cover image The Power of Art

The Power of Art

Simon Schama. Ecco, $55 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-06-117610-4

Schama presents eight remarkable artists who created their masterworks against a backdrop of personal and professional distress. From politically charged commentaries (David, Picasso, Turner and Rembrandt) to intensely personal visions of the world (van Gogh and Rothko) and the reinvention of the divine (Bernini and Caravaggio), Schama takes these masters' hallowed works off the museum wall and drags them through in the mud and muck that went into their creation: Bernini's savage attack on his mistress with a razor, Caravaggio's rapacious gutter lifestyle, Turner's hands-on (and more) approach to painting, David's willingness to follow his political allegiances no matter the cost. Schama's approach succeeds admirably in breaking away from conventional art history; throughout, he comes across like a cool British uncle talking about art late into the night. He renders these canonical works and their creators immediate and hip, conveying what it might have been like to be shocked by their audacity and sheer newness. This book should be of great value in a classroom, making an enormously appealing introduction for students encountering these artists for the first time. Though professional art historians will not find much new here in the way of research and analysis, anyone even remotely interested in art will find much to enjoy.