10 Must-Read Biographies of Famous Artists

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.


Au revoir

Jorge Sette.




Carnaval, Baco e Aprendizagem de línguas

Os que acompanham meus posts neste blog, meus amigos de Facebook e seguidores de Twitter já devem ter notado que tenho uma certa queda por pinturas, esculturas e design de forma geral. Fui também professor de línguas e teacher trainer por muitos anos. Portanto, nada mais natural do que conjugar paixões e habilidades num veículo educativo impactante e prazeroso. Bem, essas são minhas razões e motivos pessoais para combinar arte e ensino de línguas em instrumentos e objetos didáticos específicos: tenho no momento três ebooks publicados na AMAZON sobre o tema com atividades suplementares para professores de inglês envolvendo obras de Matisse, Picasso e Caravaggio.

Havendo exposto meu prazer na produção desses instrumentos, como acho que isso possa ser relevante para alunos e professores? A citação abaixo pode começar a ajudar a explicar meus objetivos:


Georgia O’Keeffe

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ou seja, as artes visuais são uma complementação da expressão verbal. Se não consigo comunicar pela fala ou escrita, mostro. E assim, meu trabalho como professor  de línguas, e, num âmbito maior, como educador,  se completa. E a aprendizagem do aluno de línguas se enriquece com algo que está fora do universo linguístico, mas que se integra a ele, acrescentando-lhe novas dimensões.

Entre as possibilidades de expressar o não verbal, está a capacidade da Arte de inspirar emoções, através de luzes, cores e formas.  É capaz de traduzir a beleza de uma forma diferente da língua.

Outro aspecto interessante é que, usando arte, estamos acrescentando conteúdo ao ensino de língua. Faço parte da corrente dos que acreditam plenamente no poder de CLIL  (“content and language integrated learning”) para a eficácia da aprendizagem. Ou seja, exceto no caso da poesia e da literatura, a língua não é um fim em si mesma, mas um canal para veicularmos toda sorte de assuntos, tópicos, e conteúdos de forma geral. O aluno de inglês em geral quer a língua como ferramenta para uso em sua área específica de atuação profissional ou acadêmica. Poucos se tornarão escritores ou poetas. Portanto, o uso da arte visual pode nos ajudar de forma criativa a discutir assuntos como mitologia, história, profissões, geografia, política, violência, religião, ou qualquer outro tópico do interesse do seu público. Tudo isso com um poderoso invólucro de emoção, força expressiva e beleza. A arte visual é interdisciplinar por sua própria natureza. Tudo que você precisa fazer é escolher o artista mais adequado para um certo tema.

Para concluir, gostaria apenas de contar uma experiência pessoal, que é bem pertinente neste sábado momesco em que escrevo este texto.  Era aluno de Letras na Universidade Católica de Recife na época, e tinha uma dedicada professora de Literatura Portuguesa. Não preciso dizer que suas bem preparadas aulas não eram as mais populares entre os alunos,  que mal podiam esperar  pelo toque da campainha indicando o final da sessão e o ínicio dos prazeres da sexta-feira à noite (que se resumiam  para quase todos a cerveja barata e serenata pelas ladeiras de Olinda). Um dia, porém, a professora entrou na sala portando um projetor de slides (nada de “data show” naqueles tempos medievais), e, para contextualizar o período barroco da literatura, que estudávamos, decidiu inovar, deixando os áridos textos e enfocando a pintura da época. Assim,  nos apresentou Velázquez, explicando em detalhes o que deveríamos observar nas pinturas. Os alunos se quedaram em choque. A aula se prolongou por muito além dos 50 min de praxe. Todos ignoraram o toque da campainha, e permacerem imóveis, extáticos e atentos, enquanto Irene discorria elegantemente sobre Baco cercado por bêbados de dentes estragados pelo vinho. É a única aula dela de que consigo me lembrar.


The Triumph of Bacchus (Los Borrachos, The Topers), 1628-1629. Velázques. Diego. (Clique na imagem para vê-la ampliada)

Bom carnaval!

NOTE: If you are into art, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART:

Click on the links below to go to AMAZON.COM and buy your ebooks:

1. Teaching English with Art: Matisse  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1kP

 (30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Henri Matisse)

2. Teaching English with Art: Picasso  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lA

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Pablo Picasso)

3. Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1mL

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Caravaggio)



Jorge Sette