Romanticism, by Jean Clay. New York: The Vendome Press (dist. by Viking Press). 320 pp. $50 through Dec. 31, $60 thereafter.

If you're planning to buy one art book this season, seriously consider making it this one. Jean Clay's exploration of Romantic painting is a revelation, not only of the period, but of the nature of painting itself. Clay, a professor of art history at the University of Paris and the author of volumes on impressionism and postimpressionism, examines one by one the plastic materials of painting - pigment, surface, brush - and their use in line, color, and composition. His aim is to discover therein what is represented by this period ( 1760-1848) of heroic painting on the grand scale, what was being conveyed, and how it represented a divergence from the artistic canon of the Renaissance and the beginnings of modernism. Clay draws on the words of the artists in letters, journals, and articles to further his exposition. The extraordinary number of color plates and the juxtaposing on double-page spreads of selected works with incisive, comparative analyses allows non-painters to penetrate the dynamic center of the painter's art, to understand in a new way what is being attempted in the exercise and effort of putting line and color to a two-dimensional surface.

Delacroix, David, Goya, Friedrich, and Turner have never appeared more provocatively. Clay accomplishes in this examination of one brief period what most histories of art fail to do in their surveys of centuries, namely to reinstill art of past ages with much of its original, breakthrough vigor, to define the artistic and cultural conventions that had to be surpassed to create it, and to convey the common impulse behind art of all ages. A superb book.

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