From Unicorns and Pearl Earrings to Squashed Beetles: 6 Top Reads that Make Art History Exciting

This is an essay by Penny Tristram.

Aged about 20 I taught myself how to remember long strings of useless information. I became extremely annoying to certain friends on car trips as I would often challenge them to, and always win, the suitcase game. I didn’t have some kind of naturally amazing memory; rather, I’d just read an article on how memory champions remember long strings of words, that is, by creating highly memorable visualized connections between these unconnected words. For example, to remember the words “telephone” and “sausage” in sequence, I’d imagine trying to dial a telephone with a sausage.

But what has this got to do with art history?

Well, after reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Lady and the Unicorn”, I was struck by how much knowledge about 16th century European tapestry making that I had suddenly and effortlessly retained. I had also learned how to creatively interpret a tapestry’s story in order to draw meaning from it. I was suddenly interested in medieval tapestries, which I had previously perceived as quite literally dry and dusty. This is because Chevalier is an expert at entwining historical fact with juicy, imagined fiction. In the course of a sensual historical romp that felt like it only took a few hours to read, I had learned some important basics in a great chapter in the history of art.

 Image: The Lady and the Unicorn: A mon seul desir (Musee de Cluny, Paris)

Source: Wikipedia.

Of course, The Lady and the Unicorn is a fiction, but Chevalier makes the distinctions between fact and imagination clear to us. So little is known about the actual provenance of the Unicorn Tapestries that the story and characters are largely fictional. However, descriptions of tapestry design and production processes are based in the historical fact that Chevalier has carefully researched, as are the fraught negotiations between client, artist, and craftsman.  More famously, Chevalier’s Girl with  Pearl Earring teaches us in a similar way, about the artist/patron relationship in 17th century Holland, and about how valuable  pigments, some as expensive by weight as precious metals, were painstakingly ground and mixed into paints by the artist and their assistant before a painting could even begin.

Colour me interested.

While we’re talking about pigments, the history of colour and the way it’s used in art is a fascinating one. We take an easily accessible proliferation of bright colours for granted now, but just a few hundred years ago such hues were reserved for only the very rich. Books like Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (also titled Color: A Natural History of the Palette), show us why this is, and explain the individual stories behind each pigment, from lapis lazuli, which at one point in history was even more expensive than gold, to cochineal, a bright red made from crushed insects, which is still used nowadays, as a food dye. In a similar way to Chevalier, Finlay introduces us to this spectrum of knowledge via storytelling. Although it’s a set of factual recollections, the book is part adventure travel and part exploration of the art and science of colour.  Finlay travels through Afghanistan, hardly the most forgiving of destinations, to bring us the tale of lapis lazuli. A juicy read, Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, which I first read around 8 years ago, remains one of my favourite books.


Image: Cover of “Colour: travels through the paintbox” by Victoria Finlay

Copyright: Sceptre Publishing

In “Bright Earth, The Invention of Colour” Philip Ball goes even further into colour’s inevitable influence on the history of art. For anyone with a little knowledge of European art, the book is extremely compelling, with lots of exciting factoids. If you’re new to the topic, however, it may not be the best read to start with.  This is because it references probably hundreds of artworks, and without the visual memory to bring the facts to life, the information is going to be somewhat dry. I recommend two of Chevalier’s books (The Lady and the Unicorn, and Girl with  a Pearl Earring, discussed earlier) to the someone new to art history, as they deal with just one artwork each, which is illustrated in the printed editions. “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield continues the colour history theme, but returns us to the format of the historical tale. A Perfect Red is not a fiction, but rather a weaving together of strands of the story of how Europeans sought conquest over the knowledge of production of cochineal – the aforementioned crushed bug pigment. It was, in comparison to the dull plant dyes available in Europe in the 1500s, “a perfect red”.

Sticking with narrative but bringing us much closer to the current day, “Life with Picasso” is an autobiography by painter Francoise Gilot. She was Picasso’s partner for 13 years, and mother to Paloma and Claude. Knowing Picasso’s reputation for mistreating his female partners, I didn’t exactly approach the story with relish. However, Gilot writes clearly and compellingly. As a painter herself, Gilot teaches us everything we could want to know about Paris’ bohemian artistic circles during and after the time of the Occupation and French Resistance during the Second World War.

The One That Got Away?

I have, of course, left out the most ubiquitous historical art fiction, and indeed one of the most read books, of the last couple decades, and that is the Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, Dan Brown’s epic just didn’t do it for me, and I gave up a few chapters in, dismayed by what, to me, felt like a rather dumbed-down, Hollywood-audience-appropriate writing style. However, I hope that, of course, if you haven’t read the Da Vinci Code,  that you’ll at least borrow it and give it a go. As for the suitcase game, I think I’ll start with a postcard of the Mona Lisa.

How about you? What did you think of the Da Vinci Code? And do you have any favourite historical or art-related novels to recommend?


Penny Tristram is an artist and writer based in Bristol, UK. She runs Represent, a blog about contemporary figurative art, along with working as a freelance copywriter, blogger, and sometime journalist for a number of art galleries, artists, and businesses. Penny has a BA in drawing from University of the Arts, London, and continues to paint and draw the human figure at her Bristol studio. She’s @artsandwriting on Twitter.


  1. Lizbeth

    Several things about the Da Vinci Code bothered me. First, I’m with the old guy who turned out to be the villain. Let the world decide what to do with information. And while I had no problem with Jesus having descendants (which I personally believe he did not), what’s the big deal? If there was anything about Jesus Christ’s message, it was to do away with the social hierarchy of bloodlines. What difference does it make to the world to have these descendents? Are they more evolved than the rest of us? If the world knew that these individuals were descended from Jesus, what of it? Do we establish a monarchy? Do these descendents necessarily know more than we do about what it means to be a human being on this earth? I think part of Jesus’ message was to take spiritual discovery out of the hands of the so-called anointed and open the doors to spiritual knowledge for everyone. I was really turned off by the secret sexual rituals. Not by the fact that they were sex rituals, but by the fact that they were secret. I think secret societies are a decayed form of learning. The time has long passed when we have to go to some guru for knowledge, or be members of a secretive society that has an exclusive hold on and claims to be the sole dispenser of truth. Any human being with the willingness to do it can take any spiritual path, can discover any spiritual truth. It takes diligence and patience, but it can be done, and it can be done as a part of everyday life, not by going to some ashram or some sacred site.

  2. Penny Tristram

    I agree, and the gist of your comment reminds me of the topic of a film I’d very much like to see, called Kumare. Unfortunately it hasn’t been released here in the UK and isn’t available for download.

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