Reviewed by Nina Longfield

Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored by Tom Lubbock is an illuminating collection of essays about specific pieces of art. Tom Lubbock brings creative insights into the various works of art, comparing artists, movements, history and contemporary views to develop a unique observation regarding a particular work. At times, Lubbock’s essay doesn’t even seem related to the associated painting. In his essay about Giovanni Francesco Caroto’s Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Child’s Drawing (c.1515), Lubbock does not focus on the portrait but rather the child’s drawing held by the boy in the painting. Lubbock discusses the ideas of child’s art through history, how it is an unlearned skill from early on that every person loses as we turn “into operating and coordinated” people.

Tom Lubbock’s choice of paintings in Great Works is as interesting as his insights. These essays don’t focus on the most famous European/North American paintings. Within this collection, I discovered mostly unknown paintings, to me, by artists whom I admire and other artists new to me. The paintings range from landscapes, to portraits, to abstracts, to still life. Lubbock pulls out a seemingly simple works of art and extricates possibly a social incongruity, a new art technique, a historical rumination, or possibly a strangeness in the composition. With Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Lark (c.1887), Lubbock studies the incongruity of the lark. In Eugene Delacroix’s Still Life with Lobsters, Lubbock’s notes the strangeness of the painting even without the lobsters in the foreground; the span of the painting shifts from the still life to a landscape fanning out with hunters in the distance. In one particularly jarring essay, Lubbock takes on Theodore Gericault’s Study of Truncated Limbs (c.1818-19). This is, as the title suggests, a still life of body parts, and Lubbock does not shy away from the troubling image as he ruminates about the uncertainties this painting imparts on the viewer.

The essays within Great Works by Tom Lubbock are easily read and accessible. One does not have to be trained in works of art or art techniques to engage with Lubbock’s studies. Each essay brings forth many interesting insights into Lubbock’s examination of a particular painting. Although Great Works is not a book for the casual reader, anyone interested in art, art movements, views on art, or just artistic and philosophic movements in general will find Tom Lubbock’s essays thought provoking and informative.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Frances Lincoln. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.