What should you do at Christmas? In Edvard Munch’s Christmas in the Brothel, the artist depicts himself sleeping off the effects of drink, but the Madame reads a book. What links Stalin and the artist Rosso Fiorentino? What was Gauguin hinting at when he painted a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost into a portrait of a friend? How did a chance meeting on Unter den Linden make the young owner of The Red Book famous? Was it true that no one ever saw Picasso with a book in his hand? And why were the Cumberland girls reading The Fashionable Lover in Romney’s commissioned portrait?
Thousands of fine paintings include books in their subject matter. This companionable survey first asks ‘what is a book?’; it explores the symbiotic relationship between the development of books and the emergence of our modern idea of the role of the artist; it parades and interprets the work of many of the greatest artists of the last five hundred years; and it explains how and why books became the single most ubiquitous feature of our cultural lives and, in large measure, of our everyday existence.
These paintings connect us with centuries of lived experience: religious systems, symbols of all kinds, education, changing patterns of transport, gender roles, social status, romance, the imagination of children, literary life, sex, friendship, civilized bathing, professional competence, scientific discovery, aids to rest, aids to reflection, danger… books tell us about ourselves, and have earned their place in life – and art – through the ages.