A detailed, somewhat contrarian collection of essays on the interpretation of art and artists. James Fenton, professor of poetry at Oxford, wrote these essays for The New York Review of Books. They reveal an academic's sensibility in their thoroughness and depth, but Fenton has the advantage of not being an art historian by trade. He is, rather, a prize intellectual thorn who delights in skewering accepted interpretations of art when they defy common sense. Perhaps his best-known effort in this collection--which includes essays on Bernini, Verrochio, Degas, and Seurat--is his piece on funerary portraiture, called ""The Mummy's Secret."" In it, Fenton suggests that the portraits attached to the swathed bodies might have been commissioned well before death, citing the torsion of the sitter's body--a pose ""elemental to portrait photography""--as evidence. He mocks the experts at the British Museum who think otherwise and makes a terrific argument for the act of observation, pure and simple. It's a refreshing perspective, even when couched in his densely-packed, oddly rambling style--for some reason, Fenton seems driven to include everything that has any possible bearing on the subject at hand. But his philosophy of interpretation is quite simple: ""It is good to ask of a work of art three questions,"" he writes. ""What is it? Where does it come from? And why is it here?"" And, one could add, why has it lasted? One of Fenton's strengths comes from his ability to delve into the history of an object, to trace the influence of politics on a particular piece of work--from its critical interpretation and assigned value to its very survival. In making the reader aware of what has lasted--and why--Fenton also conjures all the art that has been lost, scoured, painted over, misattributed, and misread. A subversive academic, Fenton uses his intellect and vast knowledge to question the ways in which certain artworks--as well as their creators--have been framed by history.