaticism around the Golden Ratio. He guides us through the genuine intrigue of the geometry and math that underlies many marvelous works of nature and human creations.
Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite, Maurits Cornelis Escher. Harry N. Abrams (March 1989)
This small volume about the work and thinking of the amazing Dutch artist M. C. Escher leaves the reader endeared to him. His humble confessions lead us to appreciate his humanness, while we’re stunned by his craft and patience that produced some of the most inventive imagery ever. The publisher compiled this book from lecture plans, slides, and notes that Escher prepared for a speaking tour in the US, but he was unable to deliver the presentation because of illness. I purchased the book while visiting Holland’s Escher Museum in the The Hague (Den Haag), where his wonderful creations inspire many.
Color Psychology and Color Therapy, Faber Birren. University Books (November 1961), and Citadel (November 1978)
Artist and art historian Birren reportedly published more books on color than anyone else—25, to be exact. The author’s first book, Color in Vision, was published in 1928. When the first edition of Color Psychology and Color Therapy appeared in 1950, it was reviewed favorably in the medical press. He believed in the therapeutic effects of bright colors on the mentally troubled. He also stressed that taste in colors, although occurring in cycles, was highly personal, with no two people responding the same way. However, this book also has had an important influence in industry, politics, science, and art. His short, comprehensive treatise on color comprises everything from mysticism to practical concerns.Principles of Color: A Review of Past Traditions and Modern Theories of Color Harmony, Faber Birren. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. (1969), and Schiffer Publishing (December 1987) Birren was successful painter who trained at the Chicago Art Institute. Later, he became an industrial color consultant. By the 1950s, he was widely recognized as the country’s foremost authority in color and theory. This book is designed to be a primer on color theory; it clearly covers all the basics with easy-to-understand diagrams. Yet it also goes into timeless principles of color theory and harmony based on the work of M. E. Chevreul. The small book is an excellent introduction to color that offers any artist useful information.
Interaction of Color, Josef Albers. Yale University Press (1963); revised edition (September 1975)
These books on color are grouped in this section with art theory books because, to me, studies of color are the most subjective and personal. This book by the famed instructor at the legendary Bauhaus School in Weimer, Germany is in a paperback version today, but when it came out it as a huge hardcover 1963, it cost a whopping $200. In his book introduction, Albers asserts that, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is, as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.” He further states, “What counts here, first and last, is not so called knowledge of so called facts, but vision is seeing. Seeing here implies fantasy and imagination.” The paperback edition has many projects and concepts worth considering, but it lacks the colossal color plates that justify the cost of the original hardback edition.
The Art Instinct - Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Dennis Dutton, Bloomsbury Press
If you enjoy contemporary cutting edge aesthetic writing, you may enjoy this provocative and revealing discourse on two fascinating and even contentious fields, art and evolutionary science. The author is particularly gifted in both and weaves all kinds of seemingly disparate topics into a unified treatise.
This book offers plenty of juice for painters or any artist to contemplate and the author serves up some practical considerations such as a chapter on “What Is Art?” In that chapter Dutton gives us a list, then expounds upon these criteria: 1. Direct Pleasure; 2. Skill and Virtuosity; 3. Style; 4. Novelty and Creativity; 5. Criticism; 6. Representation; 7. Special Focus; 8. Expressive Individuality; 9. Emotional Saturation; 10.Intellectual Challenge; 11. Art Traditions and Institutions; 12. Imaginative Experience.
With the criteria laid out, the author spills a lot of ink on two examples that flaunt or fly in the face of our preconceptions. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” where he put a urinal on a plinth and in a gallery, and the two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid who surveyed Americans on their most desired subjects and colors and then put them all in one painting. While still worth considering, these cutting edge displays have little to do with the craft of art. One of the main objections I have with Dutton is taking this biological model to an extreme, by suggesting that all aesthetic and artistic endeavor is just a physiologic aspect of Darwin’s natural selection theory. At times I almost considered fundamentalists’ objections as having some validity. I believe the point is that all processes are magic if not divine and the author takes our understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and biology into new realms. The one criteria of Dutton’s that I connected with the most, however, is #12 Imaginative Experience. The author explains that this requisite is for all art, a story well told, a song, a painting an opera, etc. all require that the creator and the viewer both engage in their own imaginative constructions. Dutton says, “(At the mundane level, imagination in problem solving, planning, hypothesizing, inferring the mental states of others, or merely in daydreaming is virtually coextensive with normal human conscious life. Trying to understand what life was like in ancient Rome is an imaginative act, but so is recalling that I left my car keys in the kitchen.
However, the experience of art is notably marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed, from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.)” As Stephen Pinker on the book jacket aptly says, “This book marks out the future of the humanities- connecting aesthetics and criticism to an under
Beauty, A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton, Oxford University Press
This is a little gem of a book on aesthetics and of course beauty in general that should be in every art student’s supply box and therefore be carried with them everywhere. This short volume is just full of insights into our pursuit of beauty in all its forms. The author takes us on a tour of so many of the applications of beauty in art of course but also in everyday life. In confronts us with all these issues that we use and apply to our everyday life, so as to become a virtual primer and overview of aesthetics.
Scruton also confronts us with the fact that the non-beautiful in art can also be worthy of our appreciation and that we can derive meaning from such works of art. So the idea here is that the pursuit of beauty or glamour need not be an attachment to the ephemeral. For example such works as Goya’s massacre on “The Third of May” in the Prado Museum would hardly be considered beautiful, or even more so, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” a urinal made into a gallery piece, would hardly qualify as examples of beauty or again, even more extremely, a representation of Christ suspended in urine. Yet the acceptance of such expressions as representing a type of art or at least statement of sorts is without doubt.
Scruton clearly comes down in favor of art as expression and search for beauty to elevate our understanding not just mere transgressive attention grabbing objects of modern art.
Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy, Stephen Hankins, Bleknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019
On a few occasions in one’s life a book appears that seems to encapsulate to the core so many of the concerns and interests that have been occupying our thoughts, that it is truly remarkable. Such is the case with the new book by James Hankins titled, “Virtue Politics- Soul Craft and State Craft in Renaissance Italy.” My title for this essay, “The Texture of Soul” is meant to indicate an urge to feel the quality of soul and how that may look and play out in the political realm, if not the personal and artistic. This book by Hankins is a wonderful aid in that pursuit. When I read, I have the practice of underlining in pencil and making notes in the margins. Well this volume is replete with my underscoring.
Aristotle’s dictum that, man is a political animal, is apropos here as it shows that the 4th century BC Greek philosopher’s observation is still pertinent. Our moral life, our concern for our fellows is without hope in other words, according to Aristotle, as we become lawless and heartless without community.
Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard and his life’s work has coalesced in this marvelously ambitious volume that brims with eloquence and insight. It may not be for everyone, as it is thick with facts and arcane ideas, and obscure men, but it was perfect for me. As I have been a fan and student of all things Italian and particularly of the renaissance for many years, this title immediately attracted me when I read a review in the Wall Street Journal. My interest in the renaissance has been primarily with its artistic expressions, but as with all things in life, we see the context and related aspects of philosophy, religion and politics as all interwoven.
This book of Hankins’ nowhere mentions the arts or any of the luminary artists of the era from 13th to 15th century, yet we experience the importance of the political and philosophical thinkers of the era in a profound way. But more importantly, we see the relevance of these brilliant and courageous minds to our current social and political lives. The book does however mention the humanities and the study and appreciation of philosophy as crucial to developing and actualizing soulcraft and statecraft.
Also, there is no mention to the current occupant of the Whitehouse (The DT), and minimal reference to 21st century dilemmas, but the relationships are unavoidable and compelling. The comparisons that I made continually through this reading and noted in my marginalia are how blunderously preposterous and devoid of virtue our president today is and by extension, our politics in many instances.
Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Botticelli to Picasso, Paul Barolsky, Yale University Press, 2014
For anyone interested in how the ancient myths, particularly Ovid’s narratives inform the major works of art one could not do better than to immerse in this author’s guided tour. As with the best art commentary, Barolsky leads is through all the implicaitons of so many famous works including Bernini’s iconic marbles of transformation such as Daphne and Apollo.
Keeping an Eye Open-Essays on Art, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape Publishers 2105
You may have thought that you knew and understood such masterpieces as Gericault’s, The Raft of the Medusa, but Barnes goes into this painting with the full story on the story behind it. He reveals the human drama and tragedy that will make your next visit to the Louvre so much more significant when you stand under the huge canvas. All of Barnes’ musings bring our esteemed artists out into full relief and show their relevance and connection to our own time. His section on Cezanne is an especially rewarding and satisfying read. Barnes notes how Cezanne created a new pictorial space that had an accompanying new conception of moral space too. Now this is truly an interesting idea, a new application of visual space as related to moral rectitude.
Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Titian, Rona Goffen, Yale University Press (November 2002)
The author takes the four high achievers of the high Renaissance and shows how they competed with each other for supremacy. When one reads any history of the Renaissance, either from artistic, political, scientific, or social vantage points, we are amazed at the machinations behind the scenes, all of which added vitality to the art. The paintings from that period are exemplars of order, serenity, and even equanimity. Yet they often have a backdrop set in the sordid world of internecine strife. Still, this partial quote from the book gives us a glimpse of the interplay among great spirits that contributed to the final works. “Perhaps Michelangelo would have been more amenable to a softer palette, more gently modulated modeling, and even the painterly exploitation of the oil medium, had these not been adopted, or co-opted, by Leonardo. But Michelangelo’s intention was precisely to invent a language diametrically opposed to Leonardo’s sfumato.”
The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World, Paul Robert Walker. William Morrow (November 2002)
This book is very much in the spirit of Rona Goffen’s book reviewed above, but Walker takes his inspiration at the genesis of the Renaissance in the late 14th century, known in Italian as Trecento. The subjects are two artists, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who competed over a commission to create the Santa Maria del Fiore Baptistery doors. Brunelleshi won, but 15 years later, Ghiberti ascended to lead a colossal project to build the dome over the main Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Brunelleschi’s subsequent invention of unified perspective was first implemented in paintings by Massacio and others. The invention has been profound in its implications and influence on so many aspects of our lives. When today’s visitors flock to the bronze Baptistery doors in Florence to marvel at Ghiberti’s self portrait among the other Biblical narratives, they are also in the shadow of Brunelleshi’s dome, one of the pinnacles of architectural accomplishment. This book is a delight to read and is an important source for those interested in the early rebirth of classical learning—the essential thrust of the Renaissance
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King. Penguin Press (November 2003)
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a never-ending enigma that continues to reveal layers of complexity and meaning as the decades unfold. New scholarship, such as this book, unpacks a wealth of intrigue.
Many of us remember Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in Hollywood’s film, The Agony and the Ecstasy, based on Irving Stone’s best-selling book. King’s book brings you down to earth, while you also ascend new heights. The complexity of the imagery in the Sistine Chapel, and the Herculean difficulty of the accomplishment—including arguing with the Pope and other artists—are brought to life within this text.
The Bookseller of Florence, Ross King, First Grove Atlantic, 2021
Ross King has outdone himself with this new investigation into the Renaissance. His other books, have also been revelatory journeys into the essence of luminary figures of Italy (and elsewhere.) Those books have been historical sleuthings of the movers and shakers of art history and history in general. This new book, "The Bookseller of Florence" continues that tradition but homes in on a figure that most readers have probably never heard of before. I've read and relished several of King's previous books, including; "Michelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling," "Ex Libris," "The Judgement of Paris," "Brunelleschi's Dome," and "Leonardo and the Last Supper," so this one was anticipated with eagerness. The man in question here, Vespasiano da Bisticci, (ostensibly named in honor of the ancient Roman Emperor Vespasian) was a publisher and a self-made man, who came from plebeian origins, but through his own efforts found himself at the center of the intellectual milieu during one of the most exhilarating periods of history, the Renaissance. Ross King's work here brings to us a figure who interacted with most of the important figures who formed this era of accelarted learning. In short, Vespasiano is as at the center of the epicenter of the rebirth of the classics and the artistic and literary florescence.
Many are familiar with the major artisits of the Renaissance and the workshops or bodegas like those of Verrochio and Ghirlandaio or even the Medici household that were the training schools for artists of the day. Their paintings and interactions between students, masters and clients are well documented too. Now we have an entire new category of artists to include in the milieu of Italy, that being the minaturist who illuminated manuscripts. Along with this we have a network of the book industry and the craft of making books. All this is complicated by the whims of the reading public, market factors, paper and ink suppliers and even monks and nuns working on books. Florence becomes more nuanced, complex and fascinating thanks to this book by Ross King.
Florence, a Portrait, Michael Levy, Harvard University Press, 1998
For anyone wishing to immerse themselves into the Renaissance, a better book would be hard to find. Michael Levy leads us through Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries and he covers all the important characters who inhabit the Florentine history. This includes many painters and sculptors whom we have known through our art history readings. Here in Levy's book we see everything in context as the city grows and not just the artists. Levy gives us candid insights and expands our understanding into how everything during this period fits together. Levy also offers many concise biographies of influential characters who embody the ethos of the Renaissance. Some were not known to me, like Niccolo da Uzzano, who was portrayed in a bronze sculpture by Donatello. The Italian word, "sapientissimus" is appropro here (meaning most wise) as Niccolo embodies the Renaissance ideal of new learning. According to Levy, da Uzzano becomes the virtual high preist of Renaissance culture by moving among his books, antiquities and knotty problems of scholarship. So We learn about this fellow who influenced Brunelleschi and Donatello as one of history's characters that most of us have not known. There are many others in Levy's book from Machiavelli to Massaccio all intertwined while art, politics, religion, philosphy and science are explored.
For painters of realistic pictures, this book is indeed indespensible as it shows Flornece, the epicenter of the Renaissance and how the artists worked within that society.
The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat, Martin Kemp. Yale University Press (February 1990)
In short, this is an incredible compilation and a hefty tome that will appeal to those interested in perception, art history, and the interface of science and visual arts. Kemp leads us with scholarly authority through the history of realistic painting, providing an in-depth analysis into all subjects related to perspective, and much more. He takes many famous art pieces and dissects them with fresh and incisive diagrams. For example, I was struck with a new view of one of my favorite paintings, “Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez, hanging in Madrid’s Prado Museum. Of this oil painting, Kemp says, “It is a narrative picture in that it breathes the air of an event in which something has happened and about to happen, but it does not tell a known story.”
Kemp’s book is particularly relevant to artists or art appreciators interested in geometry and color theory, as it thoroughly delves into both. This is a book in my library with lots of highlighted passages and marginalia.The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari. Oxford University Press, USA (July 1998) This text is considered the first book of art history, published in 1549-50, then revised in 1563. Vasari was a student of Michelangelo, Andrea Del Sarto, and others and associated with the Medici family; it would be difficult to find a more central character from which to learn about the Renaissance. Vasari, an accomplished painter and architect, was born in Arezzo, Tuscany, not far from Florence. You can see his work in the Palazzo Della Signoria in the Salle dei Cinque Cento (Hall of the Five Hundred), among other places. The book is indispensable to those interested in Italian Renaissance art. It is also a great source of insight, as the author brings us so many intimate glimpses of the everyday activities of artists. We read stories of painters’ and sculptors’ essential pursuits and their core artistic activities. For example, one can see the importance and relevance of life drawing, as Vasari makes special note of this practice. One of the most important aspects of Vasari’s writing is how thoroughly ensconced he is in the idea of the Renaissance and its progression from the Dark Ages, where technique and ability were apparently lost. The book covers so many important Quattrocento artists, from Cimabue to Titian. Historians have chided the book for its occasional factual errors, but it remains an invaluable text.
The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, Daniel J. Boorstin. Random House (September 1992), and Vintage (September 1993)
This 832-page volume packs the major creative accomplishments of all known history into one wonderful book. It provides a comprehensive walk-though the arts, showing how of music, art, and architecture relate and express their times.
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt. Modern Library (April 2002), and Dover Publications (September 2010)
Originally published in 1860, this book is credited for forming our ideas about the Renaissance. It has had such a profound influence on art history that every scholarly contribution since then has either attempted to sharpen Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance or obliterate it. I purchased this book in Florence during my first trip in 1992, and I can’t imagine a better book to have while touring there. Be forewarned, however, that if you have a Camelotlike image of the Renaissance, reading the text will eradicate it quickly; Burckhardt exposes the vicissitudes and machinations of that period’s politics, religion, and art.
Vermeer: Faith in Painting, Daniel Arasse. Princeton University Press (September 1996)
If you are a Vermeer fan, this book is for you. This study presents a valuable assessment of Vermeer’s interpretation of the nature of art. The significance embedded in the subtle play of meanings in masters’ work is unpacked here. For example, Arasse says, “It is as though Vermeer was playing with the common motif of a picture within a picture in such a way as to alert us that there is a meaning, and yet at the same time to prevent a grasp of the meaning.” From this book, you can glean many insights into the nuances, paradoxes, and beauty of Vermeer’s work.
The Passionate Sightseer, From the Diaries of Bernard Berenson, 1947-56, Bernard Berenson. Simon & Schuster / Harry N. Abrams (1960)
This book is a visual travelogue through Berenson’s 1947 to 1956 diaries. The famous aesthete lived outside of Florence, Italy; his book treats us to major sites in the peninsula, Sicily, and North Africa. The black and white photos show the treasurers of Italian art and architecture from the ancients to the Renaissance. What is appealing and alluring about the images and text is how unjaded traveling was in those days, before mass tourism was such a global phenomena.
The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark. Doubleday (1956), Bollingen (October 1972), and The Folio Society (2010)
Kenneth Clark is one of the most engaging commentators on art history. His books are easily readable. This one was based on a series of lectures the author delivered in 1953 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. All about the human figure and its history, it is a must-have for those serious about figurative art. One of his observations, however, has given pause in an amusing way, at least in my own way of regarding the 19th century French painter, William Adolphe Bougereau. Clark believed Bougereau’s work to be hopelessly outdated, only found in the lobbies of cheap hotels. In fact, in the 20th century, Bougereau’s painting “Nymphs and Satyr” was found in the barroom of the Hoffman House on New York City’s Broadway and 25th Street. Clark’s book highlights many of our assumptions, predilections, or societal aversions to depictions of the human figure. One of Clark’s passages is worth mentioning: “What is the nude? It is an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century, just as opera is an art form invented in 17th century Italy. The conclusion is certainly too abrupt, but has the merit of emphasizing that the nude is not the subject of art but the form of art.”
The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classic Art, Kenneth Clark. Harper Collins Publishers (March 1974), and Icon Harpe (January 1987)
This book is part of the wonderful body of works by Kenneth Clark. Within the text, the author highlights the division in Europe, mostly in France, beginning in the second half of the 18th century when two aesthetic movements were at odds. On one side, the prevailing academic group of painters was committed to elevating subjects drawn from Greco-Roman myth and legend, representing the establishment. On the other side, new upstarts were appealing to raw emotions; their work was often reacting to cataclysms that convulsed society, such as the Napoleonic wars or the French Revolution. The highly finished work of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David represented the former, while the painterly and immediate canvases made by Francesco Goya, Théodore Géricault, and Eugene Delacroix were on the opposing side. But to mitigate this division imposed by art historians, Clark warns that “Every great classical artists was a romantic at heart and vice versa; the distinction between them is more convenient than real.”
Landscape into Art, Kenneth Clark. Pelican Books (1956), and Gibb Press (November 2008)
This book was based on lectures that Clark delivered as a Slade Professor at the University of Oxford in England. Clark believed that landscape painting was the primary artistic creation of the 19th century. Without it, there would be no understanding of contemporary art. The book covers landscape from its medieval beginnings, with miniatures, up to the present day.
The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art, Malcolm Bull. Penguin Press (2006) This thorough walk through art history and Greco-Roman myth is remarkable, as Bull shows us the interconnectedness between Western art and ancient myth. He also sheds light on the power of the ideas within the arts, and how those ideas rose and fell from prominence at various points. Bull has an amazing breadth of knowledge of the rich repository of influences that inform works of art; many are so obscure and arcane that we would probably not even think of their effect.
For example, Bull explains how the French painter, Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) used a completely novel application of an ancient legend when he painted his Bacchic “Dance to the Music of Time.” This theme had traditionally been used as an allegory about sensuality and fertility, but in Poussin’s canvas, it has morphed into a commentary about economic conditions and the power of money. According to Bull, Poussin transforms this myth into a statement about unbridled consumption—materialism, and even capitalism. In the book, Bull says: “The ancient religion of frenzied destruction had become the economy of insatiable consumption. No modern Pentheus could contain it.”
In short, the book is a continual unveiling and gradual revealing of the many layers of myth. Bull explains how these myths manifested in the work of painters, poets, sculptors, as well as in the politics and culture of Europe. For artists, this book is a great resource for finding out how various ancient and contemporary influences came together in the works we have seen in museums and books. For the casual appreciator of art and history, the book is equally as rewarding, as Bull enriches the art viewing experience.
Art In Its Own Terms, Fairflield Porter, MFA Publications/ArtWorks (December 2008)
This is an amazing collection of essays that were formerly published as art reviews in the 1950s and 1960s in the magazines Art in America, ARTnews and in many other publications. Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) is an artist whose paintings I came to know and appreciate when I visited the Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine (near Stonington on Deer Isle), which is still owned by his family. On that Island, staying in the large house that he had painted, and where I had seen and painted many of those views made famous by Fairfield, I came to know his aesthetic. But until I read this book, I had not known the depth and breadth of his vision and knowledge, which is truly comprehensive.
While scanning the book at the Portland Museum of Art, it was his student Rackstraw Down’s introduction that initially pulled me in to the text, as this overview is a work of art in itself. (Downes also edited the text). Fairfield was
considered by some to be the best living painter before he died, and he is certainly the only painter to make such a comprehensive map of his contemporaries. His reputation today may not be as esteemed, as his work may seem to some of us painters as lacking in finish or articulation; the paint quality in some works seems too thin and without body. Still, we love his sensitive painterly vision and honest adherence to his quest. In regards to this book, however, one is tempted to make a comparison between Porter and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who chronicled the lives of his Renaissance contemporaries, in the first book of its kind when he published “The Lives of the Artists.” Although Porter’s work is not biography as is Vasari’s, these observations are sensitive and personal, while offering us many insights that cross over the genres of art, science, music, politics and poetry.
The work is full of comparisons that serve up unique appraisals of 19th and 20th century painters and sculptors, like this analysis of Cezanne:
“His parallel straight strokes overlap where they cluster around the contour, like too many adjectives modifying the wrong noun. Or there are gaps between strokes where Cezanne ignored a passage that he was either unsure of or planned to attend to later. ‘The contour eludes me,’ he is supposed to have said. His repetitiveness is the stutter of inarticulateness.”
Fairfield also brings to mind aspects of art history not considered much these days. For example, today the impressionist are pretty much considered masters and purveyors of the beauty of light, but Porter reminds us that they were considered amateurs, as they were not steeped in the academic tradition and they lacked knowledge of the skills of rendering form. In other words, Porter makes us aware of how much of a gap there was between artists such as Bougeruau, Ingres or Gerome, and the impressionists.
Each chapter is engaging in this extraordinary book. The text places Porter in an even better position than his contemporary art critics, such as Clement Greenburg, John Canady or Hilton Kramer, because Porter was actually a practicing painter who had an active exhibition schedule throughout his life. By virtue of being in the trenches, as it were, he knows painting from the inside out.
I enjoy the breadth of knowledge and keen insight that Porter offers, especially in matters where he makes analogies to the Renaissance and the classics, which show his understanding of a wide spectrum of history and art. There are points where we may disagree; one in particular is his take on John Singer Sargent. For example, he considers two of Sargent’s paintings, now in Boston Museums: the portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Boit Children, to be lacking. These paintings today are regarded by me and most others to be absolute tour-de-force works with consummate and painterly expressions of genius. Toward the end of his essay on Sargent, Porter pays homage by the perspicacious view of seeing the connection between Sargent and abstract expressionist painters, which I am sure is not obvious to many. Porter says. “A passage of drapery in a Sargent portrait or a scratched background in a Sargent watercolor relates to certain American abstract painting more closely than do Cezanne, Picasso or Monet. The abstractions of Franz Kline, for instance, have a quality and light that has not existed in panting since Sargent, nor did it exist in Sargent’s contemporaries resembled him most closely—Zorn or Boldini. In short, Porter appreciates paint quality, bravura and abstraction in realism and shows us these corollaries and much more.
The book would make an excellent, if not essential, addition to any painter’s library. It will appeal to the casual art lover as well, because the language is open and accessible while being very rewarding. This text is invaluable to any art history student looking for an overview of 20th century art.
The Montefeltro Conspiracy- A Renaissance Mystery Decoded, Marcello Simonettta, Doubleday
Ostensibly this is a biography of the famous Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro who was renowned as condottiero or mercenary, a soldier of fortune, so to speak, but he was also a patron of the arts and sciences. Visiting Urbino in the hills of Marche in central Italy today, it has a rather fairy tale look with spires and turrets behind crenellated walls. Once inside we can see its dignified palazzo and we can visit Federico’s famous “studiolo” where his intarsio (wood inlay) study that housed his extensive library, as we marvel at the perspective illusionism in the crafted woodwork. As much as we marvel at the Duke’s culture and erudition, this book however provides a fascinating look at the underside of privilege and fame through investigation, and sleuthing of arcane manuscripts, which reveal a heretofore unsavory and unseen side of the Duke’s persona. Specifically the text looks into his nefarious involvement in the infamous “Pazzi Conspiracy” in Florence prior to April of 1478, when there was an assassination of Giulano De’ Medici and the attempted murder of his older brother Lorenzo. The other two books on this same subject mentioned here, “April Blood” and “Fire in the City” by Lauro Martines also offer fascinating accounts of this incident, but this book by Simonetta takes the event to new levels of scholarship with up-to-date research. Many art history fans are familiar with the famous double portrait by Piero Della Francesca in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence of the Duke and his wife. However, after reading this account we will never quite look this painting in the same way. Throughout history the Duke has received many praises for his accomplishments; militarily, scholarly and culturally. His praises are sung high by Professor Kenneth Bartlett, in his series of lectures for the Teaching Company, “The Italian Renaissance.” Bartlett believed the Duke’s integrity as a general for hire was beyond question and that Federico’s interest in the arts made him a sort of paragon of Renaissance culture and learning.
Simonetta shows with thorough research that the Duke was complicit with Pope Sixtus IV and the Pazzi family of Florence to murder the Medici Brothers on Easter Sunday of 1478.
The book is much more however than just a detective story of political intrigue. There are plenty of anecdotes into the related art history of the time. In particular, Simonetta gives us a fascinating and thoroughly new interpretation of Botticelli’s painting, “Prima Vera” as well as the complicated motives behind the band of frescos on the lower wall of the Sistine chapel. These frescos, by the way, are not the ceiling paintings by Michelangelo but the ones completed in the early 1480’s (just after the murders) and painted by Perugino, Botticelli, Signorelli and other Florentines. One of the exciting details is saved for the very end, when the author tells of a prolonged effort to procure a letter from a library in Italy that the Duke had written to the Pope, which confirms the Duke’s involvement, but this was confirmed only after the author cracks the complicated code!
The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill, Touchstone
There probably is not a more intimate and thoughtful record of an artist’s life than this compilation of letters written from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo who was an art dealer in Paris and elsewhere in France during the later 19th century. The book starts with a memoir of the artist by Vincent’s sister-in-law, J. Van Gogh Bonge, which sets the stage with her record of the artist’s life that she conveys with genuine empathy and understanding of the challenges undertaken by Van Gogh.
We learn through this book first hand from the artist, of so many of his concerns, impressions, opinions and aspirations. One cannot help but to be impressed by his intellect, erudition and far-ranging knowledge. All of this helps us to see Van Gogh the man and to get beyond the hype and plethora of publicity the artist has received through countless books, films and exhibitions, etc. He is one of those artists whose work, like that of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, has been reproduced so often as to enter the cultural milieu in a manner that inhibits fresh appreciation. In other words, this collection of correspondences brings his larger-than-life mythic persona into a thoroughly human level, which we can relate to easily.
Van Gogh’s literary sources are seen through his letters and we might expect that he would have read French authors like Victor Hugo, Honre de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire, who he mentions, but it is surprising to see that Van Gogh’s literary inspirations included American authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman. The latter’s poems probably inspired Van Gogh’s pantheistic perceptions equating nature with God, and the consequent infusing of these sensibilities into his art. This inspiration is especially evident in the artist’s depictions of cypress trees and various paintings like graveyard scenes that are metaphors for death.
We learn of his art heroes as well, many whom we know like Rembrandt and Hals, but which also included lesser-knowns, such as an artist that I have found remarkable as well, the French painter of pastoral genre scenes with peasants, Leon Augustin Lhermitte. Van Gogh’s earnest mission to improve and grow artistically is conveyed abundantly and his words show us that there is no replacement for the timeless attributes of hard work and commitment. We see the motivation and inspiration behind many of our favorite paintings of Van Gogh’s that we love. The letters reveal his constant struggle with money, which is mitigated by his brother’s largesse and we are afforded a window into so many of the day-to-day aspects of a 19th century French Artist. We are also moved by his tenderness and affection for his brother, which is apparent as he shares so much that is important in his art. He closes his letters with particular notes of appreciation- “A hearty handshake, a dieu.” or “Your Loving Brother, Vincent.”
Rome - A cultural, Visual and Personal History, by Robert Hughes, Knopf
Although this book professes to be about Rome, (which we assume to be the city of Rome and the Roman Empire, and it certainly is that,) the book is truly much more. For starters, to make it relevant to artists, Hughes’ book is a comprehensive romp through the history of the Roman Empire, then culture, politics and all manner of western art, but obviously, Italian art is the focus. And the author does it like no other> historian, as he serves his subject up with verve, strong opinions and his own unique take on the arts. In other words, we can depend on Hughes to convey his views in an unadulterated fashion without euphemisms. We get to revisit so many artists who were important in the grand scheme of things whom we thought we knew, as well as lesser-known artists whom Hughes brings to deserved attention with his pithy characterizations.
The book grabbed me from the beginning. In the prologue Hughes expounds on the cowled statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno who stands on a tall plinth in the middle of the piazza known as Campo di Fiori. I love this piazza, where I have painted and sketched the bronze of Bruno en plein aire, towering over the piazza with its riot of color from the fruit, flowers and clothes in the market and over the restaurants, bakeries and bookstore on the periphery. Campo di Fiori also is special to me for its amazing (and authentic) gypsy jazz in the evenings. Dancing to the Django-like rhythms is great, albeit challenged by the cobblestones.
Anyway, Hughes takes a broadside at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church for burning Bruno at the stake (right in this very piazza.) Bruno was such a noble and adventurous thinker who dared to suggest that the earth was not the center of the Universe and that the stars represented a plurality of centers. His ideas were blasphemous to the Catholic Church of that era but also parallels the current penchant in some sectors for denying science, global warming and evolution- just to show that some things just change slowly and remain relevant after 500 years.
The book, a tome really, reflecting the author’s massive effort, reads easily while offering many cultural and historical insights. However, for today’s artists this will not be a disappointment, as the artists that were so central to many aspects of Italian history are revealed in new light. Some of my favorites are included, e.g., Bernini and Boromini and the high Baroque, whose undulating figurative statues on bridges, buildings and fountains are so essential to our experience of Rome today. Hughes includes lesser-knowns (to me at least) like Piranesi, the eccentric engraver of fantasized prison views.
Near the end Hughes presents a wonderful essay on the Macchiaioli ( a unique school of Italian Impressionists painters) led by Giovanni Fattori. And then an extensive chapter on the early 20th century Italian Futurists, where Hughes expounds on the political and social agenda of these artists as well. Remarkably, he tells of the now largely forgotten detail that the Futurists, under their leader Filippo Marinetti, wanted to eliminate pasta from the Italian diet because it was not compatible with their manifesto. Such an ill-conceived mission seems positively Quixotic today in light of how essential pasta is to Italian cuisine, yet it must have held some sway in its day.
Hughes pulls out all the stops in his invective against the gargantuan white marble edifice in Rome at Piazza Venezia, known as the monument to the first king and unifier of Italy, Vittorio Emanuelle II. Hughes calls this monument that was built on the most sacred hill (The Capitoline Hill), near the Roman Forum, as the most stupefyingly pompous memorial ever dedicated to a national leader in Western Europe. Hughes further opines that never has such singular disproportion been given to personal mediocrity. He acquaints us with various nicknames the monument is known by, including “Piscatiaoio Nazionale” or National Urinal. I have to admit that there is one statue here in front of the monolith that I am particularly fond of, an angel holding a brush or stylus out-stretched, which I’ve regarded as a modern St. Luke, patron and protector of painters.
Mussolini and his Fascists are covered, as are the artists who accompanied him or gave a visual presence and propaganda to his dead end waltz with Hitler. But Hughes shows how the Fascists held had influence and appeal to significant swaths of the Italians, yet he defends the art created under its banner as independently laudable, in spite of its origins and ideological inspirations.
Swerve - How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblat, Norton
This book tells the fascinating story of the discovery of the moldering and lost writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Lucretius, by the Italian Humanist, Pioggio Braciolini. As the resurrection of ancient wisdom and art is central to Renaissance art, and by extension our own art and culture, it is fitting for this book be relevant to artists of today. Swerve, as a title, is Greenblat’s artful selection of Lucretius’ scientific thinking that was millennia ahead of his time by presaging molecular physics with his assertion that the universe is comprised of small particles in eternal motion, randomly colliding- hence “swerve.” This is from Lucretius’ book “On the Nature of Things” which Poggio finds and returns to circulation, and it then eventually became crucial to the ideas of Gallileo, Darwin, Einstein and Thomas Jefferson. The “swerve” aspect is asserted to be a crucial part of creativity, as it appears that some of our personal and historically important original acts happen when we are pursuing an agenda and swerve by association to a unique revelation. Hmmm, not sure how this reconciles with current Buddhist and mindful meditation, which advises a course of letting go of endless associations and return to the moment, but nonetheless, the book offers a wonderful account of an important Renaissance passion- saving the Classics.
The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King, Walker and Company
I love Ross King’s writing about art history. His two other excellent books , Brunelleschi1s Dome and Michelangelo and The Pope1s Ceiling were both page turners that brought the stories of those artists and cities to life with a wealth of engaging detail.
This book by King takes an equally adept look at the Impressionist period and through amazing research it brings so many important details to our attention. We may have thought we knew some of the issues and challenges facing the impressionist artists, but with King1s help we see all the interconnecting currents that bring competing aesthetics to butt heads. Along with the artistic milieu we see how politics, cultural, industry and wars all played a part in this fascinating period.
One of the main protagonists is Ernest Messonier who is not exactly a household name, but nevertheless a larger-than-life figure whom the revolutionary impressionists began to rail against along with other academicians. Bougerau, Gerome, Ingres and Cabanel are few of those academic painters of a refined if not tight style aligned with Messonier whose work many of us now love just as well the impressionists. However art history has made a huge gap between the groups which at times does injustice by exaggerating the differences. I have often looked at Messionier1s large scene of horses galloping with French soldiers as they pay homage to Napoleon on his white stead. I was impressed by the shear accumulation of detail, every blade of grass, all the uniforms looking accurate and its lighting on an overcast day. This painting titled 3Friedland2 for the battle of 1807 where Napoleon led the French to a decisive victory of the Russians.
The interest for us readers and artists is not so much the history of war but the way that Messonier is presented here as one of the main characters and leaders of the establishment to which Manet and Courbet are pitched as the upstart opposition. So when I look at Courbet1s 1866 painting of the nude in the Metropolitan Museum titled Woman with a Parrot and the nearby painting of Friedland, I will now have a much wider optic and appreciation for the way the two artists were diametrically opposed.
Manet takes an equal measure of importance to Courbet as the standard bearer of the revolutionary impressionists as his painting Dejuener sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) shares the cover of this book with Messionier1s work. We have little to compare how radical this vision of Manet1s was and King lets know of the hilarity and contempt it inspired. The book takes its title from two parts of history to which this Manet painting is related and another still life of apples by Courbet. The image of Manet1s was borrowed in Part from an etching by Marcantonio Raimondi, which in turn was based on a Raphael oil titled The Judgment of Paris, which of course refers to the event by the Greek God Paris that started the Trojan War.
Bringing the conflict to a peak was a rather innocuous still life of apples submitted by Courbet to the Salon of 1872, which Messonier, being on the jury for this exhibit rejected and all the other work submitted Courbet. Messonier1s decision was partly aesthetic because his highly meticulous style was in his mind and and in the opinions of most contemporaries, at odds with the brushy realism of Courbet and Manet. Messonier1s decision however was more related to his contempt for Courbet as the ringleader of a group of activists who were agitating for democratic and social reform, who had toppled a statue of Napoleon. One critic of the time called the painting of Courbet1s 3The Apples of Discord2 which wittily underscores the connection to the Greek myth, as Eris was the goddess who threw the golden apple of discord on the table in front of Paris with the directive to choose the fairest of the three goddesses in front him. The decision or 3Judgment of Paris2 that resulted eventually caused the Trojan War. By extension this still life of apples was the seemingly harmless painting that served as symbol for all the strife and opposition of the Academy and the new vision coming in through impressionism.
Artists will especially enjoy this book as King shows such splendid working knowledge of paint, materials and the motivations of painters.
Bodies of Modernity- Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siecle France, By Tamar Garb, Thames and Hudson Inc., 1998
This book by a renowned educator, author and researcher is very appropriate to this book of mine, as it addresses the figure painting of during one of the high points of that genre; that is France at the end of the 19th century. This is to say impressionism and post impressionism.
In short, this is a fascinating read that delves into the context along with gender and sexuality of those impressionist paintings of people on the streets and nudes. Her approach might be carried to a fault, as there seems to be an excess of the concern with gender issues. At times I found myself wondering if this aesthetic and focus of the author would also become dated and representative of the late 20th century rather than the a document of impressionism.
If you’re into Fruedian-like readings there are no shortages here, as Garb offers us ones like this; “..a naked woman is framed by a shadowy, cavernous, triangular canopy which functions as sign of the sex that is hinted at but cannot be represented on the body. The canopy both contains and symbolizes woman. Its assertive triangularity substitutes for the inverted genital triangle which is indicated but not described in the space between the woman’s thighs."
These genre scenes of France have been loved by many, especially other artists as they have inspired renewed observations of our own lives. In conclusion, I would say that this is great read for any artist working in the realistic mode of painting and it is especially relevant to anyone creating figurative art.
America's Rome, By William R. Vance, Yale University Press, 1989
If ever there was a more thorough book on the importance of Italy and the classics to American arts, it would be hard to find and we would be hard pressed to outdo this volume by William Vance. Although this book was first published in 1989 by Yale University Press, I just came upon it by mere serendipity at the Friends of The Library Book Sale here is Ithaca this fall. Such are the delights of the chance encounter with intellectually stimulating books.
Well this book is right up my alley. I could also say it is a treasure trove of revelations, insights, new material, while profoundly threading together so many American painters, sculptors, and literary figures. These artists from our nation’s gestational period and early years, while America's creative forces were attempting artistic independence is the author's primary concern. But during this time these artists, and our statesmen too, were seeking connections to our classical heritage and lineage. This is to say they were looking to Italy, its land and light, but also to the rich history of figurative sculpture and literary sources too.
America's Rome is an essential read for any artist interested in representing the figure in their art. Vance's book covers most of the American artists who were sculpting or paintng the figure during the 19th Century and the author shows their debt to ancient Rome and Athens.
Meditations on the Soul- Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino - Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont 1996
This book of letters from one of the most important and influential thinkers of the 15th century in Italy is a gem of wisdom that goes beyond its time and locale- into the past and to our contemporary world and issues. The relevance of Ficino’s writings is both personal and universal and his reflections will have appeal to many questers and students of the Renaissance.
Ficino is not a household name today, for example like Leonardo, Machiavelli or Lorenzo De Medici. However, his seminal ideas have come into prominence recently as he is given high praise by Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul, which was a runaway bestseller.
For students of the Renaissance, there is a famous fresco painting that will likely be recalled, as it is by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tournabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The painting portrays Ficino with other philosophers. He was a Catholic priest but also an astrologer and leader of the Neoplatonic philosophic school of the day.
This book does not address any artistic issues head on but as Ficino was at the epicenter of the intellectual and spiritual life during the renaissance in Florence, his influence on all the arts and spiritual life is difficult to overstate. His discourses with many the prominent men of letters, arts, politics and religion of that era throughout Italy are documented here. Starting with Cosimo De Medici, the elder patriarch of the family and up past the death his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent near the end of 15th century.
Ficino's letters make for an intimate record of the thinking of an important figure in the renaissance and we readers are offered wisdom and spiritual insights. Here is quote from the jacket, an endorsement by author Kathleen Raine; “ Ficino was the greatest of Renaissance humanist. To many who are nauseated by the positivist atheism which in the mass media passes for “humanism” these letters will be water in the dessert.”
For the artist or layman wishing to plumb the essence of the Renaissance, you could not do better than to avail yourself of this compilation of letters.
Influences - Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance - Mary Quinlan-McGrath, Chicago
To say this book is truly one-of-a kind is in no sense hyperbole, but to say the author adds a heretofore uncharted synthesis of arcane astrology, optics, spirituality and metaphysics into our appreciation of the Italian Renaissance begins to suggest the originality of this text.
Quinlan-McGrath tackles a subject that has been covered from many angles, The Renaissance, and by many scholars but no one has the capability of speaking with authority about astrology and art in such an exacting way as this author, especially in regards to such abstruse and esoteric aspects.
The book is full of intricate concepts and at times so dense with information that the reader will probably find themselves rereading many paragraphs just to unpack her meaning. But if one perseveres the rewards and insights the book offers are well worth the effort.
The book’s main protagonist is Marsillio Ficino, the Italian Renaissance philosopher who rubbed elbows with just about everyone of importance in Florence and elsewhere in the peninsula in the late quatrocento. There’s a famous fresco by Ghirlandaio in the Tournabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that depicts Ficino conversing with three other philosophers. One of the more fascinating concepts delved into is how works of art, especially those portraying astrological entities embody and exude a spiritual essence equal to or above the celestial body being portrayed. Ficino and others believed there were visual rays coming from a given work of art that entered the retina of the viewer and could have a significant effect on those looking. It appears that scholars like Ficino were advising painters in exceedingly specific ways as to how their imagery was to be selected and presented. The frescoed ceiling in the Chigi Palace, now known as Villa Farnesina on the banks of the Tiber in the Trastevere section of Rome is a case in point. Other examples are the frescos by Raphael in the Papal library, The Stanza Della Signatura.
One of the fascinating concepts imparted by Quinlan- McGrath is how Ficino believed that after looking at these frescos or living with them, the imagery becomes part of the person’s mind. And referring to Plato in this regard, who valued the looking only insofar as it improves one1s thinking, the author connects the ancient Greeks to the humanist efforts of Italy in the 1400’s. The author also shows the intellectual struggle, if not contradictions between Christian theorists like St. Augustine with Ficino and Galileo, the later two who had to constantly back peddle and cloak their observations in language that was less-than-clear, so as not to be accused of heresy. The Renaissance is revealed here as a time of seemingly dichotomous views, as we have the center of Christendom, (Rome and Florence) immersed in imagery and thinking of the occult and astrology along with cutting edge science that smacked in the face of the geocentric conception of the universe.
These are elevating concepts indeed, and perhaps our next visit to the Vatican, Uffizi or Villa Farnesina will be informed with new appreciation after considering the author1s insights. The author1s chapter on these astrological vaults has the appropriate title “Look, Reflect, Be Changed” and suggests the potential transformative effect of great art.
In conclusion the author tempers her enthusiasm by noting that not all the information behind Renaissance optics, astronomy, astrology and art have proved to be watertight. But nonetheless, the importance of how these thinkers of the Italian Renaissance regarded the connectivity of the universe and put those beliefs into their art, science as well as the bricks and mortar of everyday life is to be regarded with awe.
Historical Art Novels
The Sixteen Pleasures: A Novel, Robert Helenga. Soho Press (May 1994), and Delta (May 1995
) This novel, which takes place in Florence, Italy, weaves a story from the mid-1960s that includes an abundance of Renaissance art history. The narrative follows the path of an American woman who was part of the “Mud Angels,” a group of volunteers that offered help in extracting art treasures from the silt and mud of the Arno River after a disastrous flood of 1966. She discovers a suite of Renaissance erotic poems and etchings in the waterlogged basement of a Carmelite convent. This is a great read to familiarize oneself with the art and history of Florence combined into an intriguing plot. Incidentally, the watermarks of that infamous flood can still be seen on some of the church frescos there.
The Giant, A Novel of Michelangelo's David, Laura Morello
Reading art historical novels is a wonderful way to enjoy the richness of our cultural inheritance and immerse oneself in the characters that we've read about in other sources. Laura Morello accomplishes this in her novel of Florence at the end of quatrocento and the early part of the next century. The protagonist is an assistant to Michelangelo who is also a fresco painter, Jacopo Torni, nicknamed L'indago for his blue eyes. Giving these characters individuality and lives within all the important historical occurences of the Renaissance is what enthralls us. L'indaco's life leads him through the seedy aspects of street life in Florence where he deals with his gambling compulsion and financial pressures. It also shows a unique vignette of artists on the fringe, who have to sell their art surreptiously outside of the official guild system. As I am considering my own novel of the Renaissance, I read this fiction with a fascination at how Morello brings to life individuals in a plot along with the important occurnces and political and social aspects of the day. Her knowledge of the fine details and process of fresco painting, sculpting in marble and many other aspects of the Renaissance all give this novel the feel and authenticity of a true account. As artists, we can learn a lot from creative fiction that is not part of the bare facts of art history. In short, Morello's imagination is coupled effectively with a grounding in thorough research and a passion for here subject. The Stolen Lady, A Novel of World War II and the Mona Lisa, Laura Morello, William Morrow an Imprint of Haper Collins Publishers
One good turn deserves another. Laura Morllo has created a page turner with this art histoical novel, weaving the Renaissance with the fraught and dangerous days in the midst of World War II in France. This novel has the making and cinematic drama of a Dan Brown novel and we can imagine it being turned into a thrilling film version. In this sense it is similar to the movie, "The Monument Men" which also deals with the heroic individuals during World War II who risked their lives to save priceless paintings from Nazi theives. Giving Leonardo a voice based on acutal historical occurences and allowing the life and challenges of the model for the famous painting of the Mona Lisa to breathe is indeed engaging. Saving the entire collection of the Louvre by removing it in trucks to the hinterlands of rural France is also fast-paced and engaging. The importance of art in our own lives and as an essential part of our culture is conveyed here. The sacrifices and courage of the Louvre staff during the perilous days of Nazi invasions are conveyed here in a masterful blending of two eras. And again, to artists or the general public, our appreciation of art is given more depth by learning about the background and intricacies of the creation and preservation of art.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier. Dutton Adult (January 2000), and Plume (January 2001)
This is a wonderful novel that brings to life one of our favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer, in Delft, Holland, during the 17th century. The adapted movie version does not live up to the literary work; however, the visual quality of the film captures the beauty of Vermeer’s light.
The Raphael Affair, Iain Pears. Berkley (November 1998), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace (October 1992)
This small book is a fast-paced art history mystery set in Italy, now seen in the tradition of the immensely popular Da Vinci Code. The book delves into the inner art connoisseurship politics and the vagaries of attribution. Set in Italy, it leads us easily through art history in a very accessible way. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown. Doubleday (March 2003) When this art history mystery novel came out, I was reading it in an airport and saw no less than five other people reading the same book. The Da Vinci Code is a great read, speeding us through European art history. It famously starts in the Louvre, in front of “The Madonna of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci. I enjoyed how da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was interpreted; the saint to Christ’s right was construed as his wife and, consequently, as the bloodline of Christ, which is the central theme of the book. This theme continued through one of the main characters.
Italian Fever: A Novel, Valerie Martin. Knopf (June 1999) This novel has a racy and romantic plot within a contemporary setting, yet it involves Italian Renaissance art. The storyline shows how profoundly art can transform. This novel will delight those interested in art and Italy.
Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant. Random House (February 2004) This novel encapsulates 15th century Florentine history and art that is inherently fascinating for its contradictory aspirations of some of the key players, namely Lorenzo De Medici and the fundamentalist priest Girolamo Savonarla. The novel’s name is derived from the same title of the large painting by the famed Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Italy. The painter figures importantly in the narrative. The main character is a young Renaissance woman with a precocious intellect and an interest in painting.
Spending, by Mary Gordon, Scribners
If you are looking for a light hearted, erotic, politically savvy, smart and sassy narrative about the intersection of a middle aged painter and a NY commodities broker who becomes her lover, then you could not do better than this book. The book is edgy and compelling as it offers artists genuine glimpses into the pursuit of art. The narrative also is ensconced in the renaissance and Monica, the protagonist, makes trips to Italy to study the masters and makes drawings of her favorite Carpaccio paintings. The text is controversial as the artist’s new series of paintings makes the assertion that the deposed Christ of Renaissance altar pieces was not dead but a post orgasmic model. She garners the ire of the Christian Right, but the media coverage makes her rich.
Art Biography and Historical Accounts
The Bed and the Throne: the Life of Isabella D’Este, George Marek. Harper and Row (1976) A fascinating read of a woman who trail-blazed collecting art from her court in Mantua in northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. If only more contemporary women would model their lives after hers, the arts would be much better served. One example is Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was probably a 19th century version of D’Este. Gardner was an American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts whose collection is now housed in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA. Marek’s book presents the intrigue of Renaissance court life and machinations of the royalty, while describing how many important works of art from Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, and Titian were commissioned at the time.
Piero Della Francesca and the Invention of the Artist, Machtelt Bruggen Israels, Reaktion Books Ltd, London 2020 As Piero Della Francesca holds special appeal to me for many reasons this new book with up to date research is a welcomed addion to the may books on this Tuscan artist of the Renaissance. I have followed "The Piero Trail" as it is called, in central Italy over the course of a couple of decades. And in American Musuems, like the Clark Institute in WIlliamstown, MA or the Frick in NYC it has always been wonderful to view his work. The author goes into great detail about the process of his paintings, their technique and context. Piero's life combining the geometer and painter is well known but brought out here to great effect. The subtitle of the book, alludes to the process often given to Michelangelo of releasing painters from the restrictions of being viewed as mere craftsmen, into that of authors of works of art.
The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner. Harper One (April 2008)
One may not think everything has been said about the Sistine Chapel fresco, but these authors offer a revealing account of how Michelangelo used the Old Testament as his main source. For example, in the heart of Christendom, the authors tell us that there is not one image of Christ on the ceiling. The book presents the work and the artist’s motives from their perspectives, possibly with more of a Hebrew slant than was the case. With that caveat, the authors bring us to a fresh understanding of the New Testament vs. Old Testament divisions, and include the aesthetic differences between Pope and painter.
Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici, Miles J. Unger. Simon & Schuster (May 2008)
This is a great book for those interested in the art and politics of Italy during the 15th century. It describes the fascinating tale of the “Pazzi Conspiracy” in Florence, where Lorenzo and Guilliano de’ Medici were assaulted by agents of the Pope in the Duomo during High Mass on Easter Sunday in 1478. Giuliano de’ Medici was stabbed 19 times by a gang that included a priest. As he bled to death on the cathedral floor, his brother Lorenzo escaped with serious, but non-life-threatening wounds. This attack has to be a one of the most sordid yet engaging episodes of the Renaissance. Lorenzo lived at the epicenter of the Renaissance and fostered the lives and work of many artists, including the young Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. Lorenzo brought the humanist ideals to their highest expression, and his refined and bawdy character is portrayed well in this book. Pope Sixtus IV was in cahoots with the Pazzi family, the Duke Montefeltro of Urbino, and others—the authors show the hypocrisy and duplicity of the time, leaving us in dismay at the antics of the supposed Vicar of Christ and his cohorts.
Mad Enchantment, Claude Monet and Painting of the Water Lilies, Ross King, Bloomsbury USA
"The Prince of Light" is how Monet was eulogized in the French press after his death in 1926 and an apt tribute it was. This biography shows the struggle, challenges and depth of the vision and life of the French painter that we thought we knew. Many of us probably regarded Monet and other impressionists painters of France in the 19th century and early 20th century as mere slapdash flingers pigments with chromatic depictions of landscapes and people. This book by Ross King offers painters of today something new to relate to in a profound way. For example, just the fact that Monet was creating his masterpieces of epic scale and ambition during World War I is an attainment in itself. Then when we add his personal doubts, anxieties, political intrigures, fading eye sight and so much more into the mix we begin to appreciate the true accomplishments of Monet.Having visited the Orangerie in Paris on a couple of occasions with minimal knowledge of Monet's life, I will now appreciate the Herculean accomplishment of these canvases. Monet is oft quoted here as lamenting how he suffered in the process of painting. This also flies in the face of our ideas of blissfully smooth creation of light and beauty. Now we see these canvases as the result of commitment and hard-won victories.There are many rewards and revelations in this text. One of them is the relation between lilies and nymphs. King explains that the two are linked etymologically as nymph suggests nubile and nuptal. And further, the French word for water lily is nymphea. But even more interesting is the fact that many visitors to Monet's studio at Giverny could imagine the images of women swirling in the paintings of willows, lilies and water. In an obituary, one writer waxed poetic with this: " Weep, O water lilies, the master is no more who came to find upon the waves, among reflections of sky and water, the figure of life's eternal dream." Dante, Barbara Reynolds, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 2007
As Dante has been described as the single most influential writer in the Western literary canon, one could hardly go wrong with this marvelous biography. And as Dante had tremendous influence on the artists of the medieval period, the Renaissance and beyond his work is well worth considering for artists of today. The Divine Comedy influenced Botticelli to illustrate this literary work as it did with Gustave Dore in the 18th century with a series of etchings. This biography unpacks the poet Dante with page after page of insights and revelations that we would probably never understand from just reading the text of Dante alone. My copy of Reynolds book is replete with underlinnings and marginalia and I've read it twice. One little snippet that I found relevant and previoiusly undocumented is about Dante's time in exile in the little Tuscan town of Poppi where I have spent time. A bronze bust of Dante is in a park in Poppi, so I knew of his importance and history in that town. As I am considering the genesis of a planned novel about an artist who is great granson of Dante from Poppi, this was a welcome discovery. Dante continues to inspire artists of today including authors like Dan Brown, whose novel "Inferno" and subsequent film are full of Dante facts, legend and lore.
Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance, Anthony Grafton. Harvard University Press (April 2002)
Alberti has long been held as the epitome of the Renaissance man, as his explorations into ancient beauty brought the concepts of Greco-Roman order and accomplishment to his contemporaries. This book depicts how his ideas manifested and influenced many of his peers, and how those ideas continued to influence the arts for centuries. Alberti was responsible for initiating the shift away from artists being regarded as mere craftsmen; he elevated the perception of them to creative artists. Alberti, along with Andrea Palladio in the next century, was responsible for bringing the classical order of architecture back into vogue with buildings such as the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. For painters, he was extremely influential through his many theories and prescriptions for art. Grafton’s book covers them all.
April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici, Lauro Martines. Oxford University Press, USA (December 2004) April Blood is more than a fascinating read; it is one of the best illuminations of the Renaissance based on accounts from its leading citizens. Even though Martines presents the reader with a historical record in thoroughly researched work, it reads like a mystery novel that keeps us in eager to follow the plot. This book brings the intrigue of courtly life and Renaissance art to life.
Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence, Lauro Martines. Oxford University Press, USA (July 2007)
This is another riveting historical thriller is really an expansion of Martines’ April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici. The book delves into what some term as the “fake democracy” of the de Medici regime, which was one of the points that Girolamo Savonarola’s righteous indignation as is expertly brought into high relief here.
The Man with the Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford. Thames & Hudson (October 2010)
Martin Gayford is an art historian and author of several books on well-known artists, such as one on John Constable and another about Vincent Van Gogh. In this book, he brings to life the process of sitting for a portrait by a painter whom many consider to be the greatest living artist. That is quite a billing, but Freud is highly respected by critics and artists alike, primarily for the humanity he reveals, something akin to Rembrandt’s depth. He also has a juicy, tactile paint quality similar to Rembrandt’s thick impasto passages that we painters enjoy. However, his work is frequently off-putting to the squeamish, who recoil from seeing the underbelly of life expressed, or who are uncomfortable in viewing people portrayed in unpicturesque ways.
Gayford tells his story as he sits for an oil portrait that takes months to complete. His intimate account reveals so many of the inner workings, feelings, perceptions, insecurities and encounters with his own vanity and ego. Needless to say, the process tries his patience to the utmost. But I know of no other narrative that reveals so many of the issues of portraiture both from the model’s point of view as well as the artist’s. For this and other reasons, the book is really a must-read for artists and for the layman—it offers innumerable insights into the creative mind of an accomplished painter.
Although the grandson of the famous founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud’s status as a painter would be established even without being a scion of that family. Artists, me included, may find Freud’s aesthetic and preferences sometimes challenging, but they are certainly unique, as they are revealed through casual conversations with the author, who then shares them with us.
Freud shuns or mistrusts any impulse of his own that leads him to admire or emulate other artists. This attitude helps to distill his personal vision and, as he indicates, fosters emotionally honest conceptions and adherence to his own truth. Still, as painters, we find ourselves comparing our proclivities to his and don’t always measure up or find how we differ.
For example, I love looking at art and often find myself inspired by great works in museums; I’m sure countless others are as well—otherwise, museums would not have visitors! Furthermore, artists throughout history have used other artistic expressions as a resource for their own creations. Additionally, for Lucian Freud, the aspect of extreme privilege, which he has earned through hard work and talent, is his financial security based on the astronomical prices his work fetches. This point affords the integrities that those of us in the trenches of the marketplace, as it were, may not always find as easy to implement.
Lucian Freud’s life and career have spanned the better part of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st as well. This longevity has enabled him to brush shoulders with many luminaries of the world of art, theatre, and politicsQueen Elizabeth, Picasso, Francis Bacon and the historian Kenneth Clark. In regards to Clark, Freud tells an amusing story of how Clark disowned him after Freud began to develop his mature style. Clark supposedly told Freud that he had purposely negated and suppressed anything of value in his early work. Freud also has another story of how he had a small part in a movie, playing the part of an artist, where the director rebuked him for not knowing how to hold a brush or look like he was painting. Anecdotes like these keep the book rolling along.
“Thomas Hart Benton, A Life” by Justin Wolff - Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Every young art student should read this book as well as artists who enjoy learning about the travails of other painters. This excellent account of a painter’s life will appeal to those interested in Americana and populist movements. In short, this biography of the 20th century American painter Thomas Hart Benton is an engaging and worthwhile read.
Any artist who finds himself moving in concert with such important Americans as Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Lewis Mumford and Harry Truman will find a democratic, leftist and spiritual view that resonates with the current political landscape as well as timeless issues and movements.
The issues Benton confronted and expressed in picture and word are still relevant. Benton had a lifelong disdain for many of those who held power, be it museum and academic leaders or political and corporate bosses. He pushed away from ready charts, however, and distanced himself from the Communists, yet held the Fascists in equal contempt, so much so that he certainly had no qualms for using his art as a propaganda tool to promote the war effort of the 1940’s, which is to say, to help defeat the rise of fascist in Europe, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler. When Woody Guthrie’s guitar had emblazoned the words, “This Guitar Kills Fascists” or when John Steinbeck’s novels were expressing the lives of the farmers of the American heartland during the 1930’s dust bowl, Benton was there too, using his canvases to give voice and cohesion to many aspects of American history. We also learn of a few of his less- than-successful compromises on certain commissions where he was too eager to please and lost some integrity in the process. His murals for state capitols, Hollywood and important libraries,-- even the Whitney Museum commissioned him--, show his work at its heroic best and most distinctly American. He trumpeted the values of everyday Americans and their rural agrarian roots. One of my favorite and perhaps his most iconic work was the easel painting that illustrated the song about a love gone wrong, “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie.”
The book is copiously researched with so many details of the artist1s life and aesthetic struggles. From his early struggles as an art student in Paris around the turn of the 19th century to the intimacies of his marriage and early upbringing to his fractious relationship with his student Jackson Pollock we learn many intriguing facts. Benton1s ordeal of struggling mightily with artistic identity for many years during and after his Paris years is particularly rewarding. He experimented with many types of popular French art, Impressionism and cubism but eventually settled on his hybrid style that used the American scene as his muse. It is interesting however, to see his thorough knowledge of art history as his final style is a synthesis of three mannerist painters: Pontormo, Michelangelo and El Greco. His work, which often includes figures shows his appreciation for the distortions and accentuations of modeling that those 16th century painters used. Benton’s use of egg tempera paint also shows an affinity for the Renaissance masters and he is reported to have used the early 15th century handbook by the Italian theorist Cennino Cennini as his guide. This connection with materials and techniques of the past was another way he rejected the modernists1 art of the mid twentieth century and continued on his maverick mission.
In Benton’s time as well as currently his art was grouped together with Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry as being part of a homegrown art that became known as regionalism. Their images of genre scenes connected deeply with the populace and were promoted and encouraged by businessmen as well as by an artists’ consortium. These artists, along with many others were given work by the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal. This philanthropic government program was called the Works Projects Administration and spearheaded the commissioning of artists to create murals for government buildings.
Benton’s pugnacious personality and often times repellent opinions are as distasteful today as they were then, but still they add to a fascinating read that carves out the character of this important American painter.
“Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King - Walker
Ross King does it again, as he writes so engagingly about a subject that has received so much attention and has had so much scholarly ink spilled about it that one might think there is nothing new under the sun to say about it.
As with King’s other book’s like the Judgment of Paris and Brunelleschi’s Dome he enlivens the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the entire era of the Renaissance in Italy. Although the subject is ostensibly only the Last Supper in Milan’s Santa Maria Delle Grazie, King brings in what amounts to an almost complete biography of Leonardo. We learn of only a few tantalizing details of his childhood in the little town of Vinci near Florence and his status as an illegitimate child or “bastardo” and the accompanying social challenges that moniker imparted.
More is known about Leonardo1s apprenticeship and prolonged stay in the Studio of Andrea del Verocchio (his name meaning true eye) along with other artists of amazing talent such as Lorenzo di Credi, Perugino and others gives us pause as we consider the incredible conjunction of talent in that botega and Florence in general. The bronze statue of a young David by Verocchio, of which there is a copy in the Gardens of Cimbrone in Ravello near Amalfi is believed to show a beautiful and youthful Leonardo - posing while in the Verochhio studio.
The creation of Leonardo’s fresco of the Last Supper however is revealed with great subtlety and attention to many aspects of the commission and the contemporary political environment. We are reminded that Leonardo was only 42 at the time of the commission and languishing somewhat as the court genius under Lodovico Sforza. And to contrast Leonardo’s slow and unconventional working methods, we are directed to consider the work on the opposite wall, a huge fresco by Giovannii Donato da Montorfano, which was completed on schedule with none of the technical disasters of Leonardo’s.
The technical debacle that the work represents, as it was virtually flaking and falling off the wall during Leonardo1s time underscores the fact that the importance of this work was it’s “concetto” or grand vision and concept rather than the technical virtuosity.
King debunks a couple of popular myths about Leonardo and the iconography of the work. Firstly King points out that Leonardo was such an exemplary artist that he did not need to rely on the use of triangles and geometric forms, in the sense of using the Golden Ratio, which Leonardo never even mentions in his writings. In other words, Leonardo is an empiricists, with his work based on direct observation and study rather than on gimmicks.
The hoopla around Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code is brought down a few notches as well as King shows that the figure to Christ’s right, said by Dan Brown’s Character Sophie Nevus in the book, is there to illustrate Leonardo’s penchant for showing his skill at separating the gender qualities in characters. Thus legitimizing the central theme of Brown’s book, which was that Christ was married and his bloodline survived in France and ultimately in Sophie Nevus. King does not enter into the debate about Christ’s marital status, however in regards to gender and physiognomy King states, that on the contrary, Leonardo made many of his best works flaunt the ambiguousness, gender binding and androgynous nature of the subjects. For example the paintings by Leonardo of the Mona Lisa and St John The Baptist have caused many to wonder just which sex these models were.
King goes into so many of the details of the work, the iconography of still life object on the table, the orchestration of hands and gestures, the irony of the model for Christ being a soldier and so much more. King also points out the whopping some that Leonardo is supposed to have been paid - close to $700,000 in equivalent 21st century dollars. As with all the reviews of books here, this one obviously has immense value and pertinence to artists as well as the general public. There is an abundance of technical considerations, like the process of fresco painting and materials as well as aesthetic information that will make this book a rewarding read for painters and layman alike.
“Edward Hopper - An Intimate Biography” By Gail Levin, Rizzoli 1995
For anyone interested in really delving into the life and work of Edward Hopper, one could not do better than to curl up with this tome over the winter. It is a hefty volume, almost 4 inches thick and totaling 777 pages. This book given to me many years before I actually cracked it, was intimidating for its sheer size, as I thought, do I really want to invest that much time in Hopper. Well I am happy to report that I have found thoroughly engaging and very satisfying to read. Firstly, because it is so much more than just an account of Hopper’s life. This book brings in so many of my heroes of American Art, such as Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, all the ashcan school of painters, Guy Penni Dubois, and of course Hopper’s wife, Jo Nivison. The artist’s time and connection to Paris and the avant guards and impressionism is also covered on to his triumph in creating his own vision, an American expression that we all love.
Rembrandt- The Painter at Work, Ernest Van De Wetering, University of California Press 2009
This book had been uncracked for at least five or six years before I got it off the stack books from under a lamp in our living room. Why the delay? No really good reason. There are of course no shortage of books in our home or in the offing. We now subscribe to the New York Review of Books, and the NY Times Book Review is read each week along with some in the Wall Street Journal. There’s at least one or two reviews in each of these publications that is compelling. Lately I’ve been wanting to read one of the late Joan Didion books, such as “A Year of Magical Thinking.” I like the title and the basic premise of processing her grief. My interest has been piqued to get the new book on Poussin documenting the show on Dance paintings on exhibit at the NGA in London and the museum in California. And then there’s the new catalog on the David show at the MET Museum in NYC. As I did a reinterpretation of the Death of Socrates last year, I am thinking that I am prescient perhaps.
So this heavy tome had some wonderful surprises. But for some reason I thought it was going to be dry facts concerning conservation, thread count, warp and waft of linen, pigments and xradio graphs.
The one term that made the book so worthwhile to me was “houding.” It must be a Dutch word from the 16thcentury. It encapsulated so much of what I am concerned with in my own painting as well as shedding light on Rembrandt too. The term alludes to this; “Everything in its proper place spatially.” Seems simple enough, yet the ramifications seem endless and very pertinent to the process of creating realistic paintings. It is more than perspective cohesion as it brings in color balance and relationships. Here’s a quote from the book that is quoting Goeree’s formulation-
“ ..that which binds everything together in a drawing or painting, which makes things move to the front or back, and which causes everything from the foreground to the background to stand in its proper place without appearing further away of closer, and without seeming lighter of darker than its distance warrants…”
Another revelation of Van Der Wetering was about Rembrandt’s working method. He believed that Rembrandt usually started his works with the background areas and gradually worked to the foreground. This was rather astounding as the process would seem to warrant a more aesthetic consideration.
There is also note of the use of a limited palette and “dead color” in regards to the approach of Rembrandt. The limited palette is related to the Ancient painter Apelles and this connection further underscored by a late self portrait of Rembrandt posing as Zeuxis. This work now appears, through the effects of aging perhaps and layers of varnish or medium within the paint to be made of gold. The palette was comprised of four colors, some say six. Whichever, the shear accomplishment of making flesh tones and so much more from this restricted palette is amazing. What were the colors? Who knows for sure. Pliny the Elder probably makes reference to this. Black, white, blue and red perhaps?
Then there is the concept of visible brush strokes, which is the subject of chapter seven. This is the aspect that so many of us have marveled at over the years. The shear naturalness or “sprezzatura” of the deliverance of brush wielding leaves us breathless. There is a division or warring camps of aesthetics here defined as the “The Smooth Camp” versus “The Rough Camp.” We are reminded of the similar divisiveness between, say, the colore and desegno schools of renaissance Italy- also known as the Venetian (colorist) versus the Florentine (drawing) schools. One quote from the book of Van de Wetering’s attributed to Jan Emmens,
“One muse see the swathes left by the brush; they are the twistings, the cries of the soul.”
Can we really get enough of Rembrandt- especially from scholars like Van de Wetering? For painters a book like this is a real delight and a treasure trove. To sit in read this book full of big juicy reproductions of Rembrandt’s work while being lead through interesting new concepts is a special experience. I’ll end by including an observation of the author’s regarding with a special philosophical reflection on the authenticity of some art.
“Time and again I feel myself drawn into Rembrandt’s spaces, where figures and objects- but myself as well- get a specific weight and balance. And in a way that is difficult to prove, this is in part due to my conviction that this space is not ‘made’ but has ‘become’; and that this so because its maker did not ‘make’ but ‘was’. One experiences the same sensation in good poetry. It is one of the most intriguing aspects of art, and in my view it is just this which fives art a certain moral quality. Only great purity in the experience of the world to be represented in a work make it possible to be what you make, rather than to manufacture it.”
Well said indeed! I especially like the appreciation of a moral quality. I think this is the appeal of Rembrandt’s work, as it presents an honesty and directness that we recognize as truth- hence a moral imperative.
The Art Spirit, Robert Henri. Basic Books (March 2007)
This book has a special place in my life, partly for the way I first discovered it, and also for how important it became to me. I happened onto this tattered volume at the York Library in York, PA when I was a student at the York Academy of Arts in the early 1970s. It appeared as if it had been moldering there, neglected for years. At that time, the book was not readily available, so it was like finding a little gem harboring secrets of essential teaching on painting. Henri was the charismatic leader of the Ashcan School of painters in and around the turn of the 20th century. Reprinted in 2007, this book comprises the advice and criticism that Henri offered casually to his students. It was first published in 1923 as a compilation of Margery Ryerson’s notes from Henri’s painting classes. The two worked together on editing and completing the project. One of the reasons the book commanded attention was Henri’s focus on encouraging artists to be free and unique in their expression, a startling assertion during the 1920s; its timeless relevance to painters is beyond question. It is one of the most influential art books ever written in the US.
Painting the Visual Impression, Richard Whitney, PhD.H, Great Life Press, Rye, NH 2018
An excellent and concise book of modest size, but full of valuable observations and suggestions for artists. It comes with great reviews by Dan Greene, John Howard Sanden and Nelson Shanks. I would say this little book is right up there with the Art Spirit of Robert Henri in regards to the relevance and value of the passages. Richard Whtney is an accomplished portratist and landcaspe painter and his years of study and experience come through. He includes wonderful quotes of artists of the past along with his own observations accompanied by images of his work.
On Painting, Leon Battista Alberti. Greenwood Press (October 1976), and Penguin Classics (July 1991)
This small book was one of the most influential texts of the Renaissance, as it was prescriptive to details of how painters should work. Alberti (1404-1472) was born to exiled Florentine parents in Genoa. He was an architect and theorist who received thorough training in the classics and in humanist ideals. Because there are no extant paintings of Alberti’s, artists of the late 1400s and early 1500s who were directly influenced by his theories were featured in a major art exhibit in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi in 2006. Reading the book today may make one wonder what all the brouhaha is about, yet he parcels out many timeless gems of advice. For example, here is one of Alberti’s quotes: “When I investigate and when I discover that the forces of the heavens and the planets are within ourselves, then truly I seem to be living among the gods.”
Theory and Practice of Perspective, G. A. Storey. Dover Publications (February 2006)
Storey’s book is great for the artist who wants a thorough understanding of the math behind perspective. The instructional exercises show the means for constructing exact grids in various architectural settings. If you ever wondered how those Renaissance artists plotted their carpets with intricate patterns or tile floors set at oblique angles, then this book is for you. This book may be overly technical for contemporary artists.
Alla Prima: Everything I Know about Painting, Richard Schmid. Stove Prairie Press (1999 and 2004)
This book has become a classic in the few years since it was published. Schmid is one of the most successful and respected artists working today. His text, written in the first person, offers an inside view into his motivations and ideas regarding his realistic paintings, which are painterly in the best sense of the word. His brushy, loose style and his instruction will appeal to many.
Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Juliette Aristides.WatsonGuptill (April 2008)
This book by a contemporary painter has become deservedly popular, as it thoroughly presents so many of the timeless concepts of traditional realism. The Atelier is the studio setting and apprenticeship method that has trained many of the great historical artists. The Atelier system emphasizes good drawing and sound technique, both of which are covered admirably here. These worthy concepts are often bypassed in university art training; now with computer graphics and manipulations, the timeless, essential, reflective, and human observational qualities are given short shrift.
Composition for the Painter, Frank Webb. Zack Press (2005)
Webb is an amazing watercolorist; he packs a lot of valuable information in his books, videos and workshops. This book, featuring the work of 24 professional artists, is best for the watercolorists as that is Webb’s primary medium; however, the concepts are universal and applicable to all the painting media. Webb says “Composition is the gravity that holds a painting together. In the world of painting, the painter must deliberately create right relations of the parts to the whole.”
Traditional Oil Painting: Advance Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, Virgil Elliott. Watson-Guptill (August 2007) Elliott is an accomplished painter and he uses his own work within this book, but he also uses amazing examples from art history to illustrate the concepts and ideas that go into making effective, realistic genre paintings. This is a great sourcebook of materials and approaches to painting.
Perspective for Artists, Rex Vicat Cole. Dover Publications (June 1976)
This is a nice concise volume that clearly presents the concepts of perspective.
The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Ralph Mayer. Viking Adult (May 1991)
No artist should be without this book, especially if you are concerned with archival matters and safety. I purchased this book when I was in art school; it proved to be an invaluable resource. It is really the definitive text about all types of painting, sculpture, and printmaking. If you have any questions about the nature of materials, be it in glazes and varnishes to papers and brushes, this comprehensive book supplies the needed information.
The Complete Guide to Perspective, John Raynes. North Light Books (April 2005)
This book offers a comprehensive approach to using and understanding perspective. It delves into the math and geometry of perspective, as it should, but not excessively so. There are many essential concepts and great illustrations that are useful and necessary for any aspiring artists, or even for the seasoned professionals who want to burnish their knowledge.
The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Traditions, Anthony Ryder. Watson-Guptill (June 1999)
Ryder is one of the preeminent realist painters working today. His solid teaching, along with his beautifully executed academic portraits and figurative works, inspire many artists. This instructional book uses Ryder’s delicate drawings to illustrate many fundamental concepts, such as enveloping and blocking-in. He explains beautifully about the energy and geometry within the figure in concepts, including the “inner curve.” This book is well worth the cost for students and seasoned artists who wish to understand the subtleties and dynamics of depicting the nude.
The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides. Houghton Mifflin (1941)
This is one of those classic books that many aspiring artists have read; in fact, the copy I bought in 1975 had already sold 250,000 copies. It covers all the basic approaches to drawing, from gestural figure work, contour lines, modeling, and using light and shade. The author also includes many examples of master artists’ drawings to show their style and solutions. As the author says, “There is only one right way to draw and that is the perfectly natural way. It has nothing to do with artifice or technique. It has nothing to do with aesthetics or conception. It has only to do with correct observation, and by that I mean a physical contact with all sorts of objects through the senses.”
Pastel: A Comprehensive Guide to Pastel Painting, Daniel E. Greene. Watson-Guptill Publications (1974)
The late Daniel Greene was one of the major artists on the American scene since the 1960’s. His long career as a teacher and artist is remarkable. His books, videos, and workshops have benefiting thousands of artists. This book, published in 1974, is without a doubt one of the best on pastel use; it is especially suited for the realist artist who is interested in depicting the figure or portrait.
Painting the Head in Oil, John Howard Sanden. Watson-Guptill Publications (January 1976)
Sanden, now late in his career, is a portrait painter whose work is in the collection of major international corporations. The White House selected him to paint the official portrait of George W. Bush. Sanden has written several books on the subject of portraiture, and has developed many instructional videos. He was an instructor at the Art Students League in New York City after Samuel Oppenheim passed the teaching mantle to him. This is an essential book, especially since it thoroughly covers the alla prima method of painting directly on white canvas. Harvey Dinnerstein: Artist at Work, Harvey Dinnerstein. Watson-Guptill Publications (1978) Dinnerstein is a highly accomplished painter and teacher from New York City. Watson- Guptill, the publisher of this book and many other art instruction books, has provided aspiring artists with many volumes of diverse styles. Dinnerstein’s work is especially valuable to the art student, as he thoroughly embodies and uses the principles of classical painting techniques.
A Painter’s Guide to Design and Composition, Margot Schulzke. North Light Books (February 2006)
Shulzke uses her own work, but mostly presents the art of other well-known contemporary realist painters to reveal the craft of composing. As the cover blurb says, “No matter how skillful the technique, no matter how inventive the style, a successful painting ultimately depends on composition and design.” These are wise words for all aspiring artists to heed and part of this author’s general thrust to suggest thinking in overall design terms. The painters included here share their own ideas about composing, providing demos and sketches to make the concepts clear.
John Sloan on Drawing and Painting, John Sloan. Dover Publications (2000)
This compilation of the teaching of John Sloan (1871-1951), who was an important member of the Philadelphia Ashcan School of Art, is full of artistic advice. Sloan became a respected teacher at the Art Students League in New York City, but his work was formed by interpreting everyday life with unpretentious views of American street life, perhaps the essence of the Ashcan aesthetic. He drew many illustrations for newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century; his etchings of genre scenes are also part of his graphic oeuvre. In the book, Sloan mentions that he never sold a painting until he was 49 and not many after that, which is surprising given the reputation and quality of his work. The book was probably originally entitled Gist of Art, as that is how the title appears at the top of each page of the book. Sloan, born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, makes this artist’s work especially significant to us other Pennsylvanians. Spiritual/Metaphysical/Contemplative Traditions in Art
Spirituality in Art
How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self, by Roger Housden, Harmony Books, 2005
Including a Rembrandt book in the spiritual section may seem like an odd thing, but this book is surely one of the best examples of how art can provide a guide and revelation of many aspects of the human psyche. I have a friend who favors art with flowers and lots of color and she has asked me on more than one occasion, “ What makes you think these dark paintings of people by Rembrandt are so good?” I have told her that I regard them as superb examples of figurative realism and many others consider Rembrandt to be perhaps the best painter who has ever set brush to canvas. I also have attempted to explain about his use of light, that is exaggerated by the dark and his un- idealized portrayals of himself and others- in short, I say he reveals the human spirit and human condition with a dignity seldom expressed. Housden’s appreciation of Rembrandt is perhaps characteristically represented in this excerpt, which is in reference to Rembrandt’s “The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild” of 1662 or known to a certain generation as the cigar boxcover of Dutch Masters Cigars. Housden says: “As in this work, he manages to take everyday people and imbue them with qualities that elevate their humanity without denying their ordinary place in the world. The real genius of his painting, though- and why, I suspect, so many people through the centuries have heaped praise on it- is that the gaze of these men returns the qualities they embody to us, the viewer. When I stand before them, I feel myself more human, more alive and engaged. As in all his later work, Rembrandt invites me to participate in this painting, instead of being a mere observer.”