Imagine your ideal museum. Would it be Modern? Impressionists only? All sculpture, no sculpture? Whatever you desire, you will find it in The Art Museum (Phaidon, $200). Edited by Frederick Asher, this book is a truly breathtaking virtual museum with 992 pages containing 2,700 works of art. You can start at the beginning, dip into your favorite time period, or simply open to any page and be wowed. The museum is divided into color-coded galleries, rooms, corridors, and special exhibitions, which house painting, sculpture, works on paper, textiles, and more, all collected to tell the history of art. Clear, intelligent descriptions and notations make this book an essential piece in any art lover’s collection.
From childhood on, Vincent van Gogh was repeatedly described as “strange.” Though he learned to draw early—instructed by his mother, as were his five siblings—he wasn’t a prodigy in anything but loneliness and alienation. In their thorough, moving Van Gogh: The Life (Random House, $40), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pollock biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith present afresh the tormented history of one of modern art’s most distinctive and beloved painters. But during his life van Gogh was estranged from his family (including, for long stretches, his famous correspondent, brother Theo); failed at school; at his uncle’s art shops in The Hague, Paris, and London; at teaching and preaching, and, seemingly, at life itself. He came to art only in his late twenties, devoting the last decade of his life to it. Everything he’d attempted before that informed his work, however, and the authors skillfully reveal the deep roots of such quintessential van Gogh images as the sower, the starry night, and the solitary walker.
If for no other reason than that it was written in part by Edmund de Waal, author of the amazing family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Pot Book (Phaidon, $49.95), co-written with Claudia Clare, would be worth a look. But pottery is amazing in its own right, and the editors, both master ceramicists and writers on the medium, have expertly and beautifully compiled this encyclopedic look at what clay can do. The color photographs take center stage, with concise, informative commentary describing each work’s style, period, purpose, and artist. The survey time-travels the globe, from Egypt in 1479 B.C. to contemporary artists in Japan and Europe; de Waal and Clare, who also has a background in feminism and human rights, consider social and political contexts in addition to aesthetics.