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Gift Books, 1986 : Impressionists and Others

December 07, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

This is a slim year for art books, but you wouldn't know it by counting new releases on the ever popular French Impressionists. Cezanne: A Biography by John Rewald (Abrams: $67.50 to Jan. 1; $75 thereafter; 288 pp., indexed; 270 illustrations, 118 in color) tops the rather undistinguished heap with what is legitimately called "a publishing event": a new edition of a doctoral thesis by a Sorbonne student who would become a leading authority on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

The 50-year-old classic has been revised and expanded with additional illustrations, though Rewald has seen no need to publish all the artist's best known paintings. This is a biography--among the most revealing and sympathetic views of an artist's life you'll ever read--and all supplemental letters, photographs and reproductions complement the story. Details of Paul Cezanne's friendship with Emile Zola and photographs of painted sites are particularly illuminating.

Rewald presents the whole man--moody, irascible, vulgar, violent, timid and so dependent upon his disapproving father that he hid his lover and illegitimate son from him. At his banker father's death Cezanne inherited a generous income but continued to live simply near his boyhood home in Aix. His work, which took Impressionism to the doorstep of Cubism, was even more difficult for the public to appreciate than that of his peers, but Cezanne eventually felt confident enough to counsel students who beat a path to his studio.

Edgar Degas: Life and Work by Denys Sutton (Rizzoli: $70; 344 pp., indexed; 294 illustrations, 100 in color) is a rather stiff account of an artist best known for his paintings of ballet and horse races. Degas' masterful draftsmanship and the spontaneous look of his abruptly cropped compositions and skewed perspective have secured his place in modern art history, but his personality wasn't colorful enough to have spawned a romantic myth.

Degas is known as, at best, a shadowy, reticent character who never had to work for a living; at worst, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a misanthrope. Sutton takes all this seriously, generally finding severe assessments inaccurate. He sheds light on the case of Degas, but the artist himself remains in the shade.

Cezanne and Degas were among Impressionists whose startling works were enthusiastically collected by Louisine and H. O. Havemeyer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leafing through The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America by Frances Weitzenhoffer (Abrams: $37.50; 384 pp., indexed; 167 illustrations, 64 in color), we find that most of the best examples of Impressionist work in the United States were brought here by the New York couple. Nearly 2,000 pieces from their collection were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; others have landed in museums across the country (including Degas' "L'Attente," jointly owned by the Norton Simon Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California).

This tale of high-powered, enlightened acquisitiveness is not quite the "rollicking" peep show the dust jacket promises, but it does tell of Harry Havemeyer's Sugar Trust imbroglios and of Louisine's stint in jail when she was arrested for demonstrating on behalf of women's suffrage. More important, the book explains the force of Mary Cassatt's taste on her friend Louisine's collecting habits.

Two books on Picasso are substantial additions to the already vast literature on an artist whose protean achievements constantly invite new publications. The Picasso Museum, Paris, introduction by Dominique Bozo (Abrams: $37.50; 316 pp.; 871 illustrations, 58 in color) is the official catalogue to the Picasso Museum that opened last year in a 17th-Century Parisian mansion with a cache of works from the artist's estate. Short essays of Picasso's aesthetic development and a chronology provide historical context for the illustrations. "Je suis le cahier: The Sketchbooks of Picasso," e, the catalogue for an exhibition that will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Dec. 16, is reviewed by Nan Rosenthal in this issue of The Book Review.

Two other new publications pull together the final, multipart projects of aging artists separated by thousands of miles and half a century. Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings, introduction and legends by Adelheid Gealt (Braziller: $80; 196 pp.; 103 illustrations, 77 in color) presents a cycle of drawings not seen as a unit since 1921 when they were shown in Paris and sold piecemeal. Tiepolo, son of Venetian painter Battista Tiepolo, started the cycle at 70, in 1796, and continued until his death seven years later. The brilliantly drawn series relates the life and times of a popular commedia dell'arte character. With his hawkish nose, hunchback, pot belly and conical hat, the tragicomic Punchinello bumbles through one mess after another looking more pathetic than funny.

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