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February 19, 2007

Recent Reading

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I envy Friedrich von Blowhard.

More specifically, I envy his wide knowledge of history and, especially, the history of art. Maybe his Lousy Ivy Education wasn't quite as lousy as had been suggested. Or perhaps he has spent the years since then reading voraciously. I suspect it's the latter.

On the other hand, I've been playing catch-up ball -- especially since I started writing for this blog. I've read a lot of history over the years, much of it military history. Military history can't easily be separated from political history, so I know something of that. As for cultural and social history, I'm mostly familiar with France, Britain and the U.S.A.

A few years ago I began to analyze how I seemed to learn history best. I recalled that when I was around 20, I would read comprehensive histories of Egypt, France and Russia and afterwards have no real sense of what I had just read. Pharaohs, kings and emperors were mostly a blur.

I found that I was more successful when I selected key historical periods, comprehended them, and later filled in the gaps. In the case of France since 1500, say, useful entry points were the reigns of François I, Henri IV, Louis XIII (and Richelieu), Louis XIV, Napoleon I and Napoleon III.

And so it has been for art history. I was already somewhat familiar with the period 1915-55. But I realized that previous 40 years were more important for my analytical purposes and knew that I hadn't paid as much attention to the Impressionists as I should have. Worse, I knew next to nothing about their contemporaries who had been ignored or slighted in my art history classes -- academic painters, the Pre-Raphaelites, and so forth.

Now that I'm getting 1875-1915 under better control, I'm beginning to study some artists who influenced that period. I've already read some books about Velásquez. And I'm starting to learn more about Courbet.

I just finished reading this book on the history of art as related to artists' paints from the perspective of a chemist / physicist. I have to take the scientific bits on faith, never having taken a single chemistry class (though my father had a degree in Chemical Engineering). Still, it was interesting to get a better understanding of what artists had to deal with before the 19th century technical revolution in the area of synthetic colors. It's kind of amazing that they were able to do as well as they did, considering the limitations of their palettes.



posted by Donald at February 19, 2007


Eager to learn more about what you're learning. How *did* the artists cope with what by our standards were lousy paints?

As for history ... I'm stuck with a brain that likes stories, characters, and snappy writing (and, more and more, shorter rather than longer books). So alas, those tastes (rather than actual subject matter) tend to dictate the history reading that I do ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 19, 2007 8:15 PM

Courbet is a favorite of mine. A fine, fine painter with a beautiful control of light.

Posted by: jult52 on February 20, 2007 8:47 AM


I'm interested in your history learning algorithm. I have a bad tendency to learn one period, only to gradually realize that most of its salient characteristics are rooted in, or are reactions to, what happened before. It's very difficult to understand, say, the art politics of the Impressionist era unless you understand the art politics of the Romantic era and of theSo Neoclassical era, etc., etc.

So I end up in a pattern of endless regression back into the origins of whatever era actually sparks my interest. Thus the Renaissance led me to the possibly even more interesting High Medieval era, and back into the early Medieval, Late Antiquity, etc., etc.

In contrast, a colleague of mine embarked on a very disciplined approach to history. I'm not quite sure where he started, but he reads the background history first, then the great books of each era and then analyses and commentaries of the books. And he does it in a rational, early to later, order. He's read Augustine, Dante, and many others as he's worked his way forward from (apparently) Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (so far.)

The lure and the bane of history remains its sheer bulk; no one will ever master the subject!

Posted by: friedrich von Blowhard on February 22, 2007 9:53 AM

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