Monumental in scope and size, Rau’s coffee-table book tells the story of “art that changed the world” through stunning, full-color reproductions and comprehensive essays.
The practice of classifying paintings “into styles and subjects” started in the 1800s, a century that also saw the rise of journals and critics, who expanded the dialogue, the audience and, most importantly, the field of collectors for art. By breaking his study into “Movements” and “Motifs,” Rau places “artists in the tradition they best embodied,” presenting work by category, not chronology. The first nine chapters explore the stylistic camps of Europe, from the Napoleonic Wars through the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The remaining chapters survey the transformative era’s fascinations: the Orient, animals, ships and the newly exposed politics of the Catholic Church. Although Paris was the epicenter, Rau notes the accomplishments of the Newlyn School in England, the magnificence of Venetian View Paintings and the Belle Époque’s long reach, from Copenhagen to Florence. His efforts to represent unsung female painters of the era add a unique perspective, as does his ability to connect the dots between styles and artists. He explains how painters, such as Corot—drawn to the town of Barbizon—heightened the reputation of landscape painting and how the work of students, Monet, Renoir and Pisarro—with the invention of zinc-based paints—led to the “plein air tradition” of impressionism. He notes the influence of Millet’s realist peasant paintings on post-impressionist Van Gogh. Rau leavens his scholarly tone with lively anecdotes. At the end of each chapter, brief, dynamic bios describe the artists. Although the collapse of the Academie, the rise of photography and the devastation of World War I interrupted the “freedom of thought and action” that artists of the fin de siècle were establishing for future artists, Rau resurrects their importance.
An exhilarating journey through a pivotal moment in art history conducted by a captivating docent.