Wall Street Journal Recognition

Present at the Creation

These works indelibly portray the lives of artists.

Saturday, July 21, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. “William Morris” by Fiona MacCarthy (Knopf, 1995).

AArtist, poet, lecturer, businessman, politician, social reformer and environmentalist–no single description could encompass William Morris, who dominated the art world in the Victorian age. It is difficult nowadays to imagine why Morris’s furious nostalgia for the medieval should have seemed so revolutionary. But he was appalled by the flood of cheap, ugly manufactured goods that followed the Industrial Revolution in Britain , and he campaigned to restore traditional crafts that had been a source of pride for generations. The poet and mystic in him revered the beautiful; the humanist worked selflessly for workers’ rights. In Fiona MacCarthy’s wonderful book, lavishly illustrated with drawings and black-and-white and color plates of Morris’s designs, she writes: “When Morris was dying, one of his physicians diagnosed his disease as ‘simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.’ ”

2. “A Life of Picasso” by John Richardson (Random House, 1991, vol. 1; 1996, vol. 2).

John Richardson, the author, editor, curator and all-around aesthete, has the ability to combine superb scholarship with a delicious style and unfailing wit. In the mid-1980s, then about 60, he embarked on a four-volume study of Pablo Picasso’s life. It took him six years to publish the first volume (with a staggering 900 illustrations), covering the artist’s life from 1881 to 1906. The second (1907-17) came five years later. At last, after more than a decade in the making, the third volume (1917-32) arrives this fall. It is joyous news, for Richardson’s work so far is a paragon of biography-writing, rich with research and inspired in its insights. Richardson gives us Picasso in all his sensitive, brutal, vulnerable and cruel complexity.

3. “Savage Messiah” by H.S. Ede (Literary Guild, 1931).

This portrait of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska begins in 1910, when he became infatuated with Sophie Brzeska, a 38-year-old Pole who had come to Paris determined to kill herself. She dropped that idea after meeting the 18-year-old artist. From this maternal figure Gaudier took not only a new last name but also a priceless confidence in his talent. He and Sophie soon moved to London , where Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpting increasingly took on an abstract quality that reflected his interest in primitive cultures–and, not incidentally, helped pioneer modern art in Britain . In 1914, he was a signatory (along with Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and others) of the Vorticist Manifesto embracing the dynamism of modern life. With the outbreak of World War I, Gaudier-Brzeska joined the French army; he was killed in the trenches in June 1915 at age 24. After Sophie died a decade later in a mental asylum, British art collector H.S. Ede acquired much of the estate and went on to produce this fascinating account of a gifted artist’s tragically short life.

4. “Augustus John” by Michael Holroyd (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974).

Michael Holroyd, a biographer’s biographer, is particularly attuned to the problem of writing about the lives of artists. They tend to “translate all their energies into their work,” he writes, leaving behind precious few clues about what they thought and felt. Then again, some artists save a bit of energy–as did Augustus John (1878-1961)–for living the sort of life outside bourgeois morality that is often expected of them. John was, to be sure, notoriously absent-minded about money and careless about women. The result was that over time the British painter, as Holroyd puts it, was “simplified into a myth.” Holroyd’s accounting of John’s life (a subject he revisited in 1996 with “Augustus John: The New Biography”) reflects the author’s relentless dedication to undoing this simplification. With meticulous attention to the facts, Holroyd gives us an Augustus John who spent much of his long career trying to come to terms with the rapturous reception–and corresponding expectations–that greeted his work as a young man. The messy personal affairs are all here, to be sure, but so is Johns’s brilliant, troubled life as an artist–presented by Holroyd with sublime intelligence.

5. “Edward Hopper” by Gail Levin (Knopf, 1995).

There is something about the work of Edward Hopper that uncannily evokes a decade. Look at “Nighthawks,” his famous painting of a deserted street lit at night by a café, its inhabitants frozen on their bar stools. Once again it is the early 1940s. It took years for Hopper to refine his signature style, which infused seemingly innocent images, whether of small towns or of the Cape Cod landscapes he loved so much, with an inner intensity. Who he was, how he painted and why–these matters are exhaustively explored by Gail Levin, who has written widely about Hopper and based her authoritative account of his life on the diary of his wife, Jo. Levin’s analyses of Hopper’s work are astute and telling. But ultimately any study of such an introspective personality can take us only so far. In the end, we have to return to the evidence of the work itself and to its reflection of a universal truth that Hopper understood–that is, the essential loneliness of the human spirit.

Ms. Secrest, who has written biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Rodgers and Salvador Dalí (among others), is the author of “Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject” (Knopf, 2007).