Have yourself a merry little Christmas -- and a merry big book. We all desire a charming combination of beauty and brains to enjoy during the holidays, so in lieu of (or in addition to!) that special person, check out one of these gift books. At their best, they combine scholarship with elegance, and should do good things to your head as well as your coffee table.
Books of drawings usually don't boast the dazzle characteristic of the biggest, brightest holiday art books. Instead of color and gloss, they offer subtle grays and sepias and tasteful matte pages. For actually learning about art, though, they are tops. A volume such as Van Dyck Drawings (Christopher Brown, Abrams, 294 pages, $95) provides more than lovely art to peruse; it shows how that art developed. A painting begins with brash, quick notebook sketches, wash drawings, composition groupings and figure studies, and an examination of these preliminary works can be revealing. As Mr. Brown makes clear, considerable experimentation and struggle went into the creation of paintings that, in their finished state, appear to be works of effortless technique. Of particular interest in this collection, which commemorates the 350th anniversary of Van Dyck's death, are his sensitive animal studies and portrait sketches, which in some cases excel the finished works.
With one foot in the Middle Ages, the other in the modern era, the art of Albrecht Durer (who lived 500 years ago) can be stylized and fanciful or accurate and marvelously detailed. Durer's Animals (Colin Eisler, Smithsonian, 369 pages, $75), a lavishly illustrated work aimed to please both art- and animal-lovers, the artist draws the beasts of the field, woods and fireside. With a naturalist's skill, he makes use of their allegorical symbolism in classical and religious illustrations, and attempts to record -- with some unintentionally humorous gaffes -- exotic species discovered by explorers. But none of his animals is more delightful than the dog -- laden with symbolic significance, perhaps, but still pettable.
The kings and queens of Spain may have had a taste for controversy, but they certainly knew good investments when they saw them. Not only did Spanish royals finance the voyages of a navigator called Columbus, but they were smart enough to back the careers of aspiring artists with names like Goya, Titian and Rubens. The cream of the royal collections can be seen in the Prado, and in The Prado (Santiago Alcolea Blanch, Abrams, 474 pages, $95), an elegant showcase of 275 of the Madrid museum's European masterworks from the 12th to 20th centuries. The author, a Spanish art historian, supplies a detailed history of the collectors, beginning with the likes of Peter the Ceremonious and Alphonso the Magnanimous, and the "museum-lover's museum" they spawned.
Martin Puryear is one of those unclassifiable artistic talents whose works embrace a broad spectrum of influences and techniques. Martin Puryear (Neal Benezra and Robert Storr, Thames and Hudson/Arts Institute of Chicago, 160 pages, $45) demonstrates the diversity of the 50-year-old American sculptor's work: His creations recall New England fishing nets or Eskimo canoes, primitive farm tools, Mongolian yurts or whatsits carved out of saplings somewhere in deepest Appalachia. Others have the sculptural purity of Brancusi's best. The diversity is understandable -- the artist learned traditional woodworking during a Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone, and studied Scandinavian furniture design in Sweden -- but the sense of form and sense of humor are his own.
Most of us think of Georgia O'Keeffe as the gaunt, handsome old woman who lived in the desert and painted bleached skulls and extravagantly sensuous close-ups of flowers. But it was New York that provided the stimulation and inspiration that helped define her style, and it was in New York that the painter met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who became her mentor, champion and life partner. Georgia O'Keeffe: The New York Years (edited by Doris Bry and Nicholas Callaway, Alfred A. Knopf/Callaway, 136 pages, $100) brings together a collection of
her paintings from the years 1913 to 1932, when she was dividing her time between the city and Lake George, N.Y., where she summered. The summers are here in her flowers and gorgeously stylized nature scenes, but the gritty city is here, too; the artist who so brilliantly captured the light of the West also painted skyscrapers and smokestacks. The text, by cultural historian Bram Dijkstra, portrays the artistic scene of the time, and O'Keeffe's place in it as humanist, realist and woman.