Published: December 12, 2000
Sister Wendy Beckett’s Story of Painting Measures Up
By Carol Sims
You will be hard pressed to find a more reader-friendly survey of art book than this for the money. Sister Wendy Beckett has expanded her original Story of Painting to nearly double the size of the first edition. There are 736 pages in the new version. But size alone would be insignificant if the book’s content didn’t measure up. It does.
Beginning with the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, circa 15,000 – 10,000 BC to the major trends of the Twentieth Century up to the 1980s, Beckett covers the ground with a sincere desire to educate and therefore make art more accessible to the reader.
Those with no past education in art history will learn much from this volume and gain a greater appreciation for all types of painting. It is chock full of information. (It draws on the efforts of several editors and art editors. Patricia Wright is credited as contributing consultant on the title page.)
The way the information is presented follows a successful DK formula. The publisher uses lots of sidebars with bold headings to impart nuggets of information in very digestible morsels. These frequently come with their own photo inserts. Large topics are broken into small topics and then into individual painters’ achievements. This approachability is very important, considering the enormous scope of the book.
The book is divided into nine segments: Painting Before Giotto, Gothic Painting, The Italian Renaissance, The Northern Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, The Age of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and The 20th Century. Within each chapter are more precise divisions, such as the Pre-Rahaelites in the chapter The Age of Impressionism, or Minimalism in the chapter on the 20th Century Painting. Each section gives a brief overview along with a helpful pictorial timeline.
She points out the man peeing on the wall in the Bruegel, gives us an up close view of the blinding of Sampson as well as beheadings and flayings. Her writing tone is masterfully neither blunt nor delicate. Important works are shown in their entirety and then portions of the paintings are isolated and discussed. Here is where Beckett excels. Her comments are insightful and at times very entertaining. Her religious perspective is perfectly apropos in deciphering Christian symbolism, whether it is obvious or subtle.
For the most part, the images are well-reproduced and very satisfying. Many of the details are enlarged over two-page spreads. Consequently we are given the full view and allowed to ”step closer” to admire brush work. Unfortunately, some of the details are blurred (p.350/351, 430/431 for example) and a few are suffering from bad digital reproduction (poor Rembrant has a case of bad digital skin on pages 372/ 373). Most of the images, however, and there are over 600, are clear and sharp and on target for color.
This book is an excellent value. Keep it handy.
The Story of Painting by Sister Wendy Beckett, DK Publishing, 95 Madison Avenue, New York City, 2000, Hardcover, $40.
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