The best books about visual culture

Ludmilla Jordanova Author Of The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice
By Ludmilla Jordanova

Who am I?

I’m a historian and writer who strives to combine the history of science and medicine, the study of visual culture, and cultural history in my work. Although I hated being dragged round art galleries and museums as a child, something must have stuck, laying the foundations for my interest in using images and artefacts to understand both the past and the present. Since the early 1990s I’ve been writing about portraits, how they work, and why they are important—I remain gripped by the compelling ways they speak to identity.  It was a privilege to serve as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in London between 2001 and 2009.


I wrote...

The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice

By Ludmilla Jordanova,

Book cover of The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice

What is my book about?

How can we use visual and material culture to shed light on the past? Ludmilla Jordanova offers a fascinating and thoughtful introduction to the role of images, objects, and buildings in the study of past times. Through a combination of thematic chapters and essays on specific artefacts she shows how to analyse the agency and visual intelligence of artists, makers, and craftsmen and make sense of changes in visual experience over time. Generously illustrated and drawing on numerous examples of images and objects, this is an essential guide to the skills that students need in order to describe, analyse and contextualise visual evidence. The Look of the Past will encourage readers to think afresh about how they, like people in the past, see and interpret the world around them.

The books I picked & why

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Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style

By Michael Baxandall,

Book cover of Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style

Why this book?

This book is simply brilliant. I first read it in the 1980s and return to it often for inspiration and to remind myself of its piercing lucidity. Beautifully written, clear, thoughtful, and direct, it expresses a way of looking at art and visual culture that can be applied to other times and places. Baxandall explores the social relationships and practices out of which works of art emerge, connecting the way paintings look with the society in which they were made. He robustly criticises simplistic approaches to the art of the past and shows how we can think differently and understand more. I have deep admiration for Michael Baxandall, whose writings encourage readers to reflect on their own visual skills and habits, how and where they have acquired them.

Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style

By Michael Baxandall,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is both an introduction to fifteenth-century Italian painting, and a primer in how to read social history out of the style of pictures. It examines the commercial practice of the early Renaissance picture, trade in contracts, letters, and accounts; and it explains how the visual skills and habits evolved in the daily life of any society enter into its painters' style. Renaissance painting is related for instance to experience of such activities as
preaching, dancing, and gauging barrels.

This second edition contains an appendix, the original Latin and Italian texts referred to throughout the book, giving the student…


A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

By John Berger, Jean Mohr (photographer),

Book cover of A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

Why this book?

A Fortunate Man is deeply moving by virtue of combining words and images to evoke the life of a General Practitioner in rural England, a man prone to depression, who took his own life 15 years later. The black and white photographs of the doctor, his patients, and the landscape in which they lived, perfectly match the poetic prose to capture the day-to-day existence of a man totally committed to his patients and their well-being. It’s an outstanding example of the power of photography when complemented by text to convey the complexities of lives, communities, and healing. The doctor truly dwelt among the people he treated and knew about every aspect of their lives. This book bears eloquent witness to a form of medical practice that has largely disappeared.

A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

By John Berger, Jean Mohr (photographer),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Fortunate Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1966 John Berger spent three months in the Forest of Dean shadowing an English country GP, John Sassall.

Sassall is a fortunate man - his work occupies and fulfils him, he lives amongst the patients he treats, the line between his life and his work is happily blurred.

In A Fortunate Man, Berger's text and the photography of Jean Mohr reveal with extraordinary intensity the life of a remarkable man. It is a portrait of one selfless individual and the rural community for which he became the hub. Drawing on psychology, biography and medicine A Fortunate Man is a…


Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture

By Wendy Wick Reaves (editor),

Book cover of Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture

Why this book?

Published by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., this beautifully produced and generously illustrated book contains essays on many aspects of portraiture with special emphasis on the USA. Portraits are fascinating; there is just so much to say about the ways in which materials such as paper, stone, metal, and canvas, ink, crayon, and paint can conjure up a human being. Nations, institutions, professions, families, and individuals all make use of portraits to affirm their positions, persuade those who view them of their worth, and shape forms of remembrance. The essays are relatively short, which encourages readers to browse, read a contribution and then come back often to look as well as read more about one of the most extraordinary forms of visual culture that has ever been produced.    

Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture

By Wendy Wick Reaves (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beyond the Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explores new approaches to portraying identity and the human face and figure, through works from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's collections and other institutions. Is there more to portraiture than eyes meeting eyes? Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture presents sixteen essays by leading scholars who explore the subtle means by which artists - and subjects - convey a sense of identity and reveal historical context. Examining a wide range of topics, from early caricature and political vandalism of portraits to contemporary selfies and performance art, these studies challenge our traditional assumptions about portraiture. By probing the diversity and…


Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century

By Kim Sloan (editor), Andrew Burnett (editor),

Book cover of Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century

Why this book?

London’s British Museum, with its massive and diverse collections, is world famous and the story of its foundation and early years in the eighteenth century sheds light on the histories of collecting, knowledge, and exploration. More than twenty essays were assembled to celebrate the opening of the Enlightenment Gallery in the King’s Library after years of research and refurbishment. These essays draw readers into the people, the objects, and the ideas that shaped this important and influential institution. The book is lavishly illustrated with gorgeous photographs of paintings and statues, coins, fossils, china, and much more—a wonderful way to grasp the museum’s stupendous holdings and also to understand better the controversies it has engendered.

Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century

By Kim Sloan (editor), Andrew Burnett (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Enlightenment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary companion to the British Museum's 250th anniversary exhibition.
Opened in 1753 as the world's first public museum, the British Museum epitomized the Age of Enlightenment's dream of a rational universe. Indeed, in many ways the museum was the age's most potent instrument: the incarnation of a world that could be parsed, classified, and comprehended through the physical observation of objects, all in the name of reason, progress, and civic improvement.


In this lavishly illustrated volume, published to coincide with a new permanent exhibit, the museum's centrality to the Enlightenment enterprise is explored through the stunning breadth and variety…


Chardin

By Pierre Rosenberg,

Book cover of Chardin

Why this book?

Passionate as I am about all forms of visual culture, ‘art’ remains important. There are some artists that I just can’t help returning to time and time again. One of them is the eighteenth-century French master Chardin. Exhibition catalogues are generally expensive, but they represent the state of the art, with reliable text and excellent illustrations—this one is no exception. It’s a work of art in its own right. The subject matter of Chardin’s work was diverse, and exquisitely rendered, whether a still life, a scene from everyday life, or a self-portrait. Words such as delicate, soft, and ravishing come to mind. It’s hard to explain why we are beguiled by some artists and not others. These hefty catalogues are so valuable, especially for those who can’t travel.

Chardin

By Pierre Rosenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chardin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely acknowledged in his time as a premier painter of still life and genre scenes, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) created unsentimentalized works that appeal to viewers today for their richness of feeling and simplicity of composition. This sumptuously illustrated book reproduces in full color 99 of Chardin's works and arranges them around five themes: Chardin's Beginnings and His First Still Lifes, Utensils and Household Objects, Genre Scenes, Chardin's Return to Still Life, and Pastels.

The contributors to the volume explore Chardin's work from many different angles, including the latest thinking on such lesser-known facets of his life and work as his…


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