ART histories and biographies, art reproduction books, books of art criticism and aesthetics reflect and frequently epitomize the taste of the times in which they are written, edited, and published. On my desk are three volumes. The Gallery of Famous Painters: A History of Art in All Countries and Ages is a collection of 120 beautifully made steel engraving, after paintings, principally of crumbling abbeys, pseudo-historical scenes, and demure cow-eyed females fondling demure cow-eyed dogs of a strange and since unheard-of Pekingese variety. It was published in 1878 in Boston and was a fashionable art picture-history book of its day. It contains a history of art which bears almost no relation to the engravings.
A Gallery of Beautiful Women: Masterpieces of Painting is a selection of sixty half-tone reproductions of famous portraits “with their titles and the gallery where each may be found.” This was published in 1924 by Dutton. It is a representative, dollar, pocket-sized, fairly popular art guide of that day, depending, of course, upon a sex angle — the appeal of beautiful women. In December, 1943, one or two fresh copies still lingered in the publisher’s stock room. A Treasury of Art Masterpieces, edited and annotated by Thomas Craven in 1939, contains 144 color plates of masterpieces ranging from the works of Giotto to those of Grant Wood and includes many less obvious master painters. Each painting is accompanied by text. The book weighs eight pounds, measures ten by fourteen inches, and represents the combined 15,000-mile European junketings of some twenty-four technicians. Their American journeyings were comparable. It topped 1939 best-seller lists, represented an investment of over a quarter of a million dollars, and has sold almost 100,000 copies at $10 each. When the last of these 100,000 go, there will be no more for the duration — war conditions prohibit their manufacture. This book has created precedents for years to come in art picture book size, shape, weight, color plate and general content, and price.
1943 was a boom year in book sales, and art books were in great demand. “Art book sales were double what they were in 1942,” reported R. H. Macy & Company, New York, the largest bookstore in the world. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, sold, at ten and fifteen cents each, from midsummer, 1942, to November 20, 1943, 51,675 color reproductions of favorites from their collection. England’s Lawrence and France’s Monet and Degas were among the best sellers. The Museum of Modern Art reported: “Sales of clothbound books have increased, showing a desire for more permanent books, and from July, 1942, to June, 1943, 293,243 persons visited the museum collections, showing an increase of 44,281 persons over the previous year.”
America is buying art books — not only inexpensive books of reproductions but highly priced and specialized monographs. The emphasis is on American art, some of the classic masters, and, strangely enough for a country in which French Impressionism was almost unheard-of thirty years ago, the work of the French Impressionists. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” — he sold only one painting during his lifetime — have, to a great extent, supplanted Maxfield Parrish’s sentimental “Garden of Allah” and Paul Chabras’s coy nude, “September Morn,” 1913’s millioncopy sensation.
On May 25, 1943, Macmillan published Medieval American Art, a two-volume work by Hungarian art expert Pál Kelemen. Its title distinguished it as a specialized work with little or no popular appeal, and its price, $22.50, made any popular sale almost an impossibility. Macmillan optimistically printed 1500 sets. By midNovember all sets had been disposed of, and plans were being made to print another 1000. Under any normal conditions, it would have taken over a year to dispose of the original 1500. Erwin Panofsky’s superb Albrecht Dürer, published by the Princeton University Press in September, 1943, and sold at $20 per set, was out of print by December 1. And even so esoteric an item as Wittenborn & Company’s monograph on French pointillisme master, Seurat, printed without any color reproductions, sold almost 1000 copies at $6.00, and its publisher is planning a second edition with color plates added. There is irony and some sort of poetical justice in this Seurat interest, for Seurat himself sold only two paintings during his entire lifetime.
The Phaidon Press Art Books have justly achieved international fame. They have been imported into this country since 1937 by the Oxford University Press, and as a group they are without peer in all art book publishing. In subject they range from Etruscan sculpture to Van Gogh, and they are priced at $4.00 or $4.50 each, the best current art book buy in that price range. In November, 1943, Oxford announced for sale Leonardo da Vinci: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture, edited by Ludwig Goldscheider, containing 152 plates — twenty-four in color — and replete with copious notes, Vasari’s famous biography, and detailed chronologies and bibliographies. This is a lot of book, supervised by experts, amply supplied with color plates, and astonishingly low-priced. Oxford ordered 10,000 from England, but because of war conditions, this order was not completely filled. By midDecember all available copies were gone, and Oxford discovered that it could have disposed of more than the original 10,000 had they been procurable.
Thomas Craven’s books on art have sold, since 1931, when his Men of Art made national best-seller lists, over 600,000 copies. Since 1931, art has made sensational news, museum exhibition techniques and art reproductive processes have improved, there have been national art projects, and American readers have come to expect certain values in their art books and so have created definite art book trends.
American consumers want color in these books. They want at least eight color plates, and the more color the better. Shoolman’s and Slatkin’s The Enjoyment of Art in America, published in 1942, is priced at $12.50, a moderate sum for a twelve by nine inch, 792-page book containing 740 excellent illustrations. It is an item unique in the annals of bookmaking, for in one volume it combines an art history and a guidebook to the great art collections in America. But it sells slowly. One of the chief reasons for this, according to booksellers, is its lack of color plates — it has only one, its frontispiece. This prejudice is regrettable, for color plates, even the best of them, when mass-produced, rarely give as comprehensive an approximation of the original tonal values of a painting as good modern photographs.
1944’s art picture book consumer wants a lot of book, well-bound and durable, replete with chronologies, bibliographies, adequate text, and he doesn’t mind paying for this book. To the average consumer, $2.75 seems a lot to pay for a novel, but non-fiction has always come higher than fiction, and art books priced from $5.00 to $10 seem a bargain, especially when newspapers headline the $50,382 take on the recent Crowninshield art book sale at which a volume of Manet reproductions, valued in 1934 at $30, went for $360. The consumer, seeing a book of Manet reproductions on sale for $3.50 at his corner drugstore, will surely be interested.