26 of My Favorite Books About Art
So, I write a blog about food, wine and hotels and I’m posting about art? The easy answer is that I read most of these books while drinking a nice glass of wine. Not true. I just enjoy art history and museums and whenever I find myself in a casual discussion about these subjects, it invariably evolves into a conversation about some of the books that have influenced my interest in art. Friends frequently ask me to send them my list of books about the subject and over the years it has grown to the 26 listed below. Many of these reads are historical novels, but others are non-fiction, art history books. They are all available on Amazon, but it’s always smart to support your local independent bookshop when possible. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have. With the exception of the Thomas Hoving listings, which comprise the first five, they are not listed in any particular order, with the exception of author or artist groupings. Check out Ralph Steadman’s DooDaaa; it actually contains a reference to wine!
King of the Confessors, Thomas Hoving (Simon and Schuster)
Hoving’s quest for a treasure of medieval art—the Bury of St. Edmunds Cross
Two friends gave me this book many years ago as a gift and I, in turn, have done the same for many friends because it was my initial motivation to learn more about art history. Five of the books on this list are Hoving’s and he has written many more. Hoving (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977) was a great teacher and his enthusiasm for art was infectious. He certainly had a huge ego, but in my humble opinion, he wasn’t arrogant. Hoving thought art should be enjoyed by the masses and he was instrumental in drawing larger, more diverse audiences to art museums. He was a pioneer of the blockbuster show, beginning with the King Tut exhibit at The Met. King of the Confessors chronicles Hoving’s acquisition, as an assistant curator in the 1960s, of the Bury of St. Edmunds Cross for the The Cloisters, the medieval branch of The Met (in Northern Manhattan) devoted to the art and architecture of Europe. After reading this engaging book, you will want to take the trip to The Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, and see the Bury of St. Edmunds Cross on display. Hoving also wrote a revised edition (King of the Confessors, A New Appraisal) that is available as an eBook. This Hoving quote from a Forbes.com interview sums up the allure of the book for me: “I wrote the original book in part because I wanted to show people the real art world, a world of backstabbers, sharks and con artists—not the salon world of tea-drinking esthetes.” Hoving was a brilliant, unique character. He passed away too soon, on December 10, 2009 at the age of 78.
Making the Mummies Dance, Thomas Hoving (Simon and Schuster)
Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hoving chronicles his 10-year tenure as director of the Met and drops plenty of names in this fun read. Perhaps Dominick Dunne said it best: “Hoving’s cocky, conceited, self-assured account of his controversial and turbulent tenure as Director of the Metropolitan Museum is guaranteed to offend most of his former colleagues, but is fascinating reading for anyone, like myself, who has ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in that vast Central Park Palace of art. I couldn’t put it down.”
Tutankhamun, Thomas Hoving (Simon and Schuster)
The Untold Story
The story of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Hoving explores the many colorful characters involved in this monumental discovery. He eventually was responsible for bringing the original King Tut exhibition to The Met. The book is illustrated with 32 beautiful pages of color and black-and-white photographs.
American Gothic, Thomas Hoving (Chamberlain Bros.)
The Biography of Grant Wood’s American Masterpiece
Hoving offers his professional and personal opinions of one of the most famous paintings in American art and encourages you to search for small details that would otherwise be overlooked by the untrained eye. I always enjoy spending time in front of this treasure at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Master Pieces, Thomas Hoving (W.W. Norton & Company)
The Curator’s Game
Hoving adapted a game he used to play with fellow employees at The Met into this fun, educational exercise. The book lists 215 progressively demanding details of great works of art, along with a brief written clue, and then challenges you to identify the piece with your own curatorial eye. Fun and educational.
The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone (Signet)
The Passionate Biographical Novel of Michelangelo
This page-turner was made into a movie of the same name (1965) starring Charlton Heston and Rev Harrison, and directed by Carol Reed. In addition to Michelangelo and Van Gogh, Stone also wrote a Camille Pisarro biographical novel, which I still must read.
Lust for Life, Irving Stone (Plume)
The Classic Biographical Novel of Vincent van Gogh.
Stone noted in the afterward that his main source was Van Gogh’s collection of letters to his brother, Theo. This book encouraged me to dig deeper with Van Gogh, read his letters, and many other books. Viewing his work in museums becomes even more fulfilling after absorbing the information in this well-researched book. It was made into a movie of the same name (1956), starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and directed by Vincente Minnelli.
The Letters of Vincent van Gogh Edited by Ronald de Leeuw (Penguin Books)
Translated by Arnold Pomerans
Van Gogh was a prolific letter-writer and it is fascinating to wade through his thoughts in this 509-page treasure. As mentioned above, Stone heavily depended on these writings for his brilliant biographical novel, Lust for Life.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Cynthia Saltzman (Penguin Books)
The story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss
A brilliant non-fiction work by Saltzman chronicling the provenance of Van Gogh’s portrait of the doctor who tried to help him before his untimely death at the age of 37. Cynthia Saltzman has degrees in art history from Harvard and UC Berkeley. She is also a Stanford M.B.A. and was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Enough said—great book.
The Yellow House, Martin Gayford (Little, Brown & Co.)
Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles
Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin couldn’t even last three months living together in the South of France, and Gayford’s well-researched book helps explain the volatile natures of these great artists. Nice photos, illustrations and even a diagram of the layout of the house they lived in.
Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan Vreeland (Viking)
Vreeland explores the creation of Renoir’s beloved painting in this historical novel. After I read the books on this list, I was always inspired to seek out the art. This particular piece is owned by The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland (Penguin Books)
Vreeland suggests that there is a 36th Vermeer in this historical novel. She wrote this book about seven years before Luncheon of the Boating Party. You may also remember her from her first novel, What Love Sees, which was a CBS Sunday Night Movie in 1996.
The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals, Michael Kernan (St. Martin’s Press)
This novel takes you from twentieth-century New York into the life of Frans Hals in seventeenth-century Holland. A well-researched look into the life of one of Rembrandt’s contemporaries.
DooDaaa, Ralph Steadman (Bloomsbury)
The Balletic Art of Gavin Twinge
Steadman calls this a triography of his artistic alter ego, Gavin Twinge. I was first exposed to Steadman through his design of wine labels, specifically his work for Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard. And you were wondering if I could ever work food, wine, or hotels into this list?
The Judgement of Paris, Ross King (Walker & Company)
The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
This excellent history book chronicles the tumultuous decade between two famous exhibitions: The scandalous Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the first Impressionist showing in 1874. I also learned much about French history above and beyond art.
The Unknown Masterpiece, Honoré de Balzac (New York Review Books)
Translated by Richard Howard
“This is the story of a painter who, depending on one’s perspective, is either an abject failure or a transcendental genius, or both.” This book also includes Gambara, a novella about a composer undone by his dreams. Balzac intended the two pieces to be presented together.
The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham (Vintage Books)
This biographical novel is loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin. It was made into a movie (1942) and opera (1958), both of the same name. Gauguin was an interesting character. This book helps fill in some of the gaps in his complicated life.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Richardson (University of Chicago Press)
Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper
This is Richardson’s memoir of his time spent living with Douglas Cooper, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger, among many others. Lots of moving parts here. I learned much about Picasso that does not appear in other books.
The Lost Painting, Jonathan Harr (Random House)
The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece
Historical novel about the search for Caravaggio’s long-lost painting, The Taking of Christ. Caravaggio was a mysterious, troubled man who produced masterpieces of shadow and light in the Baroque period.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier (Plume)
The tale of the creation of Vermeer’s famous painting, which subsequently became the motion picture of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson. Well-written, fun read.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, Harriet Scott Chessman (The Permanent Press)
A short, well-written and researched historical novel about the incredible Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting and underrated American artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Provenance, Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo (Penguin Books)
How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art
This book will blow your mind. This is the stunning true story of an elaborate, years-long, con that shocked the art world. Hundreds of pieces were forged and sold (during the 1980s and 90s) before the scam was uncovered. This is a huge page-turner.
Odd man Out, Carol Armstrong (The Getty Research Institute)
Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas
This is not light reading. Odd Man Out is a revision of Armstrong’s PhD dissertation at Princeton. This book is actually an analysis of the writings of Degas’s contemporary critics. I bought it because I am a big fan of Degas and wanted to learn more about what made him tick. Armstrong is NOT a Degas fan and proposes many contradictions in both his work and life. It is a well-written, scholarly effort and is not meant for poolside or beach reading.
Color, Victoria Finlay (Random House)
A Natural History of the Palette
This is a fascinating, extremely well-researched book about the history of colors, including their origins, and historical and economic importance. Finlay takes you around the world exploring, for example, the mines in Afghan that produced the ingredient for Michelangelo’s blue “ultramarine” paint, although he could not afford to buy it himself. You will also discover that, since ancient times, carmine red comes from the blood of insects. It is still used today in lipstick and Cherry Coke! Fun and important read, but not always a page-turner.
Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton & Company)
This treasure is “a funny series of non-fiction narratives, which reveal the inner workings of the institutions that contribute to an artist’s place in art history.” It is based on extensive ethnographic research. If you are not familiar with ethnography (I wasn’t), she explains it in the Author’s Note. This was a fascinating read for me. Thornton is a brilliant sociologist and art expert, with an engaging, casual writing style. Seven Days in the Art World is one of my top five favorites of this list. www.sarah-thornton.com
Artists’ Techniques and Materials, Antonella Fuga (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Translated by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia
This incredible book, with beautiful illustration, helps explain how works of art are made, with an exploration of methods, techniques and materials. It covers drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture, mosaic and intarsia, ceramic, glass, metalwork, jewelry, and contemporary techniques.
I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have. I’m looking forward to the next 26, and I mentioned a few of them above. I welcome your comments.