You don’t need to know anything about the artist’s life and his times, or understand his technique and motivations to be able to appreciate his work. There’s a quote by Monet, the quintessential Impressionist painter, that addresses this issue:
“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
However, many people will agree that learning about the artist’s background is a great source of pleasure. Besides, it helps you identify their obsessions with certain themes, observe details of paintings you had not noticed before, understand what he’s trying to accomplish with a determined piece of artwork, and, therefore, enhance your whole experience as a viewer. Reading biographies is a great way of gaining this knowledge.
I would recommend the following ones, as they’re all carefully researched and written books, bringing to life the individual characteristics of the artist and the historic moments they lived in
1. Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
A careful and very detailed account of Van Gogh’s life, this biography starts at the painter’s childhood, when he lived at his father’s parsonage, and takes us all the way to his alleged suicide. The work borrows heavily on the steady correspondence between Vincent and his bother Theo, giving us a comprehensive and in-depth view of the tormented life of this brilliant artist.
2. Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, by Philip C. Beam
A succinct account of the rather uneventful life of Winslow Homer, considered the best American artist of the XIX century. Although Homer’s life was nothing like Caravaggio’s or Van Gogh’s in terms of thrilling adventures, it’s great to understand the rationale behind his technique and to find out where he painted his best works. Geography is the key to unlock insights into Winslow Homer’s works of art.
3. Winslow Homer: a short illustrated biography for kids, by Jonathan Madden
A simplified account of the life of this great American Writer meant for teenagers, it brings a great number of images of Homer’s greatest artworks in full color. An interesting way to introduce the artist to young readers.
4. Matisse and Picasso: the story of the rivalry and friendship, by Jack Flan
Matisse and Picasso were close friends and fierce rivals. This book draws clever parallels between the lives and works of these great modernist artists. It shows how the art of each one of them was in constant conversation with the other’s, borrowing themes and techniques, but always adapting the acquired influence to each artist’s own style and moving it one step forward. This rivalry became a very enriching cooperation, making us believe that it was essential to the artistic development of both painters.
5. Jackson Pollock: An American saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Written by the same authors of Van Gogh: The Life, this carefully researched work won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. Based on family letters and documents, as well as on interviews with the artist’s widow and his psychologists, it focuses on the controversial aspects of the troubled life and revolutionary art of this extraordinary American Abstract Expressionist painter.
6. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb
In this masterful biography, Peter Robb delves into the dark and violent spirit of the end of the XVI century to explain the forces that shaped and influenced the life and art of the brilliant and controversial artist. The Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the scientific discoveries, the vibrant and competitive artistic atmosphere of Rome – the city considered the center of the world at the time – are all factors that converged to create the man and his oeuvre.
7. American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, by Deborah Soloman
Art critic and biographer Deborah Soloman explores the art and complex personality of the man who helped forge the idealistic American identity of the first half of the XX century, working for almost 50 years as the main illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post. A big town boy who loved the countryside, Rockwell could be very cold and insensitive towards his models and was subject to frequent bouts of depression. He was treated by the famous psychotherapist Erick Erikson. This biography explains how the compulsive work of Rockwell helped keep him mentally healthy, explaining the way his obsessions found their way into his art.
8. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, by Vincent van Gogh (Penguin Classics)
If you don’t wish a mediator to lead you through this great artist’s harrowing life, delve straight into the primary sources of all other biographies and read his letters to Theo, his closest brother and confidant. They kept a steady correspondence throughout their lives, so this is the most direct way to get to know the events he went through, his thoughts and innermost feelings. Vincent had a hard time finding his artistic path in life; he thought he wanted to follow in his father s footsteps and become a preacher, but he failed at that; he didn’t make a good teacher or art dealer either. But when he discovered his true vocation, he gave himself entirely to his art, and suffered the consequences of such radical surrender. Through the letters, we also get to know about his religious struggles, his admiration for the French Revolution and his love life
9. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind, by Charles Nicholl
In this brilliant yet dense autobiography, Nicholl focuses on the man behind the myth, by offering an in-depth analysis of Da Vince’s notebooks. The author doesn’t dwell on Leonardo’s works, and the comments on his oeuvre are only superficial. The book covers the whole life of the Renaissance genius, from 1452, when he was born, the illegitimate child of peasant girl, in the countryside of Tuscany near Florence, to his death, when he acknowledged with sadness that there was so much more to learn and do. Da Vince was a visual thinker who translated his thoughts into drawings – a designer, with both artistic and engineering skills. He didn’t believe that words could represent nature as precisely as sketches, blueprints, drawings and paintings. Yet, Nicholl’s biography tries to penetrate Leonardo’s mind and show it to us – not through images but in glowing words.
10. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, by Roxana Robinson
This iconic artist’s biography discusses the events of her controversial life, fiery personality, as well as the people close to her and her relationships. It goes beyond that to also offer the reader a detailed and insightful critique of her modernist work. The author had the cooperation of members of her family to write the book. Considered a heroine by the feminist movement of the 70s, O’Keefe had been profoundly influenced by the feminist suffrage movement before World War I, becoming one of the first American women to succeed professionally as an artist.