Simon Schama, one of the most highly regarded living historians, presents the backstories of eight fascinating artists and deconstructs their most interesting works in The Power of Art. The book is a companion to the BBC series Simon Schama's Power of Art, and wehre the TV series perhaps provides a broader visual presentation of the art and the lives of these renegades, the book allows the reader to absorb more of Schama's find writing style and analysis.
In chronological order, Schama provides the highlights from each artist's life and analyzes a few of their masterpieces. Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko. No genteel milksops here. Caravaggio was a convicted murderer who painted the beheadings of John the Baptist, Medusa and Goliath; Bernini sculpted a bust of this lover (and assistant's wife) as if in heated argument, not soft adoration; Rembrandt, "Amsterdam's equivalent of an eBay addict," painted exactly what his patrons wanted, and then a bit more; David, who divorced his wife in order to fully commit himself to the French revolution, mapipulated the circumstances of the murder of the revolution's greatest martyr for his painting of the act; Turner, who Queen Victoria declared "mad," struck at the Empire's lifeblood- the slave trade; Van Gogh, bipolar and epileptic, saw his works displayed with Cezanne and Renoir before plunging into hellish despair for the last time; Picasso handed out postcard prints of his Guernica to the Gestapo and moralized at everyone from the laps of his mistresses; Rothko ("that guy Turner must have learned a lot from me") drank and smoked and grumped himself out of every human relationship he had. Schama gives all the gossipy tales, then drowns the reader in the beauty of the works these men created.
The book, as noted above, is a companion to the BBC series, which KCLS owns on DVD. Each episode of the series focuses on one of the artists. These should not be missed. I might suggest reading the book first, then watching the television series, which will allow the viewer of the DVDs to concentrate on the visual aspects of the information without simultaneously trying to catch all the textual details. Schama himself hosts the series, and is a perfectly pleasant guide through the history of the artists and the "geography" of the paintings and sculptures. His enthusiasm for the art and artists and his ability to place them in the historical context illuminates the works with great impact. The Rothko works especially, which at first glance are solid bands of color, deserve this context for full appreciation. As with the best cultural history, the reader/viewer acquires a broad knowledge of the historical periods in which the artists lived coupled with the technical knowledge necessary to admire the beauty of the art.