From Brunelleschi’s Dome to Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling to The Judgment of Paris, Ross King’s award-winning books have interwoven history, art history, and biography, telling great stories in each category. With Mad Enchantment (Bloomsbury, $30)—the title taken from a French critic extolling the buoyancy of Claude Monet’s work—King chronicles the final years of that artist’s life. By 1910 , Monet (1840-1926) was wealthy and well-known, but, like Impressionism itself, he was “in danger of becoming an anachronism,” too old fashioned for the rising avant-garde and too merely pretty to be relevant amid Europe’s rising tensions. King, however, complicates both the easy surface appeal of the Giverny images and the role of art in uncertain times. If the Great War tested France’s resources, Monet’s seemingly endless labor on his Grand Décoration—the monumental series of water-lily paintings—was no less taxing. Measured in yards and feet, the series eventually included nearly 300 canvases; while they caught the play of light and passing currents, the works also reflect Monet’s personal tribulations—deaths of family members and fellow painters, his “loss” of colors, distance, and vision itself due to cataracts—and those of his country as the Germans invaded and whole villages were bombed off the map. Sustaining heavy cultural damage as well as staggering numbers of casualties, France needed its artists, and Monet was supported through his dark periods by his longtime friend, George Clemenceau, France’s prime minister from 1917 to 1920, even as Clemenceau sought moral support for his country from one of its greatest painters.
Seemingly ahead of his time, J.M.W. Turner (1775 -1851) was in fact very much of his times—times that, like the painter, kept leaping ahead via feats of imagination and technology. In Turner (Penguin Press, $35), her exhaustive biography of the prodigious British artist, Franny Moyle, whose previous subjects include Constance Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelites, traces the evolution of art and its marketing in the Georgian and Victorian eras from the traditional patronage system to the rise of auctions, galleries, and the independent artist. Turner was very much a model of the latter; proficient in drawings, watercolors, engravings, and oils, he had something to please everyone. His ambition matched his talent, and he was fiercely competitive, lobbying to be admitted to the Royal Academy when he was barely twenty (he was elected at age twenty-six) and identifying the strong points in rivals—then beating them at their own game. While Turner richly fulfilled the British appetite for scenes affirming the country’s “sense of power, solidity, continuity, and heritage,” he depicted Waterloo not as a national triumph, but as the epic slaughter of 40,000 killed in nine hours. Later, though demand for his realistic landscapes—product of an “encyclopedic” vision and compulsive sketching—remained high, Turner redirected his energies from the accurate depiction of a subject to the artist’s response to what he painted. He applied watercolor techniques to oils, exploring new ideas of truth in art. Critics weren’t ready, finding these works too vague, too bright, and too unfinished. But Turner, defended by the young John Ruskin, pressed on.
A.S. Byatt hadn’t heard of Mariano Fortuny until she went to Venice, but once she experienced his home (now a museum), his dresses, and his designs, she found herself thinking about—William Morris. Yet back home in England, on Morris territory, she was haunted by Fortuny. From this strange crossing of artistic wires, Byatt has produced Peacock & Vine (Knopf, $26.95), a sumptuous objet d’art of a book. At once an investigation of how and why these particular creators so captivated her, a celebration of their achievements, and a tribute to design itself, the essay traces “the coming together of life, work and art” of both men. As distinct as they were similar, both Morris (1834-1896) and Fortuny (1871-1949) were passionate about myths and nature; both worked with a range of materials including dyes and textiles. But where Fortuny revered Wagner, Morris found him “’anti-artistic,’” and where Morris drew on birds and plants for their structure, Fortuny was especially sensitive to their symbolism. As Byatt lovingly describes theses lives, works, and arts, she reaffirms Morris’s faith in “beauty, imagination and order” as the touchstones of all good things.