Top 41 Biographies of Artists

Over the past few years I have taken up the habit which St. Paul recommends as the "putting on of Christ" (Col. 3:5-9). In actual practice, I have ended up putting on St. Paul more often than I have put on Christ, and more regularly than that I have put on Cliff, Geno, Jeremy and Steven. One could call it the law of association at work.

I put on Christ by putting on St. Paul. I put on St. Paul by putting on these friends. And so these friends become for me the concrete example of men who embody the virtues of Christ in ways that I wish to imitate. Cliff is Christ the quick-to-forgive one. He forgives without theatrics, without protracted excuses, without an act of parliament. Geno is Christ the one who masterly navigates sticky pastoral wickets. Jeremy is Christ the man-at-home-with-motley-people, no matter how weird they may be. Steven is Christ the one who does not fear to directly ask for something. Steven, to wit, is especially adept at asking for things related to hotel rooms, parking permits and difficult maître d's at restaurants.

The point is, if I find myself in any of these situations, it works for me to "put them on." It works not pragmatically, it works formationally. What I am putting on, of course, is a Christ-like virtue: forgiveness-giving, compassion, generosity, courage. And by putting these virtues on, enfleshed in the life of friends, I find myself growing more like Christ. The practice turns out to be a profoundly ecclesial, Spirit-reforming experience, which has served well the process of turning me into a much more pleasant person to be around (still have a ways to go, of course).

As an artist I find I need the continuous help of other artists to see what I might become. A Stoppard playwright? A Buechner creative essayist? A Cramner liturgist? A hybrid of these? Only time will tell. But apart from whether I become any of these, I need a vision of a then (a telos) in order to direct my energies now (a formatio). I also, quite honestly, need the friendship of kindred. It becomes too lonely otherwise.

So I wrote a number of friends and asked them to recommend biographies of artists. They humored my request, and I am pleased to offer the beginnings of a good list. Practically, with each biography I include the name of the person who made the recommendation, their day job, and any extra commentary they might have offered on the book.

I should state the obvious before I sign off. These forty-one books are not “my” or "the" top 41. They’re the recommendations of good people whom I appreciate and respect. They also really can't qualify as a “Top 41.” They’re a random collection from a random group, collected by a random guy. But still, it was fun to use the word “top” in a title. And “41” is as good a number, I think, as 40 or 10 or 100. Oh--the list also includes 3 autobiographies and 1 biographical novel.

But there you go. You have your summer reading cut out for you. If any of these biographies prove helpful to you in the "putting on" of virtue and the putting off of vice, vocationally or personally, I'll be all the more glad for it. If you wish to add your recommendations to the list, please do so. My next task will be to compile a top 25 novels that explore the artist's life. Soon.


1. Robert Richardson's biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, (Roger Lundin, English professor at Wheaton College, “splendidly good”)

2. Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (Lundin, “esp. the sections dealing with Melville's writing practices and his status as a "New York" writer”)

3. Robert Langbaum's “brilliant study” of Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen's fiction (Lundin)

4. John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (Vol 3) (Lundin)

5. Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief (Lundin)

6. Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Tish Harrison Warren, Intervarsity grad staff, living in Nashville, TN) [a culinary art bio]

7. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Greg Wolfe, editor of Image Journal)

8. Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Poets: A Selection (Wolfe)

9. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Wolfe)

10. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Wolfe, “there’s an abridged version of his multi-volume work”)

11. Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (Wolfe)

12. Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer (Matt Milliner, PhD candidate in art history at Princeton University, “The gold standard for artistic biography. It was his dissertation, I believe. Intimidatingly thorough.”)

13. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, “scholarly, but evocative for those who stay with it.”)

14. Iain MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (Witvliet)

15. Cliff Edwards, Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest (Doug LeBlanc, journalist, editor at Christianity Today and the Living Church, “I heard its author, Cliff Edwards, speak several years ago at an Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. He discussed Van Gogh's life with such compassion and energy that I was close to tears at times.”)

16. Bill Flanagan, Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock's Great Songwriters (LeBlanc, “Precious few writers better understand the intersection of rock and faith better than Bill Flanagan, a longtime writer for Musician magazine who has worked for VH1 in recent years. Of course the interviews include Bono, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.”)

17. Steve Turner, Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now (LeBlanc, “The famously cranky Morrison threatened to sue Steve Turner as he wrote this book. That alone, I think, should win Steve more combat pay, but all the available copies are used. Warning: Although the book's design is lovely, the text is not worth the exorbitant $50-plus sought by some of the greedheads on Amazon. I wouldn't pay more than $15.”)

18. The Man, the Music, the Message: Bob Dylan (LeBlanc, “Make your way past the dull title and you'll find one of the finest appreciations of Dylan's post-conversion music, from Slow Train Coming to Infidels. His reading of the song "Jokerman" makes the best possible case that this song -- which I consider one of the ten best Dylan has ever written or recorded -- is a paean to Jesus.”)

19. The autobiography of William Kurelek, Someone With Me (Maxine Hancock, professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Arts at Regent College, “an excellent auto-bio about a Canadian prairie painter”)

20. Dylan's Chronicles Vol. 1 (David Dark, teacher, author, activist in Nashville, TN, “This work is remarkable. You get the feeling that he's a master note-taker/collector/rememberer. Such an interesting tracing of discerning vocation-call”)

21. Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life (Dark, “weirdly” Martin does something similar to Dylan’s)

22. Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (Scott Derrickson, filmmaker, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, “a bio of Michaelangelo”) [I realize this book doesn't properly belong in the biography category. But so be it.]

23. Simon Shama, The Power of Art (Mako Fujimura, artist and director of the International Arts Movement, “anything he has put out if interesting, including his dvd series of BBC”)

24. Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the world Impressionism (Bill Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary)

25. Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici: Its rise and fall (Dyrness, “Fire in the City is also a good biography of Savanarola”)

26. Kathleen Erickson, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh (Dyrness, “It’s about Van Gogh; also you might read his own Letters to Theo”)

27. R. W. B. Lewis, Dante: A Life (Dyrness) [Lewis’ bio of Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize]

28. Martha Graham, Blood Memory: An Autobiography (Celeste Snowber, modern dancer and professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia)

29. Laurel Gasque, Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker (Chris Mitchell, Wade Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College)

30. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo and of Bernini (Richard Viladesau, professor of theology at Fordham University, “especially the latter”)

31. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart (Viladesau)

32. Elizabeth Norman McKay, Franz Schubert: A Biography (Viladesau)

33. Phillipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, vol. 1 (Viladesau)

34. Jaroslav Pelikan's Bach Among the Theologians (Viladesau)

35. N. M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life (Greg Grooms, Director of the Probe Center in Austin, TX)

36. John Stubbs, John Donne: The Reformed Soul: A Biography (Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology at Duke University)

37. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (Begbie)

38. Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (Begbie)

39. Malcolm Boyd, Bach (Begbie)

40. Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (The Michigan American Music Series) (Charlie Peacock, musician and producer in Nashville, TN, “best Coltrane book out”)

41. Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Brian Williams, English teacher in Kansas City, "one of the best pieces I've read in years, it's a 4-part biography on the 20th century Catholic writers Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, which specifically explores each of their vocations as writers and the points at which their lives intersected. A very well written book by FSG (who published each of them) editor, Paul Elie")


Thanks for taking the time to collect and compile this list! The only title I've already read is Tender at the Bone -- which was EXCELLENT!
This kind of settles for me our annual family summer reading challenge. Last year's theme was classic literature; I think this year will be biographies/autobiographies. Library, here I come!
Tamara, glad to hear you liked *Tender at the Bone*.

The sad part of this list is that it doesn't include any artists in theater, filmmaking, architecture (or any proper sculptors) or classical ballet.

So if anybody has any really good ones in these categories, I'm sure many of us will be grateful for the recommendations.
This past year I read "Act One" by Moss Hart - an autobiography of director and collaborator with playwrights like George Kaufman in 1920 - 1950's NY theater. It was a fun read and would have made a perfect example of dogged perseverance, fearless risk-taking and almost-zany knocking on doors for work. Bayles and Orland would have loved this guy!
Rosie Perera said…
Wow, great list, David! How many of these have you read? I haven't read any of them.
becky said…
yes, thanks, David! i read the Michelangelo biographical novel YEARS ago and remember it being very creatively stimulating as well as a good read. i actually started making notes for a theatrical script based on it, when i had never done anything of the kind in my life!! nothing came of it, but it got my juices flowing. ;)
greg said…
Thanks for this awesome list! Even though it's more of a diary of his work, Dyrness' Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation is incredibly good.
Rosie: hardly any.

Becky: great to hear.

Greg: Dyrness' book had been recommended, it just didn't make the official Top 41, but not for any good reason. I'm glad you've mentioned it.
Unknown said…
Hey, if Lundin can recommend his own biography then I can, too. Of course, I was too humble to so initially.....

Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, by Gregory Wolfe.

becky said…
i also highly recommend #41, the four-part bio of O'Connor, Merton, Day and Percy.
Greg said…
I am just finishing "Creators" by Paul Johnson. While technically not a biography, or even a collection of mini biographies, it is an interesting compare and contrast of creative lives of 17 highly creative people. It has been good introduction to individuals who are no doubt giants in their medium, but were unknown to me (like architects A.W.N. Pugin, and Viollet-le-Duc, and fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga).
Greg, thanks for this. You're the third Greg to respond here. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the world was full of very smart Gregs.
This past year I also read the new release "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" by Brad Gooch. It was so helpful for me to understand the woman and her work. I recommend it here:
oh, and here:

(shameless, I know...)
That's great, Tamara. Thanks for that.
Jason_Mathis said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason_Mathis said…
If anyone is interested in the tumult that is modern art, I really enjoyed Naifeh and Smith's biography of Jackson Pollock, Calvin Tomkins' biographies of Robert Rauschenburg (called "Off the Wall") and of Duchamp, and Stevens and Swan's bio of De Kooning. All four are excellent and really show how modern art has shaped the culture we live in.
I also enjoyed Refractions by Makoto Fujumura.
Great list David!
Thanks for these extra names, Jason!
Deixo aqui registrado,nos anais da história, o meu "VOTO DE LOUVOR E SOLIDARIEDADE" a respeito do Diário de um Pastor Artes-Top 41 biografias de artistas.
I registered here in the annals of history, my "VOTE OF PRAISE AND SOLIDARITY" about the Diary of an Arts Pastor-Top 41 artist biographies.
Dr.Jocarlos Gaspar-A Poet From Caxias-Best Poet 2007-Greece

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