Wednesday, October 15, 2008

MUST READ: The world's most influential painters

Have you ever felt that you needed to learn more about the history of art and painting but didn't know quite where to start? If you have then I very much doubt if you're alone. One of the problems with the history of art is it's just so BIG!

The world's most influential painters
...and the artists they inspired
by David Gariff
NGA/Herbert Press

However help is at hand. I've been trying to learn more about the history of art for some time now but have always felt that I didn't have a handle on the 'bigger picture' as it were. I wanted to know a bit more about how it all fits together so I could see where to focus. I'm finding I'm piecing it together as I go but it's a real journey of discovery.

However recently I came across a book which is extremely helpful to anybody else who is on a similar journey. The best analogy I can use to describe this book is that it's a sort of Rock Family Trees for painters.

David Gariff, who is an art historian and lecturer in the Education Division of the National Gallery of Art in Washington has written The World's Most Influential Painters...and the Artists They Inspired.
The history of art is not compartmentalised as we are sometimes led to believe. It is my hope that the book will, in a small way, demonstrate the constantly evolving nature of art and creativity.
David Gariff
The way the book works is as follows:
  • he has started by selecting 50 of the world's most influential painters from western art.
  • each chapter is then about a major artistic movement in chronological order
  • each chapter includes a small group of these 50 painters. I'm not saying everybody would agree with his choice - but I can see scope for many more books after this which actually focus on each of the art movements of different eras and which could include all the artists missed out of this one. This book certainly focuses very much on the history of western art - basically Europe and North America - although it also highlights how art from other countries influenced western art.
  • By way of example he includes:
    • Renaissance: van Eyck, Michelangelo, Raphael + 9 others
    • Baroque: Caravaggio, Velasquez, Rembrandt + 4 others
    • Rococo to Neoclassism: Chardin, Ingres + 2 others
    • Romanticism to Realism: Constable, Turner, Homer + 5 others
    • Impressionism and post-Impressionism: Degas, Monet, Degas, van Gogh
    • Modernism: Matisse Picasso, O'Keeffe + 6 others
    • Contemporary art: Pollock, Rothko, Johns and + 3 others
  • each chapter then provides context for the development of art of that movement. This includes a chronological timeline which outlines what's happening in terms of key cultural, scientific and technological events. Plus it also has an essay which discusses the period and art movement as context for the artists which follow - both in terms of that specific art movement and others which follow.
  • there is then a double page spread for each artist. The same structure is used throughout and it takes a bit of getting used to but once you know how it works it makes accessing facts very easy indeed. Very significant artists get an extra double page spread of images and text which expands on the initial analysis.
  • each double page spread starts with a short and accessible summary. It then has the following as horizontal bands crossing the spread:
    • Influences: a summary of artists (with dates) and events that influenced this artist. Each has a short summary
    • Timeline: a timeline of dates and significant events in the author's life
    • Legacy: a summary of the artist's legacy - in terms of the artist (with dates) that he or she influenced, with a short summary of the rationale for the influence.
    • Article: there is a short article which discusses the featured painter's life, work and place in the history of western art.
    • Images: the spread also usually includes 3-4 images of the painter's work and the work of those he or she influenced. Thus the spread for JMW Turner includes work by both Whistler and Rothko. Some of the works are subjected to in-depth analysis.
I have to tell you this structure makes the information enormously accessible. If this book is opened at the middle or at your favourite artist, you find yourself zipping about the book really fast researching the influences and looking at those he influenced. I defy anybody to read this book from beginning to end in the conventional way.

My only caveat about the zipping about process is whether it means that you do end up missing out some of the sections relating to specific artists. I suspect though that this is a book which is more likely to be read over time and as people want to know more about different aspects of art which interest them.

For those artists where I do know a fair bit already, I found that every one of the influences and legacy checked out with what I knew from other sources. Which is hardly surprising given the background of the author.

I found the book to be enormously accessible - bite-size chunks of art structured in such a way that you get an insight into the 'big picture' but can also learn a lot very quickly and very easily about different aspects of the artist's place in the history of art. That's not to say it provides all you need or want to know about an art movement or an artist. Rather it provides you with a way of appreciating that artist in terms of connections, inheritance and legacies - and a way of reading more widely with purposeful intent. It works at a macro level (the art movement) and also at the micro level (the individual artist)

For me, starting to read this book enabled me to see much more clearly how western art grew and developed and how it all fitted together in terms of both art movements and artists. For me it's a recommended MUST READ.

If you're interested in the history of art you might also want to take a look at my information site Art History & the History of Art - Resources for Art Lovers - where I keep all my links to the best history of art websites, museums and art galleries on the internet.



  1. Katherine, I can't tell you how many times I've thought about learning more art history. But the topic is so overwhelming I normally give up before I start. This book looks like a great place to start. I think I'll ask for it for Christmas. As always, thanks for sharing great information with the art masses.

  2. Followed your advice more than once and have a feeling I will be doing it again...! Just finished researching into Ilya Repin and find I want to know so much more about the history of it all...
    Many thanks, once again, for pointing us in the right direction:)

  3. Thank you.
    Got to check this book out at Foyles. From your through review I feel like I already read it ;) But the devil of the all the art books is in the pictures. It really matters which ones got picked up to illustrate the point. Good to have the local (Londoner) authoring it for a closer reference as well.

  4. It happens this way through first you see…. Very interesting your blog… Greetings…

  5. Did any female artists make it into this book?

  6. Why be anonymous?

    The answer is Yes.

  7. Great posting as always.

    I've' wanted to learn more about art history. My teacher frequently mentions artists I've never heard about (tiepleo for example) that I google when I get home. This book sounds very comprehensive and non-intimidating.

    Thanks for the information Katherine.



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