Though pointing, clicking and sharing by people of all ages and skill levels has never been easier or quicker, thanks to the digital technology available these days, it’s still a wonderful thing to experience works by an accomplished artist, to page through a large-format book featuring images by someone who has made it their vocation to convey an emotion or capture something new or unexpected, beautiful or thought-provoking—whether in paint or on film. This quartet of coffee-table books offers the opportunity to take just that sort of foray into the world of visual art.

Photorealism, revisited
Norman Rockwell’s paintings—vibrant slice-of-life creations—are essential to any study of American pop culture. But while Rockwell’s illustrative talents are well-known, an important aspect of his process is perhaps less so: any paintings done from 1930 on were first photographs.

Ron Schick’s Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is filled with images of the people and places that served as inspiration (and models) for the artist’s work. Many of those models were friends and neighbors; it’s fun to spot Rockwell himself mugging for the camera here and there, too. Thoughtful, detailed text by Schick provides fascinating, often humorous behind-the-scenes tidbits about each photo-turned-painting, plus information about everything from his advertising clients to lighting techniques. For example, when creating “Maternity Waiting Room, 1946,” Rockwell couldn’t find sufficiently stressed-out models, so he visited a Manhattan ad agency, where he found plenty of anxiety-ridden men to photograph.

Paging through Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is a smile-inciting, nostalgia-inducing experience that surely will inspire renewed admiration for Rockwell’s skill: the finished works are all the more realistic when viewed in concert with their photo counterparts.

An anglophile’s delight
Mary Miers, a writer who specializes in architecture and formerly worked in the field of architectural conservation, puts her experience and expertise to excellent use in The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life. The book is a feast of photos, and a tribute to the fine homes that have been featured in Country Life, a U.K.-based magazine that’s been published since 1897. The 400-plus images of 62 homes ranging from medieval castles to modern mansions frequently offer close-up shots of sumptuous details. For example, the Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is a Rococo delight, complete with carved chimney-pieces and colorful friezes. East Barsham Manor, in Norfolk, is a castle of molded brick, complete with gatehouse and three-story tower. And then there’s Baggy House in Devon, a cliff-top villa that’s thoroughly modern. Essays by British architectural historians provide additional detail and help to make this book a fine reading and viewing experience for aficionados of design, architecture, history, the U.K., the art of photography or some combination of the above. The English Country House is a gorgeous tour that’s sure to inspire craving for a hot cuppa.

An extraordinary museum tour
In celebration of the reopening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Medieval and Renaissance Art: People and Possessions, by V&A curators Glyn Davies and Kirstin Kennedy, takes readers on a personal tour of the museum’s objects and role in European art and history. The book’s chapters include Makers and Markets (about the working and trading conditions for artists in medieval and Renaissance Europe), Devotion and Display (religious objects and rituals) and People and Possessions (weaponry, music, “self-expression through ownership”). There are colorful photos on nearly every page, many of them close-ups; the ones in the Ornaments section are particularly fascinating in terms of opulence and detail.

Those who have visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London will surely find this a worthy souvenir of a visually thrilling trip through art and history; those who haven’t will get a rare opportunity to live with the museum’s pieces and scrutinize them to their hearts’ content.

A portrait of the maritime artist
John Singer Sargent, a painter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is best known for his portraits, but as Richard Ormond explains in the introduction to Sargent and the Sea, written with Sarah Cash, his marine-life and seascape paintings have until recently been just a “forgotten episode of Sargent’s art.” When he was in his late teens and early 20s, the artist produced a number of works—in oil, charcoal and watercolor—depicting the sea, ships and other maritime topics: “scenes from the seashore and rustic subjects from the countryside.” Sargent and the Sea was conceived and created in concert with a Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit that will travel to Houston and London in 2010. Paging through this handsome volume gives readers the opportunity to observe and experience Sargent’s evolution as an artist and a person, to read and marvel as his detailed charcoal renderings of ships give way to lushly colorful paintings of children at the beach and languorous nudes—a fascinating preview of the style and subjects to come.

Linda M. Castellitto takes (amateur) photos in North Carolina.

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