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The Power of Art

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  16,709 ratings  ·  122 reviews
"Great art has dreadful manners," Simon Schama observes wryly at the start of his epic and explosive exploration of the power, and whole point, of art. "The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things; visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a ...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published November 10th 2006 by Ecco (first published January 1st 2006)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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 ·  16,709 ratings  ·  122 reviews

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Dec 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A couple of confessions – the most obvious is that I haven’t actually read this book. I’ve seen the documentary, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. This is a documentary to be seen and not read about. The filming, editing and direction are almost as breathtaking as the artworks discussed. This is documentary film making at its best. You are NEVER spoken down to. He NEVER assumes you will know something only the initiated will know. Schama is a God among men and, a bit like David Attenbor ...more
Apr 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
Look, you either hate Schama or you love him. It just has to be that way- his personality, definite opinions and style are all over his work, and he makes absolutely no apologies for it. I happen to fall into the love it category. Is it "good" history? No. But it's incredibly compelling history- he tells you the kind of story that makes you want to know more about it. It sets out a rich, decadent feast, drama-ramas it up and tells you how it is. I'm more entertained watching his documentaries th ...more
Nov 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My coffee table book that is a go to read whenever I need a dose of art pleasure and a brain break from the mundane. I have been enjoying this book for years, always stimulating and a visual delight as well. Yes, his series is a great entertainment and one can’t help but engage in a dialogue w him. But the book is an always available calmer pleasure.
Jun 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
If you're like me you took an art history survey in college and then maybe a Euro-pass tour including the Louvre, British Museum, etc., and walked out thinking you knew something about art. That's a bit like owning a copy of "Beatles 1" and thinking you know the Beatles.

In this companion book to a British TV series, Schama takes you under the skin and the canvas of 10 masters from Caravaggio to 1970s. The book's premise is that certain artworks have the power to elicit emotion and even action.
Jul 08, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition

This is the first time I’ve ever read something from Schama and although I certainly learned a thing or two, very little of it was telling me what I was looking for and to be honest I found his style pretentious, rambling and irritating to read.

Caravaggio, like a certain other fellow from a bygone era, appears to have been mad, bad and dangerous to know. Although I understand the quality and importance of Rembrandt and his work, no amount of teaching or further knowledge is going to change the
Paul Ataua
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I’m pretty much caught here. The book actually annoyed the hell out of me. Eight artists and in each case the author, although mentioning other works, focused on one of them and built up a whole story around that one work to paint a dramatic portrait of the artist. The repetitive nature of the approach and the misinterpretation that followed from that approach was pretty damning. Having said all that, I am giving it five stars because if I had a friend who wanted to get into appreciating art, I ...more
Aug 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, english
This is a convenient vehicle for Schama, who, as much as he loves art, really likes to argue.

Schama is self-aggrandizing, melodramatic, irritating and truly compelling. He injects his out-size personality into the book and it's better for it.

One can certainly quibble with his choices of which pieces of art best represent turning points of art history (or according to Schama's overinflated prose, history in general) but his choices make for a lively book.

The Power of Art is aimed at people like m
Aug 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Schama has a tendency to harangue...but his sincerity and off-the-cuff humor more than makes up for this. Moreover, when you compare this with the intense passion that went into the making of each painting and artist in this book, you more than get carried in the stride.
Plus the book has Grrrreat pictures! :D
I think my favorite were the chapters on David and Caravaggio (potboiling soap-operas both).
I only wish his analysis of the artists was a tad more multi-dimensional...he tends to stick to th
Feb 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, simon-schama
What great book (and film)! Schama has chosen to focus on many of my favorite artists-- Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso & Rothko. I have previously studied many of the artists in depth except Bernini and Rothko. The film is great and the book excellent -- large color plates, well written. I also learn a great deal about Borromini.
Aug 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I couldn’t put it down. One of the most compelling introductions to any subject I’ve ever read. Now, in museums, in classes, in my room surfin’ the net, I find myself remembering the sordid, passionate lives of Caravaggio and Van Gogh and Rothko and David. And Schama portrays each one in such vividly articulated descriptions, from their life to their artwork.

I must say, though, that I despise the Rothko chapter—maybe because I can’t stand his art, either. Who gives a shit about red lines on a ca
Liz De Coster
Sep 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
I took my time with this book (and the BBC-produced DVD series), and it was worth it. The author's strong opinions, whether the reader agrees or disagrees, keeps the reader very much involved. The focus on one or two memorable pieces and the carefully selected historic and biographic details prevent the work from becoming overwhelming. ...more
Jan 12, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
goodreads needs to bring in a half star rating so I can give this 3.5 because it was lovely to read but not without fault. schama’s passion for his subjects is engaging verging on enthralling (especially the Van Gogh and Rothko essays) but his execution is sometimes sloppy and writing is clouded by pretentiousness that seems ill suited to his aims
yasmine skalli
Jan 03, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, art
a book that has been sitting on my shelf for a while that I every now and then pick up and only just finished. nothing groundbreaking per se, but good if you like art history. planning to watch the accompanying documentary when my time allows.
Aug 31, 2010 added it
Shelves: discarded
As a historian Schama has always excelled at "reading" paintings for the materialist details -- what they can show us about daily life and historicizing fantasy -- but as he gets older he seems to be allowing himself to argue for the role of individualism and belief in the creation of material objects.

Here he could be read as appearing to glamorize the myth of the rebel artist, because he certainly does not shy away from the seamy details of almost every life he recounts. His favored subjects ar
Uco Library
Nov 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: jean-longo
Historian Schama certainly has a powerful method of telling a story. He tells the tales of eight different artists Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko. The book was written to accompany the television series published by the BBC but it is not necessary to have seen the series to enjoy the book. I read the book several years before watching the series and after watching the series picked up the book again. Reading through it again I could imagine the visual ...more
May 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
I have only read two of the essays - Bernini and Van Gogh - though Simon Schama is one of those public intellectuals for whom I respect so much. He is bright, intellectually energetic, and a literary stylist. And he is prodigious with his scholarship. He begins each essay with a simple question and then builds the essay around it. I look forward to the release of each of his books.
May 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Schama is a fantastic writer. He revels in the written word and takes a topic that could so easily bore someone and makes it exciting. Essentially he examines powerhouse artists (Caravaggio, Bernini and others) in this page-turner. If it weren't so expensive, I'd buy it as a coffee table book. ...more
Jan 09, 2015 rated it liked it
I read the chapter on van Gogh and appreciated it as a nice overview of his personality, art and self-destruction. Simon Schama is a good writer and it was interesting to hear his interpretation of different paintings because they so often differed from my own.
Mary Ronan Drew
May 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Simon Schama is excellent at teaching us all about art, both on TV and in print. When he has Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Bernini, and Rothko to help he is brilliant.
Feb 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
SPELLBINDING. Three cheers for Simon Schama!!
Jul 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is amazing!
Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: owned
Picked up the book at a used sale, and it was bit fascinating, so I ordered the DVD's of the BBC documentary it goes with. It's ten years old. It was cheap. I've been watching the DVD's (about ten hours worth) and its a good show. He makes the artists come alive and gives a great deal of history and back story. Problem for me is that I seriously wonder how much of that back story is true or just myth that has been floating around. It makes for good TV though, and makes the artworks vibrant and i ...more
Shane Lewis
Aug 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-music
Simon Schama has a very distinct premise for all of his 8 artists. Something that ties them together and makes them identifiable for all of us. They all found a way to create art from their environment, while ignoring the art buying community. Putting color into oil and water, putting that onto a canvas or wood base to create something that in time creates emotion from the viewer! Only the moneyed can afford art and these artists found a way to say “screw you”, while creating something timeless. ...more
Sep 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in art and its power
I got a copy of this book through ILL and with the book open I watched the BBC presentation of the eight artists: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Turner, van Gogh, David, Picasso and Rothko not necessarily in that order but the artist's stories were presented chronologically. Amazing personalities producing stunning work. My one take away is that I am curious what van Gogh would have produced if he had lived beyond his 37 years? And was he murdered or did he commit suicide.
Highly recommend that
Jared Burkart
Dec 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
It's a Schama book full of the poetic thoughtfulness one should expect of him. What more needs to be said? While it may not be a concise history of art in the slightest, nor an evaluation of the "8 most important artists" (which could wrongly be perceived, not from the writing but the naivety of the reader), neither of those are really the goal of the work from its outset. What it is, however, is a a beautiful telling of, well, the historical and timeless power of art. ...more
I watched the series before reading the book. And loved both. Probably equally.

His writing is interesting, entertaining, slightly poetic, and easily understandable.

He actually had me saying to my husband that this book has made me interested in learning more about history and how various events and feelings relate to each other and the art made before during and after various events.
Feb 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
I enjoy the way Simon Schama presents history, be it political or, as in this case, art. Several of the artists in the book were familiar to me so I liked revisiting their stories. The other, lesser known ones I appreciated becoming familiar with.

I would have given this book five stars but for the fact that Schama is silent on the topic of women artists.
Bhavya Pochiraju
Dec 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This story is well written, vibrant, rich, and sensitive and the delicate subject is handled with grace. An unforgettable story and definitely one of the best romance I’ve read. It is high on my to re-read list and I recommend it strongly.
Check out my Art Page [ARTONORIUM]
Jon Lisle-Summers
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Powerful, thought-provoking and enjoyable, Simon Schama's love of art, words and history collide here in joyous enthusiasm. You're bound to learn something because he's also a master of projecting the historical into the personal and vice versa. ...more
Beware, this is not an art book for anyone who’s just interested in art. It is a supplementary text for a programme of the same name shot by the BBC about a select few artists. If, like me, you haven’t seen (or heard of this programme before) then this book is just bewildering.
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Simon Schama was born in 1945. The son of a textile merchant with Lithuanian and Turkish grandparents, he spent his early years in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. When his parents moved to London he won a scholarship to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School where his two great loves were English and History. Forced to choose between the two he opted to read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Here he was taught ...more

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