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Book Review: The Secret Lives of Great Artists by Elizabeth Lunday

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The title of The Secret Lives of Great Artists by Elizabeth Lunday is a bit misleading. “Secret lives” are not revealed.

The book is like one of those bathroom readers. Each chapter – only about five pages long – focuses on one artist. The book gives you a concise background on several dozen of the most important artists in history, starting with Jan Van Eyck and finishing with Andy Warhol. For each artist you get an overview of their life from beginning to end, and mini commentary on their most famous piece of work.

It’s like CliffsNotes for art. You get enough information to sound worldly and make dinner party conversation, without having to slog through a lot of boring bits. Lunday’s writing style is informal and easy to read – it’s like she makes learning fun! The book is lightly illustrated with drawings of the artists.

The book cover – a lurid, tabloid-style layout – describes Van Gogh as having a “colorful eating disorder.” The only mention of this in his chapter is in passing – a brief partial mention that he is believed to eat his own paint. If you aren’t reading carefully, you will likely miss it.

The cover, in small print, does declare that this book will offer your “what your teachers never told you about master painters and sculptors.” This is far more accurate than the title. For example, it’s no secret that Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings represented vaginas, and that she slept with women. But in art school, they never mentioned the hundreds and hundreds of nude photographs of O’Keefe, taken by gallery owner and eventual husband-of-convenience Alfred Stieglitz.

One of the biggest flaws of this book is the lack of images of the actual artwork discussed. With familiar pieces like Warhol’s “Soup Cans” or Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, I can picture them and know what the author is describing. But with pieces like Paul Cezanne’s “Card Players” – which I am not familiar with – it is hard to put things in context.

But overall, once you realize that there aren’t a lot of true “secrets,” this book is an enjoyable way to get a clear, working knowledge of the most important artists who ever lived.

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