Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lives of the The Great Artists by Charlie Ayres - review

Lives of the The Great Artists by Charlie Ayres
Brilliantly laid out, beautifully printed, brightly written, and augmented with activities, web resources, and fun facts, this book will hook young readers of every type.

Twenty European artists are profiled, arranged in chronological order. Each entry begins with a summary and a portrait, and then the reader is dropped into the artist's life. We accompany J.M.W. Turner as he sells a painting, and wait with Goya for the Spanish royal family, who are coming for a portrait sitting. Facts about each artist's life, technique, and importance are skillfully blended into these present-tense vignettes.

The narrative is written in the present tense, which gives it a fictionalized "feel," but the bulk of the events and feelings described are based on correspondence or other documentation (although such support is not cited in the book).

The works of art chosen to represent each artist are heavy on the drama and detail, resulting in high kid appeal and interesting captions. In some cases, sketches are included. The book's design merits special mention: each artist's entry has its own color palette, drawn from the works of art used as illustrations, and despite the multitude of sidebars, layout is clean and clear.

Back matter includes chronologies of the artists, locations of major collections of each artist's works, a glossary, and catalog entries for each work of art.

Unfortunately, this graceful, thoughtful book is badly marred by a garish cover that not only fails to represent the rich content within, but also fails to acknowledge the author's stated scope - European artists of the past seven hundred years. There is no such qualifying language on the cover, leading to the unpleasant - and offensive - impression that the book is declaring that the only important artists are European.

Antony Mason's A History of Western Art: From Prehistory to the Twentieth Century takes a more encyclopedic approach to this subject and would make a good companion volume.

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