Painting by numbers

Marks of Opulence: the why, when and where of western art 1000-1914

Colin Platt <em>HarperCollins,

Presumably popular history books have been so successful in recent years because of nostalgia for a time when (we imagine) life had greater significance and meaning. Unfortunately, these pop examinations of the olden days are often shallow; so rather than being an antidote to emptiness, they simply confirm it. Colin Platt's Marks of Opulence, a dash through a thousand years of art patronage, lies somewhere between inspiration and emptiness.

His thesis is that nothing great ever happens in art unless there's some big money somewhere on the scene: there must be some kind of economic boom and not too much warring. Peace tends to equal commerce and commerce equals art. He is careful not to say that money always produces quality.

The book has a dipping and rising structure: each of the ten chapters opens with a bit of well-told history centred on a particular place and a few main figures, but the routine is then to jump quickly from city to city, with the ideas noticeably slacking as the rush increases.

A typical example is the chapter "Markets and Collectors", which begins with an account of the rise of trade in the northern Netherlands and its effect on picture buying. The story is enlivened by some amusing statistics: "A projection from the probate inventories of Delft suggests there may have been as many as 2.67 million paintings in Dutch households by 1660"; "Devotional works, in the run-up to Reformation, had commanded more than 90 per cent of the European art market. By 1700 that proportion was reversed, and only 10 per cent of Dutch paintings were religious." It is good to be reminded that Vermeer, although he died poor, was born into an incredibly rich family, and delicious to learn that his mother was in the top 5 per cent of Delft's taxpayers.

Then we're in Spain and the pace drops as soon as we hit Velazquez. We're informed that his Rokeby Venus was commissioned by Philip IV's first minister's son, "Gaspar de Haro, who was known as a notorious rake". In fact, art historians are very careful about this point: the earliest documentation of the Venus merely places the painting in De Haro's collection. No one knows for whom it was originally painted. The subject, a sexy nude at a time when none existed in Spanish art because of the Inquisition (nudity in art was an "error" or heresy), makes the question of the patron extremely interesting. Rakishness is only a semi-clue since the Spanish king, Velazquez's main patron, was also a rake - perhaps he commissioned it and then passed it on to De Haro?

Platt's notion that the Venus is "one of the most cherished erotic works of all time" is also questionable: why is "eroticism" the cherished thing? It is a painting not a porn film. Invariably Platt's use of this word throughout the book in relation to various masterpieces is unenlightening. The same applies to his use of more obscure terms.

We are told in passing that Georges de La Tour is "Caravaggesque" because he does "strongly lit" scenes. And then later Rembrandt's "extremes of light and shade" is Caravaggesque, too. The term fits the artists but is not relevant in either case to the story. As an experienced historian, who has won awards for previous much more specialised studies, Platt surely recognises the difference between using a term correctly rather than merely to sound grand. But he must have decided that in a popular book he could afford to be careless.

"Poussin's Triumph of Pan is a complex painting, brilliantly coloured and hard-edged, with a confident archaism which could only have been realised by a painter who, like, Poussin, had been many years resident in Rome." "Complex" and "confident" don't tell you anything, since you assume all the paintings included in the book are those things, and why is it taken for granted that "brilliantly coloured" is a virtue when earlier in the book the opposite - "Caravaggesque" - was good?

In the rush to cover a thousand years before teatime, Platt sometimes resorts to nonsense. "The Fauvists in Paris and the Expressionists in Berlin were all reading Nietzsche at the beginning of the last century . . ." Really? You could apply Nietzschean thought to Matisse and Braque, the leading fauvists, as easily as you could to anything that happens in modernism, but that's different to saying they read him or were directly influenced by him. In fact, it is absurd to imagine either of them feverishly soaking him up.

Hyperbole and cliche have the effect of deadening the reader's response. I was unmoved by mentions of "the slaughter" and "the carnage" and so on in the First World War, with which the book ends. Platt cursorily rounds up lists of famous artists and has them all either falling into despair ("the anguish entered his art") or dying in a way that makes you feel glazed rather than sad.

What stops Marks of Opulence having any real life is not the vastness of the time period but the unconvincing voice, equally so whether he is using journalese or arty jargon. Nevertheless, you keep reading, and are even rather sorry when it is over.

The final sentence - "After the Inferno, the Holocaust!" - suggests a sequel (not to imply that it will be dashed off for money). I look forward to it, while making sure I've got my umbrella ready for the inevitable storm clouds that will be gathering over Europe around August 1939.

Matthew Collings's most recent book is Matt's Old Masters: Titian, Rubens, Velazquez, Hogarth (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)