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A tapestry of words sets Louvre's art in context

Paintings in the Louvre, by Lawrence Gowing. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 688 pp. 830 color reproductions. $75 through Dec. 31; $85 thereafter. This big book would supply a stable cornerstone for any budding connoisseur's library. Drawing on the superb collections of the Louvre, it contains color reproductions of 800 masterpieces spanning five centuries, from 1300 to 1850.

At least as important as the pictures are the 115 essays by Sir Lawrence Gowing. Now the chairman of the Curatorial Department at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Sir Lawrence is well known for his many books on painters, French and English. For this book, he has created a fascinating tapestry of words that weave together the sumptuous imagery of the paintings.

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The craft that went into this book goes beyond beautiful printing. Deep in the planning of the book is the idea that the chronological flow of the paintings could be followed. We meet the great and long-lived painters several times. Paintings by others provide contexts in which to see their development. In Chapter 3, covering the century between 1600 and 1700, for example, Poussin appears four times. Gowing's eloquent, anecdotal, and economical essays focus on four groups of his paintings. In between come first Franz Hals and Rubens, then Rubens and Rembrandt, then Vel'azquez and Rembrandt, then Vermeer.

Comparison is the chief tool - and delight - of the connoisseur, and this book seduces one into seeing great and some not-so-great paintings in the pellucid light shed by Gowing's flowing and brilliant conversation.

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