Art Books for Christmas: Give the Gift of Seeing

Not infrequently, I get questions about what books I can recommend for readers who are interested in learning more about art. With Christmas fast approaching, and the prospect of either finding a gift for someone else, or knowing that you’re going to receive a gift card from Aunt Hortensia that you’ll need to spend, I thought I’d put together a short list of some recommended titles that should work for a general audience, whether for those just starting to read about art or those knowing a decent amount about it already, and avoiding the often dry and academic texts that more in-depth study usually requires.

I hasten to add, I don’t receive any compensation from the authors or publishers of these works for the following endorsements. They’re simply books which I’ve found to be both enjoyable and informative. Hopefully your gift recipient – or you, yourself – will find the same to be the case.

National Gallery of Art, Washington – John Walker

This is a hefty, out-of-print volume that can still be found for sale online, which you’ll find on the bookshelf of many art aficionados both in the U.S. and abroad, and it’s worth the investment. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, with well over 1,000 works from the museum’s permanent collection, but it contains both long essays on individual objects, as well as shorter pieces looking at several pieces at once, and how they’re all related to one another. And because the NGA collection covers around 1,000 years of Western Art, you’ll not only be able to appreciate the variety contained in this great national collection assembled on behalf of the American people, but you’ll also have a single historical reference work that you can turn to again and again for future research and encouraging further reading. Although there are newer NGA guides with updated scholarship, they’re much shorter and less comprehensive than this one, so be sure to seek it out online or in your local used bookshop.


Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940 – Charlotte Vignon

Readers may recall that I reviewed this book for The Federalist over the summer, and in it, Dr. Charlotte Vignon surveys Duveen Brothers, the most powerful and influential art dealers in the world at the turn of the previous century. She focuses mainly on the family’s role in establishing the market for decorative arts, such as furniture, tapestries, and porcelain, rather than their prowess in areas such as painting, sculpture, and drawing. Published this year by the Frick Collection in New York, this well-illustrated hardback occasionally borders on being an academic work, thanks to copious notes and statistics, but for the reader interested in learning more about the the history of the art market, and how it affected American taste and collecting, it’s a very important addition to the library. It also demonstrates very well the perennial fact that, for all its glamour, there’s always been something just a bit shady lurking about in the trade in works of art and antiques.


Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists – Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was an Australian art critic whose style I always appreciated, even if I didn’t always agree with his assessments. Reading his thoughts on art is a bit like reading Dashiell Hammett ‘s musings on crime: insightful, sometimes jaundiced, but usually tempered by realism and frankness. He’s the sort of writer that you’d want to accompany to an exhibition opening, and then go get plastered with afterwards. For the reader who wants something that he can pick up and put down, or flip through at random, this collection of Hughes’ articles and essays is the perfect gift.


Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet – Royal Academy of Arts

Although I didn’t review it when I reviewed the show for The Federalist recently, the exhibition catalogue for The Met’s current show on French painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) is probably the best I’ve seen this year. Beautifully bound and sumptuously illustrated, with essays by members of the Royal Academy in London (who hosted the show before it traveled to New York), the hardback not only looks magnificent on a coffee table, but it fully incorporates the very graphic imagery that made Vallotton such an interesting and influential figure at the turn of the previous century. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Vallotton, if you or your recipient like the work of Gauguin, Hopper, or Klimt, you’ll probably love both the art and this book.


A Stroll with Mr. Gaudí – Pau Estrada

I bought this hardcover children’s book as a gift for my nephew on my last trip to Barcelona – no worries, it’s available in English – and I almost kept it for myself. This wonderfully illustrated volume takes the reader on a pleasant walk through early-20th century Barcelona with the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) as he goes about his daily routine. In it, we see Gaudí looking over the progress at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia and refining his ideas with his design team, stopping in or pausing in front of some of his other buildings, and meeting up for lunch with his friend and patron Count Eusebi Güell (1846-1918) to talk about all sorts of things that interested them both. Perhaps most charmingly, Senyor Gaudí begins and ends his daily comings and goings by greeting the friendly dragon-salamander who guards the fountain entrance to the Park Güell, where the architect’s home still stands today. Whether as a gift for yourself or for a small person in your life, this book will make the reader smile, and want to learn more – which to my mind, shows it to be a very good book indeed.


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