When I see books like “Rogue’s Gallery” (my current read) and “The Judgment of Paris” on a bestseller’s list, I get a little giddy (I have such an intellectual crush on Ross King). It’s refreshing to know that, 1. it’s possible to write art historical books that appeal to a non-academic audience and 2. that there is a hefty audience who finds the real-life intrigues of the art world as consuming as a Dan Brown novel.
Along with the ever popular art-heist thrillers (“The Lost Painting”) there have been some pretty interesting books of late that delve into the history of collecting, museums, and art market. I’ve always been fascinated with the public’s fervent love of art — from the riots surrounding the Paris Salons of the 19th century to the more recent protests surrounding a painting of the Virgin Mary covered in dung, it seems people have always had violent opinions about what should and shouldn’t be art. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Kammen has written on this subject in Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (a book that’s been on my shelf for a year, but has yet to be cracked).
Why is it that we’re as fascinated by the history of the Met as by the artwork housed within its walls? Museums are complex symbols of power. We associate them with both with high culture and the exceedingly wealthy, which means there must be some good dirt about their founders and their collections laying around. And it seems a number of researchers have dug up that dirt.
Michael Gross’ Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum reveals the Met’s more sordid and contentious beginnings. We owe Phillip de Montebello a lot for expanding the Met’s holdings to include some of the most stunning and influential pieces in Western art. But before the beloved de Montebello, the Met had some questionable directors who aquired some questionable artworks. In a similar vein, Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman revives the Gilded Age characters who voraciously consumed El Grecos and Rembrandts. Saltzman focuses on a few select artworks and a handful of influential collectors who effectively shaped America’s most important art holdings. Her history is as readable as it is well-researched.
There’s also Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft — all published within the last 2 or 3 years. “Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thorton attempts to unravel the complex relationships between contemporary buyers and contemporary artists. I read it over the summer as I was starting to get more directly involved in the art world outside of academia — so far I consider it an essential road map.
As someone who wants to make a career out of publishing readable histories of artworks and the periods that produced them, its a relief to know there will be more than 5 PhD candidates reading my books…