Book review – art history

Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet by William Blake, c.1805

A feast for foot fetishists

18 August 2018 9:00 am

It is always interesting to see what art historians get up to when none of the rest of us is…

John Hoyland, 7.11.66, 1966

The London painters that conquered the world

5 May 2018 9:00 am

This is an important, authoritative work of art criticism that recognises schools of painters, yet displays the superior distinctions of…

Pathos and humanity in pictures of abject misery

21 April 2018 9:00 am

In 1971 the late Linda Nochlin burst onto the public scene with her groundbreaking essay, ‘Why Have There Been No…

With Leonardo, improbable speculations are never-ending, The Da Vinci Code enthusiasts see the figure of St John (on the right in this detail of ‘The Last Supper’) as Mary Magdalene, hiding in plain sight

The codes and codswallop surrounding Leonardo da Vinci

14 April 2018 9:00 am

‘If you look at walls soiled with a variety of stains or at stones with variegated patterns,’ Leonardo da Vinci…

Who could underestimate the experience of witnessing ‘Inside Australia’ at dawn or dusk?

The subtle magic of Antony Gormley wraps the world

27 January 2018 9:00 am

Martin Caiger-Smith’s huge monograph on Antony Gormley slides out of its slipcase appropriately enough like a block of cast iron.…

Red panel (1936) by Alexander Caldwell

High wire act

11 November 2017 9:00 am

‘Mid-century modern’ is the useful term popularised by Cara Greenberg’s 1984 book of that title. The United States, the civilisation…

‘Street in Auvers-sur-Oise’ by Vincent van Gogh

Why we love unfinished art

30 April 2016 9:00 am

An unfinished painting can provide a startling glimpse of the artist at work. But the common tendency to prefer it to a finished work is being taken to extremes, says Philip Hensher

From Grayson Perry’s Sketchbooks

Self-portrait as Margaret Thatcher in a pink power-suit — by Grayson Perry

16 April 2016 9:00 am

Well, he’s back. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d never been away. Fresh from delivering the Reith lectures, exhibitions…

Self-portrait at the spinet by Lavinia Fontana, 1578 and ‘Birthday’ by Dorothea Tanning, 1942

Sexy selfies through the ages

26 March 2016 9:00 am

At nearly eight foot high and five foot wide, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s portrait of herself with two of her students is…

‘Street musicians’; and (right) portrait of Neville Lyttelton by Randolph Schwabe

Meet Paul Nash's great enemy at the Slade

27 February 2016 9:00 am

Randolph Schwabe (b. 1885) was a measured man in art and in life. His drawings are meticulous, closely observed models…

Velázquez’s portrait of his Moorish assistant Juan de Pareja. The glorious lace collar would surely have fallen foul of Spain’s sumptuary laws

Velázquez’s vanishing act

2 January 2016 9:00 am

This is an extraordinary story. In 1845 John Snare, an unremarkable Reading bookseller, goes to an auction in a defunct…

‘Capel-y-ffin’, 1926–7 (watercolour and gouache)

David Jones: painter, poet and mystic

26 September 2015 8:00 am

David Jones (1895–1974) was a remarkable figure: artist and poet, he was a great original in both disciplines. His was…

Rory McEwen: man of many talents — and among the greatest of all flower painters

25 July 2015 9:00 am

It seems odd that a singer, musician, television performer and sculptor who typified the 1960s as vividly as Rory McEwen…

Leonardo da Vinci: ‘La Belle Ferronière’ 1495–1499 (Musée de Louvre, Paris) and (left) Follower of Leonardo da Vinci: ‘La Belle Ferronière’ c. before 1750 (Private Collection)

Museum curators and art forgers are two of a kind: they’re both vain and self-deluded

16 May 2015 9:00 am

Louis the Decorator and his chums in the antiques trade use the word ‘airport’ adjectivally and disparagingly. It signifies industrially…

Superstar curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist tour the world making items desirable through their selection alone, while paranoically insisting that what they do is ‘work’. Study for Tate Modern Sign (Bill Burns, 2012)

Spoilt for choice: we are all curators now

18 April 2015 9:00 am

As words commonly used to write about the visual arts become increasingly useful to advertisers, ‘to curate’ is becoming the…

‘Orange, Red, Yellow’, 1956, by Mark Rothko

A strain of mysticism is discernible in the floating colour fields of Mark Rothko’s glowing canvases

7 March 2015 9:00 am

Philip Hensher on the perverse, tormented Mark Rothko, whose anger and depression — often painfully apparent in his art — only increased with his success

The Sixtus V cabinet: the supreme example of the art of pietra dura

Cabinet of curiosity: we do not even know for sure the maker of the Sixtus Cabinet at Stourhead

7 February 2015 9:00 am

Italian cabinets and tables decorated with inlaid semi-precious stones known as ‘pietre dure’ were a ‘must-have’ for English milords returning…

Yoko Ono performing ‘Cut Piece’, where her outfit is cut down to her underwear by predatory snipping scissors

From classical to post-modern: a beginner’s guide

7 February 2015 9:00 am

My career at school and after was greatly enhanced by a series of books called The Bluffer’s Guide to….These gave…

Filippino Lippi’s fresco of St Peter being freed from prison by an angel

The hidden history of one of the greatest treasures of the early Renaissance: Florence’s Brancacci chapel

10 January 2015 9:00 am

In 1439 Abraham of Souzdal, a Russian bishop visiting Florence, was in the audience in Santa Maria del Carmine for…

The Marble Hall at Petworth House

Marble-mania: when England became a spiritual heir to the ancients

8 November 2014 9:00 am

Phrases such as ‘Some aspects of…’ are death at the box-office, so it is not exactly unknown for the titles…

‘La Guingette à Montmartre’ by Van Gogh (1886)

Exactly how much fun was it being an impoverished artist in Paris?

30 August 2014 9:00 am

What he really wanted, Picasso once remarked, was to live ‘like a pauper, but with plenty of money’. It sounds…

‘While some observers were impressed, others felt the depiction of a doddery Churchill propped up on a walking stick unbecoming’

The lost Victorian who sculpted Churchill

16 August 2014 9:00 am

Ivor Roberts-Jones was in many ways the right artist at the wrong time. Had the sculptor been born a few…

‘Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Reynolds produced some of the finest portraits of the 18th century – and a few of the silliest

9 August 2014 9:00 am

On Monday 21 April 1760 Joshua Reynolds had a busy day. Through the morning and the afternoon he had a…

Portrait of John Piper by Peggy Angus

Potato prints, paintings and the Soviet Union: the real Miss Jean Brodie

2 August 2014 9:00 am

During the second world war, when not only food, but paper and artists’ materials were scarce, Peggy Angus made a…

Who’s in, who’s out: George Bernard O’Neill’s ‘Public Opinion’ depicts a private view of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy

The age of the starving artist

26 July 2014 9:00 am

Philip Hensher on the precarious fortunes of even the most gifted 19th-century artists