Good Reading in Art History

I don’t often read fictional author Christopher Moore, but he has a new book called Sacré Bleu which is a comedy featuring Impressionist painters and a rather mystical story of how ultramarine blue came to be made and used, and two immortals coercing painters through the ages to use the colour. I liked the background story but was not keen on the magical aspects of the novel which get kind of silly. Still, it was a good tale and Moore has some interesting books in the bibliography which got me exploring further.

Two of the books Moore mentions are ones I read years ago. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is my favourite and has a lot of science in it, which I enjoyed. This is the comprehensive book on the subject.

Colour: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay is a much lighter read, not all together satisfying, but I reread it after seeing it cited in Moore’s bibliography.

Moore recommends some short stories and novels by Susan Vreeland who has made a career writing fictional accounts of famous artists. I found her writing too light for my taste, bordering on hokey, although I was interested in reading her short story Mimi with a Watering Can since I have a print of the relevant painting, Girl with a Watering Can by Renoir, on my living room wall, a gift from the estate of my brother-in-law’s parents. In particular, the story Olympia’s Look was cited by Moore but I found it too artificial to read. I would rather read non-fiction biographies of painters than this kind of affected fictional emulation of their lives.

The other book Christopher Moore recommends is Sue Roe’s absolutely wonderful The Private Lives of the Impressionists. This book is full of information on the relationships of the early Impressionists, how they started out and banded together and details about their lives that I was not aware of. Discussion of specific paintings and exhibitions gave good insight into the period.

After all this excitement I was charged up about having a look at some art history books that my library had. With trepidation, I took out the Norman Mailer book on the early life of Picasso. Mailer only goes up to about 1916, just when Picasso started to change and become rather mean and misogynistic, one of the reasons I’ve avoided reading about him. Norman Mailer discusses the subject with vigour and the pictures in the book are with the text describing them, or the text is referenced in the picture’s caption. That was very refreshing, as was Mailer’s innate humour. He interjects some passages from people’s letters and a long excerpt from the biography of Picasso’s first mistress, Fernande Olivier, which gave a flavour of the period and insight into the relationships and social life of the artists. I found it an excellent book and very well-written and researched.

The last book is a real gem. Forbidden Fruit: A History of Women and Books in Art by Christiane Inmann. There are lengthy essays at the beginnings of each chapter, referencing the images that follow, and then each image has a one page write-up giving more information on the painter and subject or models. While I knew about the general lower literacy rates in centuries past, I don’t think I realized the extent to which women were deliberately shut out of being educated until the laws really started to change in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, the Protestant Reformation started the trickle of literacy for women because it was felt women should be able to read the bible and direct such use in the home. The American Revolution and subsequent society made it more and more acceptable for women to read and contribute their intellect.

Several things came about because of my reading on the subject: I discovered I do not like the work of Cezanne or Picasso, and I will finally be able to differentiate between Manet and Monet. I also discovered things about Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, two artists I knew little about, and I was able to fit Mary Cassatt in with the Impressionist group, whereas before I could not quite see how she got involved.

Ah, the satisfaction of a good overview.


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