What should you do at Christmas? In Edvard Munch’s Christmas in the Brothel, the artist depicts himself sleeping off the effects of drink while the Madame reads a book. Is it a girl or a boy who is denied control of the books in Renoir’s Portraits d’enfants? What was Gauguin hinting at when he painted Milton’s Paradise Lost into a portrait of a friend? And why were the Cumberland girls reading The Fashionable Lover in George Romney’s portrait of them?
Thousands of fine paintings include books in their subject matter. Beginning with the question, ‘What is a book?’, this companionable survey explores the symbiotic relationship between the development of books and the emergence of our modern sense of the importance of the individual 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 gender differences, religious systems, symbols, education, patterns of transport, social status, romance, the imagination of children, literary life, sex, friendship, civilized bathing, scientific discovery, aids to rest, aids to reflection, danger … Books tell us about ourselves – and they certainly do furnish a painting.