FROM sumptuous art books that illuminate painters and their work in many periods to a `good read' for an evening beside a blazing fire, the season's gift books offer something to satisfy almost everyone. Here's a sample. Painting VINCENT VAN GOGH: PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS By Johannes van der Wolk, Ronald Pickvance, E.B.F. Pey, Evert Van Uitert, Louis van Tilborgh, Sjraar van Heugten, New York: Rizzoli, two volumes, slip-cased, $90, Paintings: 292 pp., 233 illustrations, 133 in color, Drawings: 336 pp., 296 illustrations, 248 in color.
FOR sheer emotional impact, originality, and prolific energy, few artists rival the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose short, unhappy life has continued to fascinate biographers, critics, and art historians, from those who view him as the classic tortured genius to those who've suggested physiological causes for his problems. But to return us to the astonishing products of his genius, the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum Kr"oller-M"uller in Otterlo, the Netherlands, organized exhibitions of almost 900 of his paintings and some 1,100 drawings on the centenary of his death. These two volumes, amply annotated and containing essays on various aspects of van Gogh's work, are a fitting testimonial to his art. And while not slighting the splendor of the paintings, this arrangement highlights the lesser-known drawings in a way that will enhance appreciation for them.
THE FAUVE LANDSCAPE By Judi Freeman, et al., New York: Abbeville Press, 350 pp., 400 illustrations, 210 in color, $65.
BETWEEN 1904 and 1908, a small group of painters that included Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andr'e Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Raoul Dufy attained a certain measure of notoriety for flinging a paintpot in the face of the public, as one critic memorably put it. Their bold, vivid colors and rough-looking forms earned them the label ``Fauves'' (meaning ``wild beasts''), and they and their supporters were accused of being foreign, Jewish, and totally outside the great tradition of French painting. The Los Angeles County Museum's current Fauve exhibit, scheduled to go on tour in New York and London next year, brings together the major paintings of Fauve artists like Derain, Vlaminck, Albert Marquet, and Henri Manguin with that of better-known artists like Gauguin, Monet, and Sisley, who also influenced and were influenced by similar ideas about painting. This beautiful companion to the exhibition includes a chronology, essays, maps, photographs of the artists, and brilliant reproductions of the paintings.
RUSKIN ON TURNER Edited by Dinah Birch, Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown/A Bulfinch Press Book, 144 pp., 54 color, 18 black & white illustrations, $50.
WIDELY considered England's greatest painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) found his most devoted champion and brilliant interpreter in the great Victorian critic and social prophet John Ruskin, who ``read'' Turner's paintings as assiduously and ardently as he read Shakespeare, Dante, and the Bible.
Ruskin wrote on Turner throughout his career. In this attractive coffee-table book, Ruskin scholar Dinah Birch has taken a selection of those voluminous writings and illustrated them with the relevant Turner paintings: a simple enough project, which apparently no one had thought to do before now. It is a service to Ruskin and Turner alike: The critic's commentary is easier to follow with the paintings at hand, and the paintings' beauty is elucidated by the critic's perceptive appreciation. And it is a very beautiful book for the reader-viewer, because Ruskin's visionary prose can be as glorious as Turner's renditions of light, mist, clouds, shadows, sky, and sea.
WINSTON CHURCHILL, HIS LIFE AS A PAINTER: A MEMOIR BY HIS DAUGHTER, MARY SOAMES Foreword by Derek Hill, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 224 pp., illustrated, $40
AS if it were not enough to be the greatest leader and statesman of the century and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, Winston Churchill was also a talented amateur painter. Having, in his own words, ``reached the age of 40 without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil,'' Churchill astonished himself and others by plunging into this new hobby with a vigor, panache, and lack of inhibition that gives his paintings - mainly landscapes - such charm and gusto. Mary Soames's affectionate memoir of her father's life as a painter is accompanied by 60 of his colorful artworks.
Indoors PERIOD STYLE By Mary Gilliatt, with Elizabeth Wilhide, Boston, London, Toronto: Little, Brown, 223 pp., illustrated, $40
ALTHOUGH this book by an interior designer is primarily intended as a guide to furnishing and decorating one's home in the authentic style of a given period, it is also an intelligent and fascinating history of the period styles that it covers, from the earliest stirrings of the Baroque style in the Italian Renaissance to the striking innovations of Modernism. Whether you are looking for the right fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, windows, floors, mirrors, lamps, candlesticks, and color scheme to recreate the look of a particular period or whether you are simply curious to know exactly what is meant by ``Georgian,'' ``Regency,'' ``Federal,'' ``Rococo,'' ``Biedermeier,'' ``Empire,'' not to mention the difference between ``Art Deco'' and ``Art Nouveau,'' you will find clear, colorful, and sumptuously illustrated expositions in this helpful and attractively arranged book.
WOMEN SILVERSMITHS, 1685-1845: WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS By Philippa Glanville & Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, Introduction by Nancy Valentine, New York: Thames and Hudson, 176 pp., 176 illustrations, 99 in color, $45.
THIS handsomely produced book, finely illustrated with photographs of individual pieces and period paintings, makes no extravagant claims about its subject. Indeed, the authors admit, it is not really possible to tell from the hallmark on any given piece of sterling who actually designed, engraved, or worked it. The term silversmith (or the more frequently used designation in earlier centuries, goldsmith) often signified the retailer, whose hallmark appeared on the product she or he sold. The women silversmiths in Britain and Ireland who supplied, sold, designed, or engraved the items in this collection were tasteful, conservative craftswomen or businesswomen who produced implements that were elegant, practical, and modestly beautiful and whose customers were largely middle class. The same kind of reliable workmanship is evident in this book.
Biography THE DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, 1981-1985 Edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls, With an index covering the years 1901-1985, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 518 pp., $78
THIS latest supplement to that great British institution of a reference book, ``The Dictionary of National Biography'' (known, sensibly enough, as the DNB), contains the biographies of 380 distinguished men and women, most of them British, who died between the beginning of 1981 and the end of 1985. Written by a variety of hands, based variously on newspaper articles, memoirs, biographies, and often the contributor's personal knowledge of his or her subject, these deftly encapsulated life histories are not only authoritative, but also delightful to read: vivid, insightful, and occasionally irreverent. ``His qualities were so unusual that even his closest friends did not find him an easy man to know fully,'' writes one contributor of Sir Arthur Fforde, a headmaster at Rugby and later a chairman of the BBC. Diana Dors, billed as Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe, is saluted thus: ``Vulgar she may have been but there was admiration for her courage and tenacity.'' Among the more famous entries, there is an excellent, balanced portrait of Dame Rebecca West by journalist Bernard Levin, a lively chronicle of the life of David Niven by Sheridan Morley, plus entries by critic John Wain on poet-critics Robert Graves, William Empson, and Philip Larkin. This is the first DNB supplement to cover a five-year period. Previously, they were issued at 10-year intervals. The change may be a way of boosting sales for the publisher, but the smaller five-year volume is also much handier to use.
Fiction MY HARD BARGAIN By Walter Kirn, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 145 pp., $18.95. THE ORANGE FISH By Carol Shields, New York: Viking, 199 pp., $17.95.
THINGS: A STORY OF THE SIXTIES A MAN ASLEEP By Georges Perec, Boston: David R. Godine, 221 pp., $19.95.
THE WITCHING HOUR By Anne Rice, New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 965 pp., $22.95.
IN the sea of short-story collections that are published in a year's time, two that stood out in this reviewer's mind were Walter Kirn's first collection, ``My Hard Bargain,'' and the Canadian writer Carol Shields's witty and stylish ``The Orange Fish.''
Kirn, an American cultural correspondent for the BBC, and a former editor at Spy and Vanity Fair, turns his attention to the American heartland in these stories of Mormon youngsters, Midwestern farmers, and other subjects dear to the hearts of a large proportion of American writers. But unlike many other writers, he treats his themes with an engaging blend of deadpan humor and genuine empathy that invites readers to appreciate the absurdity of his characters' plights without indulging in the false luxury of feeling superior to the people themselves. And in light of some of the grim topics he tackles - rootlessness, the failure of family farms, the poisoning of a farmer by agricultural chemicals - Kirn's ability to locate the vein of humor (sometimes gallows humor) in all he surveys is a remarkable gift indeed.
The title story of ``The Orange Fish'' is a parable about a couple who buy a picture of an orange fish that somehow seems to enhance the quality of their married life. Soon more and more people are buying copies of the picture, from expensive lithographs to mass-produced T-shirts and decals, and we're left wondering how much of art's original magic survives this kind of translation. Other stories in this collection examine turning points in people's lives with the same shrewd intelligence and feel for the emotional nuances to be found in small things.
For readers who've been caught in the mazy fascination of the experimental fiction of the late Georges Perec, whose ``Life, A User's Manual'' made a certain splash upon its American debut in 1987, publisher David R. Godine has now made available two of Perec's early works, which first appeared in French in the 1960s. ``Things: A Story of the Sixties,'' newly translated by David Bellos, and ``A Man Asleep,'' translated for the first time into English by Andrew Leak, are combined in a single volume, introduced by Bellows. This makes a thoughtful gift for anyone with a genuine interest in experimental fiction, but is not quite the thing for those on your list who are simply looking for a satisfying yarn to read on cold winter nights. Some of these might prefer something like Anne Rice's latest saga, ``The Witching Hour,'' featuring her usual brew of romance, seduction, occult powers, and exotic locales. Photography
EISENSTAEDT: REMEMBRANCES By Alfred Eisenstaedt, Edited by Doris C. O'Neil, introduction by Bryan Holme, Boston, Toronto, & London: Little, Brown/A Bulfinch Press Book, 141 pp., black & white photographs, $40
`THE father of photojournalism'' Alfred Eisenstaedt was born in Germany and emigrated to America, where he was one of the original four photographers on the staff of Life magazine. Famous for his character-catching portraits of the famous - Churchill, Einstein, Mussolini, Hitler, Haile Selassie, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Rebecca West, Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, John F. Kennedy - ``Eisie'' (as he's nicknamed) also has a gift for catching the special qualities of very ordinary people: Southern sharecroppers, Midwestern schoolchildren, homeless Frenchmen, fashionable New Yorkers, and a little girl ecstatically sporting in the waves of Jones Beach. This collection of photographs, all in glorious, meaningful black-and-white, shows what can happen when a photographer, nurtured on a visual diet of great master painters in his youth, turns his eye to\the world around him, is patient enough to wait for ``the right moment,'' and wise enough to know it when it comes.
DOUBLE EXPOSURE By Roddy McDowell, New York: Morrow, 253 pp., black & photographs, $50.
IF these pictures - and the accompanying commentaries by celebrities on celebrities - all look a bit familiar, that's because this is the second edition of a book that was first published in 1966. The photographer is the talented actor Roddy McDowell. The photographs - an interesting, if uneven collection - are drawn from the world of show business, with subjects like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, John Gielgud, Tennessee Williams, Ira Gershwin, No"el Coward, Lillian Hellman, Jennifer Jones, Barbra Streisand. The commentary - Zero Mostel on Gershwin, Gore Vidal on Williams, Sammy Davis Jr. on Burton, Henry Miller on Jones - is even more uneven, ranging from formal tributes to casual anecdotes to bits of verse, some flippant, some gushing, some poignant, some vapid, and some quite illuminating.
CAMERA PORTRAITS: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON, 1839-1989 Edited by Malcolm Rogers, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 320 pp., 150 photographs, $60.
ALTHOUGH Britain's National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856, 17 years after the invention of photography, the collection consisted almost exclusively of painted portraits throughout the first century of its existence. Only in the past few decades have photographs become an important part of its holdings. It now features an extensive collection of photo portraits of noteworthy Britons, from eminent Victorians like Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle to such modern celebrities as Sting, the Beatles, Princess Diana, and Charlotte Rampling, with plenty of interesting subjects along the way: D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, the Duchess of Windsor, Anna Pavlova, and George Bernard Shaw. As fascinating as the array of subjects is the variety of approaches chosen by the photographers, from Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll to Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, and Richard Avedon. This book of 150 photographs, chosen by the gallery's deputy director, reflects the wide range of the collection.
PAVLOVSK: THE LIFE OF A RUSSIAN PALACE By Suzanne Massie, Boston: Little, Brown, 394 pp., illustrated, $29.95.
BUILT as a country residence in the woods south of St. Petersburg by Catherine the Great's son Paul and his wife Maria Feodorovna, Pavlovsk served as an imperial residence before the Russian Revolution and as a public park in the years that followed. It was looted and burned by the Nazis in World War II, but, thanks to the efforts of Russians who hid many of its objects d'art in anticipation of the German invasion and to the work that went on to restore it after the war, it remains a treasure trove of beauty and of history to this day. Suzanne Massie's book, although nicely illustrated, is not a survey of its contents, but a straightforward history of the palace and its inhabitants by a writer well known for her knowledge of - and sympathy for - Russian history and culture. It is handsomely produced and highly readable. History
THE FIRST CENTURY: EMPERORS, GODS, AND EVERYMAN By William K. Klingaman, New York: Harper Collins, 402 pp., illustrated, $24.95.
WITH history a subject that is growing ever more specialized, there is a need for books that can provide the interested general reader with a sound overview of a given topic or period. From William K. Klingaman, who has previously looked at 20th-century history from the perspective of its significant years: ``1919: The Year Our World Began,'' ``1929: The Year of the Great Crash,'' and ``1941: Our Lives in a World on the Edge,'' comes a wide-ranging, if summary, survey of ``The First Century: Emperors, Gods, and Everyman.'' Klingaman narrates the stories of Rome, its emperors, its conquests of Germany and Britain, the crushing of the Jewish revolt, the birth of Christianity, while turning our attention to concurrent events in the empire of China, including a coup d'etat, a program to conquer Vietnam, and the introduction of the Buddhist religion from India. All this is told with a storyteller's feel for colorful detail and clarity of exposition.